Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Cocktails

Are you looking to up your game and start serving incredible mixed drinks and cocktails to your friends? Aiming to make your spot the hottest on the block? Heading out to your favorite bar always makes for a good time but being able to know your way around the back of a bar and bring the good times to your man cave is sometimes even better.

There are definitely a few key areas that you’ll need to familiarize yourself with before you pour your first drink. And let’s be honest, although it’s not too complicated, there are a few more steps involved as compared to when you pop open a bottle of suds. So, let’s get started!
The following steps will outline the essential home bar tools, the types of glasses you will need to stock your bar with, basic bar ingredients and the basics of bar-tending and techniques.
The easiest way to start learning is to know what you will need.

Bar

Essential Home Bar Tools

Let’s start by creating some style. Some of these items will be essential, others add a little extra. But, let’s face it…if you’re going to have a home bar, you need to do it right.

Bar Blade

Bar blades are simple little tools, typically made of flat metal. A bottle opener is on one end and a thumb hole on the other. Besides opening bottles, you can use a bar blade for various flair tricks that involve spinning or pulling bottles out. A bar blade will change the way you open a bottle and make you have a professional look to your skills!

Sommelier/Wine Knife or Waiter’s Friend

This is also an item that adds a certain panache to your bar-tending skills. Unlike a wing-type corkscrew, this one has two steps on the lever and usually a bottle opener on the other end. A small knife is hinged into the handle. This can be used to cut the foil that’s surrounds the neck of wine bottles.

Lighter

Maybe your home bar will also involve a cigar bar? If you see yourself serving up cognac and whiskey alongside smoking a cigar, then maybe having a lighter handy for your friends will be useful. Then of course there’s always the flaming cocktails that are popular, so you’ll definitely need a light for those.

Knife and a Chopping Board

This one is self-explanatory. Just with the need to cut lemons and limes, these items are more than useful.
Now it’s time to get to the good stuff! 

Jigger

This is a great little tool that you use to measure the correct amount of alcohol for a particular cocktail. There are many different types of jiggers available; metal, plastic, glass an all come in a variety of sizes. Make sure to choose one that is shaped like an hourglass and has one side that measures 1.5oz as this is a traditional shot size. Once you get the hang of things, you may choose to free pour of course but this little gadget is a great way to get started.

Speed Pourers

This is an item that adds class and sophistication to your home bar. A speed pourer is the metal tip added to a bottle to streamline the alcohol as it comes out of the bottle. It helps to avoid spills and gives the bartender greater control over the amount of alcohol that is coming out.

Cocktail Shaker Set

The most common and best choice for a home bar being the Boston Shaker Set. This is a two-piece shaker set that has a metal bottom and typically a glass of plastic mixing glass. The mixing container and the bottom are inserted one into the other and shaken to produce a mixed drink.

Julep Strainer, Hawthorne Strainer, Fine Mesh Strainer

All three are different types of cocktail strainers. A cocktail strainer is an item used essentially to strain or remove the ice from mixed drinks before pouring them into a drinking glass. The different names refer to the sizes and methods. A Julep strainer fits into a mixing glass and is shaped like a bowl with a handle. The Hawthorne is a metal disc with a spring that can fit over a glass and a fine mesh strainer is best for straining thicker drinks with pulp. All in all, find the strainer that works best for you and the drinks you like to mix best!

Muddler

This is a great item that is used to smash and mix cocktail like a pestle. Mostly used for ingredients like fresh fruits and herbs, it is essential for making mixed drinks like mojitos. A fun added bonus is that you can use it to crush ice like a pro!

Bar spoon

As much as any spoon can mix a drink, a bar spoon is a long-handled spoon that mix a drink all the way to the bottom with ease. Obviously, this is way cooler than getting your fingers wet in your friend’s drink before you serve it.

Juice press

Simple and to the point, you’ll use a juice press for lemons, limes, oranges and other fruits to add flavor and excitement to your mixed drinks.

Mixing glass

A mixing glass is very similar to a shaker. It is most often made of glass or metal and is used to chill cocktails. Add ice and stir then strain. The perfect moment to use that bar spoon we spoke of earlier!
Okay, so this rounds out the bar tools but what about the drinking vessels?

 

Types of Glasses for Different Types of Drinks

There should be so much more than just beer mugs and shot glasses stored behind your home bar. If you really want to make an impression and show off your skills, then having the right glasses for the right drinks is just as important as knowing how to make them.

Collins Glass

The Collins Glass is a tall, skinny glass named after the mixed drink Tom Collins.

Highball Glass

Probably one of the most common bar glasses. It can basically be used for any mixed drink.

Hurricane Glass

Named after a hurricane lamp, this glass is used for tropical and exotic mixed drinks. Even blended, frozen drinks are a popular choice for this glass.

Brandy Snifter

Used for brandy or cognac, this glass has a short stem so that you can warm the glass and by default the alcohol inside it with your middle and ring fingers.

Margarita Glass

Just as the name suggests, this one is mostly used for Margaritas and Daiquiris. Wide, round and almost flat at the top before pouring down into a deeper base.

Martini Glass

As classic as 007 himself. This glass can be used for more than just Martinis though. In fact, any chilled drink without ice works just as well and, in those cases, it can be referred to as a cocktail glass. Just be sure to chill the glass first!

Old Fashioned Glass

A short glass, conducive to drinks “on the rocks” meaning over ice.

Pitcher

Well, this one is pretty obvious to anyone who went to college but still convenient for a group of sangria or beer loving friends.

Pint/Beer Mug

Standard. Don’t be without them.

Pilsner Glass

Tall and flute shaped. A fancier way to drink beer.

Shot Glass

Small, thick for shots and even measuring.

Wine Glass

With both red and white wine, there will naturally be two different types of glasses. Red wine is typically served in a glass with a wider bowl, which allows the wine to breathe. And for all wines, always remember to hold the glass by the stem!

Champagne Flute

A necessity for even the simplest of New Year’s Eve parties. The flute shape is important because it helps preserve the carbonation of the drink.

 All right! We have the basic bar tools and the glasses. Is it time to start pouring yet? Well…there’s still a few more things to shop for! Ingredients of course!

Basic Bar Ingredients

Okay so let’s begin with the alcohol. You will definitely need a wide variety in order to satisfy everyone’s tastes however the below list will get you started on the right foot and will cover the majority of drink possibilities. After that, you’ll need options to mix some of that alcohol with. And finally, we’ll go over the garnishes.

Alcohol

  • Brandy

  • Gin

  • Rum (Light and Dark)

  • Tequila

  • Vodka

  • Bourbon

  • Rye Whiskey

  • Vermouth (Sweet and Dry)

Non-Alcoholic Drinks

  • Club soda.

  • Tonic water

  • Sprite or 7-up.

  • Ginger Ale.

  • Orange juice.

  • Cranberry juice.

  • Tomato juice.

  • Grenadine

  • Simple syrup

  • Sour mix

Extras and Garnishes
  • Lemons

  • Limes

  • Oranges

  • Maraschino Cherries for mixed drinks and tropical garnishes

  • Olives for traditional dry martinis

  • Cocktail Onions for drinks like a Gibson martini

  • Mint for mojitos is a must

  • Salt and Sugar for the rimmed glass of a margarita

Most popular cocktails and perhaps some of the ones you should begin with.

  • Cosmopolitan

  • Apple Martini

  • Long Island Iced Tea

  • Margarita

  • Mojito

  • Mai Tai

Basic Bar-Tending Tips and Techniques

Any bar-tender must first know the difference between a mixed drink and a cocktail. Now, obviously any drink that has more than two or more ingredients mixed together is by definition, a mixed drink. This type of drink is typically poured over ice, like a rum and coke.
A cocktail is a mixed drink that liquor, sweetener and/or bitters and water. A more complicated mix shall we say.
A good rule of thumb is that any drink with ingredients that are not spirits (like juices etc…) must be shaken. By using a cocktail shaker for fifteen to twenty seconds, this can be achieved.
Be sure to master “the Pour”. As any good bar-tender will tell you, how you pour is part of the art. Free pouring may sound like fun but it is less accurate and should really be left for later on when you have more experience. So, start out by using the jigger (see the tools list above) and you will be sure to have your measurements right and your drinks super tasty.
Frost your glassware! Super easy and it will help keep your cocktails cool and delicious for longer. Either store them in your fridge or freezer or fill the glass with ice while you mix your drinks then pour it out when it’s time to pour in that drink.
Muddle up! You’ll want to show off your skills by placing the fruit, citrus wedge or spices at the bottom of the mixing glass and pushing down, squashing the ingredients to extract the juice. Think Mojito time!
Building is literally building all the ingredients on top of each other in the glass without using a shaker or mixing glass. When adding juices, grenadine and alcohol this can make pretty colors like in a Tequila Sunrise, which is called layering.
Learn to shake correctly! Here are the steps to a perfectly shaken drink:
  • Pour the ingredients into the shaker
  • Fill the shaker with ice
  • Close tightly and hold away from your guest
  • Shake hard for 15-20 seconds
  • Remove the top and strain into that frosted glass we talked about earlier.
Garnishing is also a practice with its own techniques. Here are the different ways you could add your garnish.
  • Dropping -drop it in!
  • Twisting -twist to expel juices and place in a decorative fashion
  • Floating -leave it floating on top
  • Rimming -rim the glass with sugar or salt
We hope this beginner’s guide to cocktails has helped you get started in the right direction. Need a drink before you dive in? Grab your personal favorite and start loading up your bar and practicing for your first party!