Way back when I started getting into making cocktails, you couldn’t find many of the ingredients we take for granted today. Good grenadine, orgeat and ginger beer was in short supply. So when we’d read about a drink like, say, the Jack Rose, my fellow bartenders and I had to either use store-bought, artificially colored (and flavored) high fructose corn syrup, or learn how to make the ingredients ourselves. I wanted good drinks, so I pursued the latter, experimenting and refining my own housemade mixers. And because I wanted to spread the gospel of creating quality ingredients, I’ve had a calling to share everything I know about the subject on my blog, in my weekly column here, and in my book. Now, thankfully, we’ve come to a point where quality ingredients in our cocktails are ubiquitous.
However, making our mixers—which started as a necessity because we lacked quality ingredients—has morphed almost into a fetish for handmade products. People have confused “housemade” with high quality (probably the same people who assume organic=healthy). Yes, while some things are just better when they’re housemade, I’m here to tell you that’s not always the case. Many ingredients are either too much of a pain in the ass to make at home, or someone is out there making a good version commercially. But you might not know that, judging by the fact that navigating a cocktail menu these days is a gauntlet of all things made in-house, as if it’s still 2006 and there isn’t a wealth of quality ingredients to choose.
I’ll readily admit that for the person just getting into cocktails, it can be difficult to draw the line between choosing homemade or store bought. I’m here to help. If you want to start making more great cocktails at home, I’ve provided a little guide to a few of the ingredients you should probably learn how to make yourself, along with a list of ingredients that you’d be foolish to not buy them instead.
MAKE IT YOURSELF
Real grenadine is nothing more than a pomegranate syrup, and pomegranates are hardly the exotic fruit they might have been thirty years ago in this country. Skip the red food coloring and make it yourself, it’s about as difficult to make as simple syrup. Here’s an easy recipe for you to use at home.
There are probably ten times as many brands of ginger beer on the market today as there were back when I started, so your options are far from limited. The problem I’ve always had with ginger beer is that the pasteurization needed to sell the stuff commercially kills all of the fresh flavors that make ginger beer so delicious in the first place. I make it myself as a weekend project.
Is horchata a cocktail ingredient? It sure can be. Just skip the powdered mixes they sell at the grocery store and make your own with rice, sugar, cinnamon, and water. If you can plan ahead a day in advance, there is no reason to not make your own.
BUY IT INSTEAD
Making bitters is a really fun project and a great way to learn about ingredients and develop flavors. But if anyone tells you that you need to make your own these days, they’re just being difficult. There is nothing short of a glut of bitters available commercially, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you might want to rethink your life.
Back in 2006, we lamented the lack of real absinthe, no importers of crème de violette, and being forced to use cheap vermouth for everything. A decade later, and most of these problems have been solved. Absinthe is legal and real, we have more delicious imported European vermouths than we know what to do with them, and even a passable domestic version or two. And as for liqueurs, I can hardly think of a great one that can’t be found most places these days. If you can’t make a great drink with the liqueurs and fortified wines available today, the problem might be with you.
Does the commercially-available stuff often taste like a urinal cake? Absolutely. Are there decent versions available? Most definitely. Is it worth the trouble to make it yourself, and is your housemade version going to be better than Giffard’s or Small Hand Foods’? Not likely. Save yourself the trouble and pick up a bottle.
Repeat after me: fresh grapefruit and soda water does not taste better in a Paloma than Jarritos grapefruit soda does. That’s final.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
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