Making Great Cocktails, Part 1: Good and Great Ingredients

An obvious but essential part of making good cocktails: Have a well that is good and choose great premium stock.

Also, use fresh fruit and daily fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices (start with small amounts at start of shift and renew as needed during shift).  You should  have a good citrus juicer on hand and/or sets of Mexican presses, and it is better to hold these juices in glass containers of the right size that support easy pours and measures, instead of the plastic squeeze bottles.

Also, orange, pineapple, grapefruit, and tomato juice should be good quality and purchased in small bottles or cans. This requirement should surprise no one who has gone back to the big can of pineapple juice at day or two after it was opened; I prefer my trace elements the more natural way, and not from the taste of metal from that giant can. Big cans can be fine, if you are making a batch you know is going to be used, such as when you’re prepping for brunch service, and make your house Bloody Mary mix that you know you’ll go through then and there. Still, nobody likes a juice-based cocktail if the juice is base.

The cocktail maker should emphasize seasonal cocktails and have available the right ingredients, which means when is season (hence, “seasonal”), and I like to have, for example, a vase of fresh mint on the bar during the summer, which is why my carefully-chosen mint is already potted and growing ready. And it always helps to start with fresh garnishes in chill trays, but not so much that you’ve cut amounts that will tempt you to carry them over from day to day… to day. You should always have the set-up to provide for fast and effective re-supply/re-cuts for garnishes.

Also, sour mix is a great enemy of mankind; commercial sour mix is the greatest enemy of mankind. Greatest. Enemy. Of. Mankind.

Also, Rose’s Grenadine is for kids, and even this limited use will add some time to your Purgatory sentence. For great cocktails that need grenadine, real grenadine is essential, and that means seeking hard-to-find premium grenadine, and even then, with the cocktail crazy tempting the greedy or the ignorant to cash in, it turns out that a number of the so-called premiums, well, ain’t.

It doesn’t take much effort to learn that the main flavor source for grenadine is pomegranate, and a little more effort can result in house-made grenadine that is delicious—even adults will like a Shirley Temple made with such grenadine.  Better yet, of course, is an actual cocktail made with such grenadine, such as Commodore, Scofflaw, Pink Lady, Blushing Lady, Barcardi Cocktail, and El Floridita, to name great cocktail recipes that are in the Number Ten Bar Book. In fact, Scofflaw is one of the featured cocktails on the new Number Ten cocktail menu:


  • 2 oz. Bourbon or Rye
  • 1 oz. dry vermouth
  • ¼ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. Grenadine
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice, shake, and serve in cocktail glass or on the rocks, garnish: orange twist. This whiskey drink was supposedly invented in Paris while the US suffered through Prohibition. The Scofflaw cocktail is basically a Perfect Manhattan, given a hint of the sour structure with just a touch of lemon juice, offset by the flavorful sweet of the grenadine, and all complimented by orange bitters.

The small amount of lemon juice in the Scofflaw is just enough to keep some sense of tartness in the drink, but only because the grenadine is house-made, from real pomegranate, which is less sweet than the commercial junk, even carrying a bit of tartness of its own.

Not too many people know cocktails that use grenadine, and that may be for good reason, if their grenadine is Rose’s or another brand that uses artificial cherry flavoring, massive amounts of high fructose corn syrup, and an admittedly hue-full red dye. And that’s a shame. If you want a good grenadine, take care to read ingredients even among the “premiums.”

Bitters are another area that has gone crazy in the cocktail world, but mostly for the good of all mankind, although some brands are better than others. How many bitter brands are there? The joke making the rounds these days is that if you toss a crumpled coffee cup over your shoulder in Brooklyn, you’ll hit an artisan bitters maker. Today, even obscure bitters long lost in the mists of time are back, along with a nearly endless bunch of new varieties. For example, an extremely competent maker gave me a small bottle of key lime bitters, and I’m happy to report that this makes an excellent addition to a gin and tonic.

Still, care is needed when selecting bitters, although most are likely to add to, not detract, from a cocktail—if well-matched. There is one early “artisan” brand that uses rubber dropper bottles, and at first blush that struck me as handy dandy.  Over time, however, I found little black specks showing up in martinis, and, believe me, no one wants uninvited black specks in their martinis. I finally figured out that the orange bitters in question was breaking down the rubber of the dropper bulb. I thought to filter the bitters and re-bottle in a different way, but then I decided that I’d use a different bitters, since the breakdown of rubber may not be part of the flavor profile I’d really want.

For Number Ten, I’ve settled on a mix of two different orange bitters that I believe compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I like Fee Brothers Orange Bitters (in part, I’ll admit, because they were the only company that never stopped producing orange bitters), and I mix this with Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters, half and half. The reason is that Fees Brothers Orange Bitters has the best nose, with great floral citrus scent, but it is weak on the bottom notes, which is where Regan’s shines. Best of both. That’s the house orange bitters at Number Ten, but this particular combination is a fairly widely applied one in the business, at least for bars paying attention to ingredients.

I didn’t want to have to learn how to make a good cacao bitters, but I certainly wanted to have some on hand, initially mainly because I wanted to crib a Manhattan variant from Seattle’s The Barrel Thief, which adds this bitters along with the Angostura bitters, providing an earthy base note to this classic drink. Unfortunately, the commercial cacao bitters I wanted—one of the few that doesn’t carry chili and/or coffee notes—was out of stock. So, some recipe research, some trial and error, and now at Number Ten, a pretty damn good cacao bitters, if I do say so myself.

House-made grenadine–or, at least, a top-brand grenadine (not Roses!) is necessary, (not optional!) for certain cocktails. Shown here, our own grenadine and cacao bitters, plus our special blend of orange bitters. can make the difference in making a great cocktail.

And speaking of ingredients, ice is an important ingredient, and for a number of cocktails, size does matter, where one large cube keeps the drink nice and cold, but provides a slower melt water rate. A premium Old-Fashioned is a good example of a cocktail that benefits from the big cube approach; another example is Federation, an excellent tequila cocktail that is structurally similar to Old-Fashioned, although possessing quite a distinct flavor profile.

On the other hand, regular bar ice works well for many drinks, and works well to quickly chill cocktails in the shaker. The trick there is to use a lot of ice, stir (or shake, depending…) quickly, and pour quickly.  The large volume of ice chills more quickly, and the likelihood of bruising the drink (too much water) is better controlled.



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