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20 Aug 2020

On Cocktails: We Could All Use a Refresher Course—So Here's an Abbreviated Version of Bartending 101

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It’s back to work for yours truly. Not that I haven’t stayed busy—more on that in another piece—but I haven’t been bartending, per se. Am I excited to go back to work? Let’s just say this guy is going to make a great retiree someday—but I am excited to tend bar the way it used to be, whenever I can do that.

I was half-tempted to write a good old-fashioned rant about the state of the industry right now, and the conflicted way I feel about people who are currently traveling and going out for cocktails. “Conflicted” may not actually be the accurate term, but a guy’s gotta pay the rent, so I will leave that alone.

I am grateful to have employment to return to, and for a lot of other things these days. But I am out of practice, as I figure most of us are—so I think a refresher course is in order. For you bartenders, home bartenders, servers and barbacks lying on your résumés to get a bar job, and anyone else who might need a touch-up, here is the world’s shortest bartending manual.

One, let’s set some ground rules. Never face your shaker at anyone; always shake to the side. If you don’t understand why this is the first thing I am requiring, then you’ve clearly never doused anyone with a whiskey sour. When you shake, make sure that both parts of the shaker are firmly sealed before starting. This is especially important with dry-shaking, where ingredients are shaken without adding ice. Even I still end up wearing something I dry-shake on occasion, when I get cocky.

Two, measure. Oh, I know, your free-pour skills are top-notch; you can tell a millimeter per second’s difference with your internal clock. The Riverside County Department of Weights and Measures has a sticker on your rump. Still, use a jigger. This is something I never want to butt heads about with any new hire again. A lot of us (unfortunately) are going to be job-hunting and competing with each other soon, so get a leg up, and practice your jiggery.

Three, put ice in the shaker or the pitcher. I know you think you put ice in, but you really put only half a scoop in there. That’s why your stir looks bad (at least partly), why your shake sounds anemic, and why your drink is sad. Fill it up two-thirds of the way with ice, after you pour your ingredients.

Four, work on your stir. I get a twisted pleasure out of having people stir a drink in an interview. It has three possible outcomes: a confident and expert stir that’s silky smooth (rare); a spoon that rattles back and forth across the pitcher (extremely common); a tipped-over and/or broken pitcher, because the person has no idea what they’re doing (far too common). It takes practice, but it’s not hard! Buy a pitcher and a bar spoon, if you don’t have one, and put ice in it (see above); add a little water; and stir for 10 minutes at a time. You can binge old episodes of The Office while you do it for all I care; just have one hand stir for 10 minutes. Change the ice when needed. The stir technique is deceptively simple: It’s a push-pull. You want to keep the outside curve of the spoon against the inside of the pitcher, and the handle of the spoon between your middle and ring finger, with the thumb and index finger pinching further up the spoon for support. With your hand steady, simply push and pull with the fingers while keeping the top of the spoon still, and the spoon firmly against the walls of the pitcher. The ice should spin gracefully around the liquid, and there should be no jostling. It’s like the moon in orbit: The spoon should always show the same face as it orbits the center of the glass. You could have redrum carved into your forehead, but if your stir and shake look good, I will consider you for hire.

Five, build the drink with the smallest ingredients first, and the main spirit last. That way, if you screw up, it minimizes the loss.

Six, learn the basics. I don’t care if you don’t know how to make a Ramos gin fizz, although these days, that is borderline basic knowledge, but there are some drinks you just need to know how to make the “right” way. I don’t have the space to cover all of them in detail in this edition, but here’s a good little list to get you started.

One spirit, stirred:

Old Fashioned: 2 ounces of bourbon; teaspoon of superfine sugar or 1/2 ounce simple syrup; four dashes of bitters. Stir on plenty of ice; garnish with an orange peel.

One spirit, shaken:

Daiquiri: 2 ounces rum; 1 ounce lime; 1/2 to 3/4 ounce simple. Up; lime garnish.

Gimlet: 2 ounces gin; 1 ounce lime; 1/2 to 3/4 ounce simple. Up; lime garnish.

Bee’s Knees: 2 ounces gin; 1 ounce lemon; 3/4 ounce honey water. Up; lemon twist garnish.

French 75: 1 1/2 ounces gin; 3/4 ounce simple; 3/4 ounce lemon. Up; top with sparkling wine and a lemon twist.

Collins: 2 ounces gin (or vodka); 1 ounce lemon; 3/4 ounce simple. Tall over ice; top with soda and a lemon garnish.

Mojito: 2 ounces rum; 1 ounce lime; 3/4 ounce simple; separated mint. Light shake; dump; tall with soda and “slapped” mint.

Two spirits, stirred:

Martini: gin, two parts; dry vermouth, one part. Up; lemon twist or olive.

Manhattan: rye, two parts; sweet vermouth, one part; two dashes of bitters. Up; orange twist or cherry.

The ever-present vodka martini is just shaken vodka with an olive, since I am tired of getting them sent back for having vermouth. I am convinced most vodka dirty-martini drinkers either don’t want to taste alcohol or have some kind of salt-craving adrenal issue, so don’t be afraid to use a whole ounce of olive brine!

Two spirits, shaken:

Margarita: tequila, two parts; triple sec, one part; lime juice, one part. Rocks; salt; lime garnish.

Sidecar: brandy, two parts; triple sec, one part; lemon juice, one part. Up; sugar half rim.

Cosmopolitan: 1 1/2 ounces vodka; 3/4 ounce triple sec; 1/2 ounce cranberry juice; 1/2 ounce lime juice. Up; orange twist.

(A little simple syrup helps this category of drinks; I like 1/4 ounce.)

Three spirits, stirred:

Negroni: gin, sweet vermouth, Campari, equal parts. Rocks; orange twist.

Boulevardier: rye, sweet vermouth, Campari, equal parts. Up; orange twist.

If you want more, check out this column’s archives. I recommend learning the three-spirit drinks (Last Word, Corpse Reviver No. 2, Paper Plane, Naked and Famous), the Mai Tai, the New Orleans classics (Vieux Carré, Ramos Fizz and, of course, the Sazerac!), and the Aviation, El Diablo, and Vesper (which are popular oddballs that don’t fit a clear template).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to practice reading lips through a mask.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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