Home Bartending 101

I will always be grateful for the skills I’ve picked up while working in restaurants. Being able to clear multiple plates from a table is a great trick. The ability to recall the flavor profile of a wine upon mere mention helps out at the wine store. But one of my favorite acquired talents is my drink making ability.

If you’ve ever had a delicious crafted cocktail, the balance of flavors prove there is much more going on in the glass than just alcohol and mixers. Like cooking a great meal, cocktail making require understanding philosophies of flavor and real technique in order to elevate the drink to its “awesome cocktail” status.

Ask any bartender and they’ll tell you that the first lesson in drink making is that even though some guests will suffer through a slightly flawed appetizer, most won’t stand for such failings when it comes to a $14 cocktail. If a drink is too sweet or too sour it will get sent back. On a busy night at the restaurant, the last thing your bartender wants to do is remake another cocktail. Make enough hand muddled mint and lime mojitos (I’d guess I’ve made about a million) and you soon learn how to make a pefectly balanced drink. Every time.

Though the average person has no interest in working in restaurants, most would really like to be able to create a great tasting cocktail. Here are a few pointers that can help you make great cocktails at home.

Think like a chef

–Understand the balance of flavors. Acidic, sweet and savory components must work together to create a perfect union of flavor. Sweet, spicy and savory ingredients should complement spirits—not overpower them. Constantly taste for balance of flavors.

–Use the best ingredients. A drink can only taste as good as the ingredients used. Use fresh fruit and vegetables for cocktails. Make everything from scratch. Never use pre-made mixes.

–Learn classic techniques. Know traditional cocktails before experimenting with new ideas.

Have the right tools

Chefs need a handful of kitchen essentials to do their job. So do bartenders. Regardless of your desire to make a good drink, you never will be able to do it well until you have a solid bar kit. Stay away from the pre-packaged kits from big name stores and go to a restaurant supply place.

These three items are essential for any home bar. You will need:
–A Boston Shaker—the pint glass and a metal shaker combo used by most bartenders
–a wood muddler
–a handheld juicer. Cut a lemon or lime in half, pop it into the metal squeezer and bam! You’ve got juice! A handheld citrus squeezer like this is great for quickly adding citrus to whatever you’re making. I prefer the larger metal kind that can easily be found in the bartending section of most restaurant supply stores.

buy some booze
One bottle of vodka, rum and bourbon is a good start. Buy a secondary “seasoning” liquor that you can use for flavoring cocktails: think Sweet or Dry Vermouth, an Italian digestivo, or a fruit or nut flavored liquor (Grand Marnier, Amaretto, etc.).

Make a batch of simple syrup
Making cocktails at home is so much easier when you have a jar of simple syrup on hand. Cook up a good sized batch, put in a covered glass container and it will keep in the refrigerator for weeks. If you don’t mind adding a golden hue to your drinks, I suggest trying brown sugar to make your simple syrup. I like the rounder flavor it gives my drinks.


Recipe for Simple Syrup
A fundamental ingredient for bartending is this incredibly simple syrup.

One part sugar
Two parts water

Bring water to a boil and add sugar. Reduce heat and cook down until the liquid begins to look syrupy. Adding spice and herbs to the simple syrup as it cooks down is a great (and easy) way to impart flavors to a drink.


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. matt wright
    June 16

    great, great great suggestions here. Drinks are something I never really attempt but know that I should.

    Talk about a great intro into the craft of making a good cocktail. Thanks for the tool list too!

  2. mattatouille
    June 16

    i love crafting cocktails, very nice post. I need to buy some more barware at Barkeeper 🙂

  3. Brooke
    June 16

    Or head over to Surfas or Charlie's Fixtures for an even better deal!

  4. Scott
    June 26

    Just a quick note of thanks – I'm a blue-collar, largely non-drinking guy who's mystified by the drink-making process. We don't entertain often but when we do, it'd be nice to be able to offer more than fresh-brewed tea – thank you for the primer, it's much-appreciated.

  5. tallgirl
    June 29

    Awesome instructions, thanks! Any chance you have a hint for how to make fruited simple syrup? Like the raspberry simple syrup found around town… I guess I should just try it…

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