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A bartender’s guide to cocktails for beginners

How to make cocktails at home

The art of making cocktails is one of the most time-honored crafts in American history. For the last decade, more cocktail bars have opened in more places than ever, and it seems like every other week another speakeasy-style bar pops up in the neighborhood. But if you want to bring the mixology lounge into your own home, all it takes is the right ingredients, a little prep time, instructions and some practice. In fact, you might be surprised how easy it really is to make a great cocktail.

What is a cocktail?

Simply put, a cocktail is an alcoholic drink made from one or more spirits and mixed with or without other ingredients. A spirit is any kind of distilled liquor, like whiskey or gin. Common mixers include citrus juice, soda and tonic, but there are a whole lot to choose from. Most cocktails only require a few ingredients, but adding new or different components can turn a classic drink into a unique variation. 



One of the most popular spirits in America, whiskey — or whisky to Scotland and Japan — is a strong liquor that is usually aged in wood barrels that give it its characteristic color and flavor. In the U.S., whiskey is often split between bourbon and rye, each of which has its own unique ingredients or process. It’s most often consumed “neat” (in a glass with no ice), “on the rocks” (over ice) or as the base spirit in a boozy cocktail.


This crystal-clear liquor is made by flavoring a neutral distilled spirit with juniper berries and other botanicals, like coriander or cardamom. Gin originates from Europe, with different regional varieties such as London Dry Gin. It’s popular as the base spirit in a traditional martini or in a highball with tonic water and a lime garnish.


This clear neutral spirit comes from northern Europe — Poland, Russia and Sweden, especially — and is most often made from distilled potatoes. While the Russians and their comrades drink their vodka neat, American drinkers consume it in mixed drinks like the popular Moscow Mule. Flavored vodkas are also popular for use in mixed shooters as well as some cocktails.


What do you get when you ferment sugarcane, molasses or other sugar products? You get rum, the key ingredient in a classic Daiquiri. It’s used in a lot of retro tiki-style drinks, in a cool Dark & Stormy cocktail or in a highball with Coca-Cola.


Made from the blue agave plant, tequila is Mexico’s signature spirit. You can find it in every margarita, from classic to frozen, as well as in a highball with soda or a Paloma cocktail.

Cordials, vermouths, bitters and liqueurs

Usually substantially lower in proof (alcohol content), these are usually used as flavoring agents in cocktails. Well-known spirits in this category include Kahlua (coffee liqueur), Carpano Antica (sweet vermouth), Campari, amaretto and Irish cream. Bitters, on the other hand, are highly concentrated, high-proof alcoholic concoctions made with botanicals to create a bitter or bittersweet flavor, usually used in very small proportions, such as by the drop or dash.


In order to make a great cocktail, you need mixers to add flavor and nuance to the spirits. Common mixers include:

Citrus juice 

Many recipes, especially “sours,” call for either fresh lime or lemon juice, or less frequently orange, cranberry and pineapple juice, among more. Citrus provides a crucial aspect of acidity in many cocktails, but only when fresh. Hand-squeezed juice, without the sugars and preservatives found in products like Rose’s juices, tends to go acrid after two days.


It’s also common for cocktails to include a sweetener, usually a form of cane sugar and often in syrup form, including raw turbinado sugar and simple syrup. For simple syrup made with raw or processed sugar, all it takes is a 50/50 mix of sugar and hot water to produce at home. Simply add the two and stir or blend until fully incorporated, leaving the liquid slightly thickened and glossy.


Many drinkers are familiar with a highball: a spirit over ice topped with some kind of soda. Popular combinations include rum and cola, whiskey and ginger ale, tequila and sparkling water and gin and tonic. Other niche and artisanal sodas are often used for cocktails, most common among them being non-alcoholic ginger beer.

Common cocktail preparation methods


This is the common method for making sours and other drinks with a juice or similar mixer. Using fresh ice, the ingredients are shaken in a set of two tins (or a tin shaker with a strainer lid) in order to chill, dilute and introduce a frosty mouthfeel to the drink. A common shaken drink is the whiskey sour.


Reserved for spirit-forward (“boozy”) cocktails, ingredients are added to a large mixing glass with fresh ice and stirred with a cocktail spoon until properly diluted and chilled, resulting in a smooth, silky mouthfeel. Popular stirred drinks include the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails.


The most common and easiest way to make a cocktail is by building it in the drinking glass before adding ice. Using a measurement tool called a jigger, the ingredients are carefully measured and poured one after another into the drinking glass until it is about 50-75% filled before adding ice and topping with the requisite mixer. 

Easy cocktail recipes for beginners

Old Fashioned

This direct descendant of the original cocktails of the 19th century is as simple as it is delicious. Start by adding 2 ounces of high-proof bourbon whisky to a clean mixing glass, followed by ½ ounce of demerara simple syrup, two dashes of Angostura bitters and one dash of orange bitters. Stir until cold and diluted, about 15-20 seconds. Strain the cocktail into a rocks glass with ice, zest an orange peel near the rim, twist it and place it into the drink.


Combine 2 ounces of white rum, 1 ounce of fresh lime juice and ¾ ounce of agave syrup in a shaker tin and add fresh ice. Close the tin tightly and shake in a back-forward motion over your shoulder for about 10 seconds. Open the shaker tin and strain the cocktail into a chilled coupe glass.

What you need to buy to make cocktails

Boston Shaker Professional Stainless Steel Cocktail Shaker Set

If you want to feel like a pro bartender, this shaker set is standard behind the stick at cocktail bars everywhere, plus it comes with a jigger and Boston strainer. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

24-ounce Cocktail Shaker Bar Set

This set is perfect for beginners as it reduces the risk factor for making a mess quite a bit, plus the included jigger and mixing spoon are critical tools for making stirred drinks, as well.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Farielyn-X Crystal Old Fashioned Whiskey Glasses

Here’s a set of six 11-ounce attractive rocks glasses perfect for Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails. Throw in some elegant coupes and you have everything you need to host a small cocktail party.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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Matt Fleming writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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