Let’s start with a definition.  A cocktail is a combination of four ingredients in glorious balance: sugar, water, spirit, and bitters.  This means that the standard two part drinks (gin and tonic, seven and seven, rum and coke) are not cocktails, but mixed drinks.  No one is quite sure where the term cocktail came from, but there’s lots of guesses as to why the name came to be and why it stuck.  The one thing that is known is that they were based on slings (sugar, water, and spirit), and punches (juices, spices, and spirits).

Generally, the sugar and water are mixed into a simple syrup.  Simple syrup is an equal measure (by weight) of sugar and water, heated until the sugar dissolves, and then cooled.  The flavor of the syrup can be changed by the sugar used (I’m partial to demerara myself) or spice and herb infusions (ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, and rosemary all make great additions).  They can be stored for a couple of weeks in the fridge, or about a week at room temperature.  If you make them double rich (twice the sugar to water ratio), they can last a while longer.

So now that we’ve gone over the history, let’s move on to the tools that we’ll need:

Shaker – There’s several different styles of shakers, all of which should be metal.  I prefer the Boston Shaker.  You’ve seen them, they’re metal cylinders that you need a second component (usually a shaker glass) that will fit into it.

Strainer – If you’re really skilled with a Boston Shaker, this is optional, as you can use the glass and shaker to strain out the ice.  Other shakers can have an integrated strainer.  Otherwise, there’s the hawthorne strainer (metal flat with a coil around it), the julep strainer (looks like a large spoon with holes in it), and then there’s always the fine mesh (cone shaped colander).

Jigger/Measuring cup – The jigger is a two sided item used to measure ingredients.  One side will be a jigger (1.5 oz) measure, the other will be a pony ( 1 oz) measure.  I’m not a fan of them, they look nice, but can easily lead to spills.  I much prefer the little 2 ounce Oxo measuring cup, they’re inexpensive, plastic, and lead to more accurate measurements.

Liquor – Liquor is generally broken down into two different groups: Clear – Vodka, Gin, Tequila, and Rum; Brown – Whisk(e)y.

Bitters – These aren’t cheap, but a little goes a long way.  Angostura aromatic bitters are the most common ones you’ll find.

Sugar – You probably already have this in your house.  Different sugars will impact the flavor of the drink in different ways.

Glassware – This one should go without saying, but you do need a glass to pour your drink into.  There’s all sorts of different glassware out there, but anything will do.

Ice – If you’re looking for a cold drink, you’ll need some ice.

Then there’s the optional but nice tools:

Muddler – These are club like items used to bruise citrus peels, herbs, or to break down sugar cubes.

Zester – These are thin peelers used to pull a layer of zest of citrus.  If you do a lot of home cooking, you probably already have something that will do this.  Keep in mind that as a garnish, you’re usually going for a long strip of zest, while for cooking, you usually want small shreds.

Bar Spoon – A long handled spoon with a twisted handle.  This lets you stir drinks that shouldn’t be shaken, with a length that makes sure it’ll reach down to the bottom of most containers.  It can also be used to make layered drinks.

Now that we’ve got the tools, let’s start with a basic cocktail, the Old Fashioned.  This is a brown liquor based drink, traditionally with bourbon or rye.  It’s simple, and very forgiving with garnishes and flourishes.  The traditional recipe is:

1 sugar cube

2-3 drops of bitters

Dash of water

1.5 oz liquor

Drop the sugar cube into the glass, drip the bitters onto the sugar cube, add a dash of water, then muddle that sugar cube (crush it down), and stir it until it’s dissolved.  Add in the liquor, add ice (if desired), and gently stir.  Garnish with a maraschino cherry if you must (we’ll get to making these later).

Some changes that can be made: substitute simple syrup for the sugar cube and water (including infused ones); use different kinds of bitters; express an orange zest (twist it so that the oils from the peel spray into the glass) into the glass; garnish with an orange wheel.

Assuming there’s interest, I’ll start going through some of the old and mostly forgotten cocktails next time.