Drinks from the Pantry
By Angelo Wei
Enjoying an alcoholic drink on the weekend used be a key social aspect of a lot of people’s lives, but that seems like a distant memory now. If you’re stuck at home craving a drink that reminds you of better times or just want to have some fun experimenting with some new drinks, I’m here to help you find easy ways to enjoy cocktails/mocktails from home.
One key aspect of cocktails is the alcohol that goes into the drink. Being stuck home all day, you might be finding some weird bottles that you got as a gift or leftover bottles long forgotten and neglected. If you’re worried if about bottles going bad a general rule of thumb is that anything over 20% alcohol will be shelf stable indefinitely, so that old bottle of vodka or gin is still good! Things get more tricky when it comes to stuff with a lower alcohol content like fortified/regular wine or beer, but if it’s unopened and stored out of direct sunlight it should still be safe (usually the smell can give it away). For those who choose not to drink or can’t legally, mocktails are also a really fun way to experiment with drinks. I go toward different teas as a base for mocktails and they usually work well the other cocktail ingredients I’ll go over later.
So now you have found your base to cocktails/mocktails, but now you’ll need the three basic additives to your spirit, a sweetener, a sour, and flavorings. Almost all cocktails can be broken down into these four categories and I’ll show you the basics of each one that you can start out with to make your cocktails.
The most common sweetener used in most cocktails/mocktails is simple syrup. This is just a 1:1 volume mixture of table sugar and water. There are two ways of making it, a hot a cold method and people who will argue why one is better than the other. Each has their own benefit and drawbacks so I’ll give both methods. For the cold method, you’ll just need an airtight container; just shake your two ingredients together until they combine fully. Really easy and a little bit of an arm workout. The hot method requires a stovetop where you’ll place the water and sugar into the pan and slowly simmer until they dissolve into each other. This method is a little more complex but also let’s you play around with more ingredients. An easy way to spice up your cocktails/mocktails is to infuse flavors into the simple syrups you use which adds a variety of colors, flavors, and aromas. Fruits are an easy go to, just clean and cut them into thirds or fourths and let them cook with your simple syrup. The sugar will naturally draw out the colors and flavors of the fruit. You’ll know when it’s done as the fruit will lose most of it’s color and become wilted. Herbs, teas, and other spices are great ways to add other flavors and notes! Don’t be afraid to experiment and mix match with one another to create a flavor that you like. Also don’t limit yourself to sugar; maple syrup, demerara sugar, and agave are all other possible substitutes so check around your pantry to see what you have to work with!
Next lets move onto sours, generally this is a citrus juice like lime or lemon juice. You can use other ones like orange, grapefruit, or others, but be aware that they all have different pH levels (different levels of sourness) and other flavors and sweetness such as oranges that will be very strong and potentially overpowering. Purists will tell you that fresh squeezed is always the best, but not everyone has that luxury. Honestly, most grocery stores carry 100% lemon/lime juice and they are a convenient and less wasteful way of using the juice as most of it comes in glass recyclable containers. If you are planning on using fresh juice, there are ways to make sure you fully utilize the fruit. The skins of citrus fruit are a common garnish in a lot of cocktails, use a peeler or sharp knife to peel off a portion of the skin while avoiding the pith (white bitter part), and express the oils into your drink and drop it into your cocktail. Alternatively, going back to your simple syrup, the peels can add bright citrus notes to your syrup or be used to make oleo saccharum, an old style sweetener common in the 19th century but coming more into vogue recently. After your done with your fruit, remember that it is compostable. Bartending mindfully can really help cut down on waste and make sure you keep things more sustainable!
Lastly, I’ll go over flavorings. This category is really broad but it includes things like bitters, garnishes, and other additives not included in the other three. A lot of these can be bought at stores, and really common bitters such as angostura are a good addition to have in a bar. These add undertone notes to your drinks and a layer of complexity. One side note is that almost all bitters are made with alcohol, but there are non alcoholic versions that exist out there. Garnishes range widely based on the drink but they add color and additional notes to your drink. Citrus peels are a common garnish, but herbs like rosemary or spices like cinnamon sticks are other great alternatives.
Now that you have the basic ingredients to make a cocktail or mocktail you might want some general guidelines on how to make a good cocktail. Classics like a Daiquiri or Gimlet are easy to google and you’ll be able to make a decent amount of the classics. If you’re wanting to play around with your own creation a good staring point is 2 oz of spirit/base, 0.75 oz of sweetener, and 0.75 oz of sour with optional flavorings. From there you can see if your drink is too sour, sweet, strong etc and adjust. If you find nontraditional bottles of liquor that might be based on fruits or something, you can play around by substituting your base spirt and sweetener with that. Other options are combing your cocktail with club soda to make a lighter more refreshing version of the drink. Just following these general guidelines is a great way to get started but don’t be afraid to experiment outside of this! These are just general tips that I’ve learned from playing with drinks in my free time.
Above all else, have fun and give a cheers to those that matter the most to you!