Once you've been bitten by the do-it-yourself cocktail bug, it's easy to get carried away with aspirations to stock your bar exclusively with homemade mixers. But look behind even the most serious bars and you'll notice that a variety of store-bought products are nestled in amongst the house-made infusions. Smart bartenders know it's better to expend efforts where it will be worth their while, rather than toiling away at prep work that won't pay off.
The question is: which mixers make the cut, and which ones are best left to the experts? That's where the collective knowledge of Michael Lazar (author of Left Coast Libations), Neyah White (brand ambassador for Yamazkai and Hibiki Whiskies), and Camper English (journalist behind Alcademics) comes into play. The three broke it down at a DIY cocktail mixers seminar at this past week's SF Chefs. What's worth — and not worth — making, when you read more.
What's Not Worth It
- Sodas like Coca-Cola. Let's face it: you're not going to be able to make a better product at home.
- Tonic. Homemade tonic will be brown and cloudy, since the vast majority of cinchona bark (the typical source of tonic's quinine component) available is powdered rather than sold whole, making for a less-clean infusion. What's more, none of the bartending experts had tried a homemade tonic that was tastier than high-quality brands like Fever-Tree or Q Tonic.
- Common types of bitters. It's better to expend your efforts on products you can't find elsewhere.
What's Worth It
- Simple syrup, both flavored and plain. For long-lasting flavor, Michael Lazar suggests infusing simple syrup with a few drops of food-grade essential oils instead of fresh aromatic ingredients.
- Shrubs. These sweet-tart vinegar-spiked fruit syrups were originally devised as a way to preserve peak-season produce prior to refrigeration. While that's not an issue nowadays, they're still an excellent way to infuse fruity flavor into cocktails year-round, and are an easy way to dabble in do-it-yourself cocktailery. Neyah White's magic formula: equal parts of chopped fruit, vinegar (try inexpensive cider, white, or red vinegar), and sugar.
- Obscure bitters. Have fun experimenting with making bitters that aren't typically available on store shelves. For inspiration, try leafing through Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons. And for speedier infusions (vs. the weeks or even months typically required), make like White and force-infuse aromatics into vodka by using a pressurized iSi whipper.
Have you tried making bitters, shrubs, or simple syrup at home?