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Bartender's Handbook

Cocktails - The basics

What is a Cocktail?

Drinks akin to cocktails first appeared sometime during the 16th century, but cocktails, as we know and use the term, was first introduced by American bartenders in the 1920ies.

The reason the cocktail made it big in the happy '20ies, was the prohibition, when producing and imbibing of alcohol was made illegal. As good as all spirits available was of a rather dubious quality and tasted accordingly. Thus, the bartenders, accommodating as always, started to mix the spirits with various fruit juices and other flavorings to make it more palatable. Later, the cocktail lost its popularity most places, the United States being the main exception.

The last few years, however, the cocktail has reclaimed lost ground everywhere, especially in southern Europe and other places that are full of tourists. Cocktails usually consist of three different 'classes' of ingredients.

  • The first, the base, is most often some sort of spirit, like vodka, whiskey, or tequila. Occasionally, such as in many punches, some sort of wine is being used as a base.
  • The second, the main flavoring, is added to bring out the aroma of the base and to modify its taste. The main flavoring is often such as Vermouth, various fruit juices, wine, or even eggs or cream.
  • The third, the special flavoring, is added to enhance the taste of the base, and often also adds the color to the cocktail. Common special flavorings include Grenadine, Blue Curacao, and others.
Most cocktails are also decorated in some way, usually with fruit slices, orange peel, cocktail sticks, mint twigs, etc. (see section below).


Many different contraptions are manufactured for the making of cocktails. Some of these are useful, some can be definitely nice to have, and still others are totally and utterly useless. It is up to you to decide exactly what your cocktail equipment should be, but some things are essential.

First out of the essentials is the cocktail shaker. There are two basic types of shakers available. A European cocktail shaker is usually made out of metal, or glass with a metal top. It is, basically, a container which holds about half a liter, fitted with a top which closes tightly around the upper edges of the container. This top also has a smaller top, usually fitted with a built-in strainer, through which the shaken cocktail is poured. American shakers, however, consist of two cones about the same size. One is often often made of glass, and the other is metallic. These cones are held together to form a closed container, and the shaken cocktail is poured from either one. Most American shakers do not have built-in strainers, so if you use an American shaker, using a separate strainer is a good idea.

Measures, also known as jiggers, are also essential. Jiggers are most often made of metal, but glass jiggers are common, as well. The standard measurements of a jigger can vary widely, depending on where you are. In the recipes in the following articles, I will use a standard jigger of 30ml (appx. 1 fl oz).

In addition to the equipment mentioned above, you will find that things like these are nice to have, as well: Ice bucket, jugs, electric blender, bowls, etc. You should also have access to ordinary kitchenware, such as knives, corkscrews, chopping board, etc. You will also need stirrers (also known as swizzle sticks), straws, toothpicks, serviettes and cloths.


Cocktail glasses come in four different basic types:
  • First, there are the glasses known as rocks glasses, also known as tumblers. These glasses are usually short and broad glasses, with straight or slightly sloping sides. They normally hold about 125ml and are used for spirits with ice, fruit juices and short drinks.
  • Second, there is the highball glass. These glasses are usually of medium width, and are tall with straight or slightly sloping sides. They normally hold between 200 and 300ml and are used for long drinks with ice.
  • Third, the champagne glasses, are of two different kind. The most common, the champagne flute, is a tall and narrow glass with a stem. Champagne flutes have thin-glassed sides, and the long, tapering sides can curve both inward and outward. A champagne flute holds approximately 150ml. The second type of champagne glass is the less-known champagne saucer. The champagne saucer is a broad and shallow glass with a stem. The broadness and shallowness of the glass make the champagne loose its fizz quickly, and the glass is therefore less popular than it once was. It is still, however, in use, and such cocktails as the Margarita use exclusively such glasses.
  • Fourth is the group known as cocktail glasses. These are the classic cocktail glasses; stemmed and with sharply sloping sides, making it Y-shaped when seen from the side. The classic cocktail glass holds about 90ml and is best suited for short, strong drinks.

In addition to these glasses, some drinks, such as the Pina Colada, have special glasses. Unless you are really serious about mixing your cocktails, you don't really need to buy such glasses. Use glasses you already have instead. There are also other glasses available that will work just fine with cocktails. Use your imagination, but remember that plastic glasses (or shakers, jugs, mixing glasses, or other such equipment for that matter) should NEVER be used with cocktails, as it will make the cocktail taste of plastic. A cocktail is supposed to have a refreshing taste, not to taste like the inside of a used plastic bag.

Mixing a Cocktail

Not all cocktails are made in the same manner. Just as the ingredients may vary, there are several ways in which to mix a cocktail. The most frequently used methods are the following:
  • Shaking: The cocktail is mixed by hand in a cocktail shaker. The shaker is first filled three quarters with ice, preferably cubes, as crushed ice will tend to melt and dilute the cocktail. The ingredients are then poured on top of the ice, in order of alcohol content (highest first). When shaking a cocktail, hold the shaker in both hands, one hand on the top and the other supporting the base of the shaker, and shake vigorously. When water has begun condensing on the outside of the shaker, the cocktail is sufficiently chilled, and the cocktail should immediately be strained into the glass. In general, shaking creates a colder cocktail than stirring does, but also a more cloudy one.
  • Stirring: The cocktail is stirred with a glass or metal rod in a mixing glass, before the cocktail is strained into a glass. As with shaking, crushed ice should not be used, and water condensing on the outside shows that the cocktail is finished.
  • Blending: An electric blender is used to mix fruit juices, alcohol, fruit, etc. Blending is an excellent way of mixing ingredients which do not blend easily in any other way. Blend the cocktail till it has reached a smooth consistency. If the recipe requires ice, add crushed ice last, but be careful not to add too much, as the cocktail may be watered down. Blending is a much disputed method of mixing a cocktail, and in general, blending should be avoided unless the recipe demands it.
  • Building: When building a cocktail, the ingredients are poured into the glass in which the cocktail will be served. Usually, the ingredients are floated on top of each other, but occasionally, a swizzle stick is put in the glass, allowing the ingredients to be mixed.

Decorating Cocktails

Almost all cocktails are decorated in one way or another, most often with some kind of fruit, but no matter the exact decoration, cocktail sticks are almost always invaluable. Cocktail sticks come in two types; Wooden and plastic. Wooden sticks are most often used, and are suited for just about any kind of cocktail, but they cannot be reused. Plastic sticks, however, should be carefully used, as they tend to give the cocktail a slightly artificial appearance. Unlike wooden sticks, plastic ones can be reused, but should be carefully washed and boiled first.

Cocktail sticks are, whatever the type, used for spearing slices of fruit, cherries, and just about anything else you care to decorate your cocktails with. Straws are also essential and go well with highballs. Straws should not be reused. The traditional cocktail garnish is, however, the red Maraschino cherries. These are used in just about any kind of cocktail, and are now also available in green, yellow and blue. In addition to this, slices of fruit, strips of orange or lemon peel, mint twigs, etc. can also be used.

One often used method of decorating cocktails is that which is called frosting. Frosting leaves an edge of sugar, salt, cocoa, or any other fine powder, on the rim of the glass. There are several ways to frost glasses, and one of the most frequently used of them is this: Rub the rim of the glass with a slice of orange or lemon, then submerge the rim in sugar or salt (or any other powder), just so that it lines the top of the rim. Other methods use egg white or other substances for 'gluing' the powder to the glass. For a more colorful frosting, use small drops of food coloring in the powder. With some cocktails, such as the Margarita, frosting is a 'standard' decoration.

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