Anyone can craft a tasty cocktail. It simply requires learning a few basic bartending skills. If you're looking to dive deeper into the world of the bar—whether at home or as a pro—then a crash course in bartending is just what you need.
There are several things that beginning bartenders should know. You'll want to familiarize yourself with the common ingredients and terminology used in the bar and cocktail recipes, essential mixing techniques like shaking, stirring, and muddling, and the gear that can help you pull it all together. It's a lot to take in all at once, but none of it is difficult, and you can take it at your own pace.
With a few basic tools and a handful of tips and tricks, your next drinks can be better than any you've made before. If you keep at it and discover the joy of mixing cocktails from scratch, you'll be hooked because nothing beats a freshly made drink.
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The Bar Dictionary
As you begin to explore bartending, you will come across a specialized vocabulary of words and phrases. Some of these are common sense, and others may not be exactly what they seem, so a little explanation is necessary.
Is it a Cocktail or a Mixed Drink?
Every drink that you mix up in the bar is a mixed drink. That's pretty clear because you are "mixing a drink," right? While mixed drink and cocktail are often interchanged, the two do not technically have the same meaning.
- A mixed drink is any beverage that combines two or more ingredients. These drinks are often simply poured over ice, for example, a John Collins or a rum and Coke. Though it's often assumed that mixed drinks contain alcohol, this is not always the case. Popular nonalcoholic drinks like the Shirley Temple and Arnold Palmer are technically mixed drinks as well.
- A cocktail is a mixed drink traditionally defined as a combination of liquor(s), a sweetener, bitters, and water (diluted ice). By this definition, a brandy cocktail is a pure and classic example of a cocktail, but the martini is also considered a cocktail even though it contains no sweetener. A more accurate modern definition of a cocktail is broader than it was in the first days of the bar. In general, cocktails are fancier mixed drinks that require a little more work to construct.
To sum it up: A cocktail is a mixed drink, but a mixed drink may not always be considered a cocktail.
Cocktail Recipe Lingo
There are a few terms you'll regularly encounter when browsing cocktail recipes:
Mixers: Any ingredient—often nonalcoholic—that is added to a mixed drink. For example, syrups, fruit juices, bitters, sodas, etc., are all mixers.
Dash and Splash: The smallest measurements found in a bar, these are often used interchangeably for ingredients that are mere accents in a drink. For example, "add a splash of lemon juice" or "a dash of bitters."
- The exact measurement of either a dash or a splash is not important. Technically, a dash is 1/32 of an ounce, but who's going to take the time to measure that?
- A dash is typically smaller than a splash and used for ingredients like bitters that have strong flavors.
- Depending on the ingredient, your splash may be larger or smaller. For instance, a "splash of soda" is likely more than a "splash of lime juice."
Garnish: Often a fruit, such as a cherry or an orange slice, a garnish is used to adorn a drink and add to its visual appeal. Some garnishes also add hints of flavor.
Whether you just go to the bar for happy hour or are a professional bartender, it's good to know some lingo.
- Is it a Well or Call Drink?: The "well" is a section in the bar where the "house" liquors are stored. These are used most often by bartenders because they're the most economical and lead to a good profit. "Well drinks" are ones in which the patron doesn't specify a brand, so the bartender will pick up the whiskey, rum, or tequila from the well. On the flip side, if you "call out" a specific brand of liquor, you're ordering a "call drink." For instance, you might order a Jack and Coke (with Jack Daniel's) rather than a Whiskey and Coke.
- Is it Neat, Up, or Straight Up?: This is one of the great bar debates. These words describe how a drink is served, and they are often confused with one another. Brush up on the differences, and you'll win the next argument over this one.
- On the Rocks: "Rocks" refer to ice, so a drink served "on the rocks" is served over ice. Simple stuff, but make sure your ice is fresh. It's the most underrated ingredient in the bar, but its importance cannot be discounted.
- Top-Shelf: When talking about liquor, the term "top-shelf" describes the best brands available. They are more expensive and (in theory) of superior quality. The name comes from the placement of these bottles on liquor store shelves: the "cheap stuff" is at the bottom and the "good stuff" is on top where it will easily catch the eyes of consumers.
The Many Uses of "Back": The word "back" is used often in the bar, and it can mean a few different things:
- A "back" refers to a drink served alongside and in a separate glass from the main drink. It's often a refreshing nonalcoholic beverage like water or soda. For instance, "I'll take a Manhattan with a water back." It's also common to order a beer back: The pickleback is a popular shot served with a beer back.
- The "back bar" commonly refers to the liquor stocked on a shelf behind the bartender. This is often where you will find the top-shelf distilled spirits on display, ready to be ordered in those call drinks.
- A "bar back" is an employee of the bar that is training to be a bartender. This apprenticeship is how many bartenders learn the business, and it's a job that is both rewarding and tough. Bar backs do many hard-lifting and mundane tasks to ensure the bartenders have everything they need.
The Stick: The word "stick" has two meanings as well. "The stick" is often used when talking about the bar itself. A bartender may say, "I'm working behind the stick tonight" when they're talking about working a bartending shift. It's also common to call muddled cocktails "stick drinks" because the tool (the muddler) used to make them looks like a stick.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
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The Bar Stock
Before you can mix drinks, you should have a basic understanding of the ingredients that go into them.
Liquor vs. Liqueur
Distilled spirits are the alcoholic beverages used most often in the bar. These incorporate vodka, tequila, whiskey, etc., as well as all of the flavored liqueurs. Cocktail recipes will introduce you to many distilled spirits, including essential bottles that are stocked in a bar.
It is important to understand the difference between a liquor and a liqueur. Again, there is a sort of double meaning here: All liqueurs are a type of liquor, but not all liquors are liqueurs.
Liquors are distilled spirits. If an alcoholic beverage has gone through a still and comes out with a high alcohol content, it is a liquor. When that spirit is sweetened it becomes a liqueur.
The 6 Basic Liquors
There are six types of liquor that you will use most often in the bar. These are the "base distilled spirits" because they are the foundation for many mixed drinks and used to produce many liqueurs. Each type has its own primary characteristics, a few styles and variations, and many brands to choose from:
- Brandy: Distilled from fruits (most commonly grapes), the name derives from brandewijn, the Dutch word meaning "burnt wine."
- Gin: Often distilled from grains, gin includes the flavorings of botanicals. Juniper is the trademark flavor.
- Rum: Made by distilling sugar or molasses, rum is a sweeter liquor that is produced throughout the world.
- Tequila: Strictly a product of Mexico, tequila is distilled from the agave plant and has a distinct earthy flavor.
- Vodka: The most used liquor, vodka can be distilled from any number of ingredients, though grains and potatoes are most common.
- Whiskey: Whiskey is a complex category with a variety of styles, though they all begin with a distillate of fermented grains. Whiskies are almost always aged; moonshine is the primary exception.
Liqueurs Add Flavor
Liqueurs are just as vital to a well-stocked bar because these distilled spirits give drinks flavor. Liqueurs come in almost every flavor imaginable, from sweetened fruits and chocolate or coffee to snappy spices and proprietary blends, like Bénédictine and Chartreuse, that are truly unique.
Crème vs. Cream Liqueurs
Many liqueurs use the word "crème." Although crème translates from French to mean "cream," these are not creamy:
- Liqueurs like crème de cassis (black currant) and crème de fraises (strawberry) are typically made with more sugar than the average liqueur. They are more syrupy, but they are not creamy. Quite often, crème liqueurs use the French word for the flavor; for example, crème de banane (banana).
- Cream liqueurs are those like Irish cream and RumChata that have a dairy base. These are actually creamy.
Other Spirits and Alcoholic Beverages
There are a number of distilled spirits that do not fall into the category of the six basic liquors and they are also not liqueurs. Some do not even go through the distillation process, yet they are vital in the bar.
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- Some "spirits" are simply unique and can be difficult to categorize. Among those are brand names like Veev Acai Spirit and Square One Botanical Spirit.
- Absinthe is unsweetened though it is often misclassified as a liqueur.
- Fortified wines like vermouth are not distilled but a small amount of distilled spirit is often added to "fortify" an aromatized wine.
- Popular apéritifs and digestifs like Campari, Cynar, and amaros are used in a number of cocktails. Many of these ingredients include a distilled spirit or are considered a liqueur, but this is not always the case.
- There are also many drinks that use beer or wine. If you're going to bartend professionally, understanding the basic styles of each is extremely helpful.
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Beyond liqueurs, mixers also add flavor to a cocktail. Some are sweeteners, others add a hint of extra, but necessary, flavor to drink, and many can be made from scratch. By making your own cocktail mixers, you will not only enjoy fresher ingredients, but you can save a lot of money.
Within the bar, three types of mixers are absolutely essential:
- Cocktail Bitters: Bitters are concentrated flavor enhancements, and just a dash or two will amplify the taste of many cocktails.
- Sodas: Countless mixed drinks rely on a type of soda, whether straight soda water without any flavor or sweetener, tonic water. or sweetened sodas.
- Citrus Fruit Juice: Using freshly squeezed lemon, lime, and orange juices will instantly enhance the taste of any drink. The fruits are readily available at any grocery store or market, and you have a few options when it comes to extracting their juice.
Homemade Drink Sweeteners
The bar is filled with opportunities for anyone who enjoys a DIY project. Syrups are the easiest place to begin. If you have sugar, water, and a few ingredients to add flavor, then you can do this. There's really no skill involved, and most of these recipes should take less than 10 minutes of your time.
- Simple Syrup: It is called simple for a reason, and once you learn the trick to this one, you will never buy a bottle at the liquor store again. Simple syrup is used in many cocktails because it's sugar in a liquid form, making it easier to mix. It can also be flavored with little to no extra effort.
- Sour Mix: Also called "sweet and sour" or "bar mix," this is essentially simple syrup with lemon and/or lime juice added. It makes quick work of margaritas and other tropical drinks and is very useful in the bar.
- Grenadine: Next up in importance is grenadine, the pomegranate-flavored syrup that's essential to a tequila sunrise and many other great cocktails.
- Lime Cordial: A sweetened lime juice, lime cordial can be used in the popular gimlet or topped with soda for a quick, homemade lime soda.
- Gomme Syrup: In classic bartending guides, you will find many recipes that call for gomme (or gum) syrup. It is a simple syrup that has gum arabic added to give your drinks a silkier texture.
Homemade Liqueurs & Infused Spirits
If you're feeling really crafty in the bar, make your own liqueurs. From amaretto, and coffee liqueur to Irish cream, they're very easy though most do take some time, so plan ahead.
The easiest homemade spirits are infusions. Though flavored vodkas are the most common, you can add flavor to rum, tequila, whiskey, brandy, gin, and even liqueurs. The technique is straightforward and, depending on the flavor, it should be ready to drink in a week or two, if not sooner.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
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Basic Bar Gear
You know what goes into the drinks, now you need the tools to mix them up. There's no need to go all out, but a few bar tools are absolutely essential if you want to mix up a variety of great drinks:
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- Cocktail Shaker: There are two types of shakers. One is a Boston shaker, which is a two-piece shaker made of a mixing tin and pint glass that is preferred by professional bartenders. The cobbler shaker is a three-piece shaker made of a mixing tin, cap with a built-in strainer, and lid.
- Bar Spoon: Designed with an extra-long, twisted shaft, this style of spoon is useful for stirring drinks and layering ingredients.
- Jigger: Used for measuring, jiggers include a cup on each end that makes it easy to measure a shot or half shot when mixing drinks. These are also useful when you have a cocktail recipe that uses "parts" instead of volume measurements.
- Strainer: When using a Boston shaker or mixing glass, you'll need a separate strainer. The Hawthorne strainer is a popular option, though there are advantages to having a julep strainer around as well.
- Muddler: This wooden or stainless steel stick is used to mash fresh produce and essential if for mojitos and mint juleps.
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Essential Drink Mixing Techniques
Once you have the ingredients and tools, it's time to mix up a drink. Most cocktail recipes are self-explanatory—shake it or stir it—easy stuff, right? While bartending techniques are elementary, a few helpful hints will make your drinks just a little better.
Essential Bar Techniques
This section truly is "Bartender 101," and the majority of drinks use one of these techniques:
- Shaken or Stirred: Generally, you will shake cocktails with juices and other heavily flavored ingredients. On the other hand, you will stir drinks primarily made of liquor or those poured directly into a glass.
- Straining Cocktails: Whether you are shaking or stirring, in most cases, you don't want to serve the same ice you mixed your drink with. The ice is broken down and will not last long, so straining is necessary for better drinks.
- "Build" Drinks: Many of the easiest drinks (think of the vodka tonic) are "built" directly in the glass they're served in. This is the simplest bartending technique, and you've probably been doing it for years.
- "Top" a Drink: Quite often, a recipe will say, "top it off with soda." While the ingredient can change, the idea is always the same: Finish off the drink by filling the glass.
- Blend Cocktails: If you're a fan of frozen cocktails, then a few tips and tricks for working that blender will do wonders for improving your summertime favorites.
Advanced Mixing Techniques
When you're ready to dig a little deeper and mix drinks like a true professional, add these mixing techniques to your skillset. Each will require some practice, but they are relatively easy to master.
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- Roll a Drink: Mix a drink by "tossing" it from one vessel to another. Typically done between two pints, it's important to use glassware of similar size. This technique is great for heavy drinks like the bloody mary.
- Layer Cocktails: "Float" ingredients on top of one another to create cool layers.
- Muddle Cocktails: Smashing drink ingredients to bring out their essence. From the mojito to the old-fashioned, it's required for many of the freshest cocktails.
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Drink Presentation 101
Cocktails are supposed to not only taste great, but they should also look good. Small things like choosing the right glass and garnish will step up the look of every cocktail you make.
There is not a one-size-fits-all glass for drinks, and different styles of drinks require different styles of glassware. You don't need to stock every style. Instead, base your decisions on the types of cocktails you like to mix up most often.
Once you have the glasses, you will want to properly prepare them for your cocktails:
- How to Chill a Glass: Every cold drink should go into a cold glass. Taking the time for this simple step is one of the tricks to getting your cocktails to taste like those of a professional bartender.
- How to Rim a Glass: Do you enjoy a little salt with your margarita? Whether it's sugar, salt, or some other flavoring, adding a custom rim to any glass is simple and enhances the experience.
While their primary purpose is ornamental, garnishes can add a bit of flavor to drinks as well. You can generally skip the garnishes in your everyday drinks, though it is a nice touch if you are entertaining. Used all the time, it's a good idea to practice cutting the basic citrus garnishes.
There are also some shortcut garnishes—such as those jars of bright red maraschino cherries—that you can replace with a higher-quality alternative. Choose real maraschino cherries or make your own brandied cherries to up your cocktail game.