- Save money on entertaining by sticking to reasonably-priced basic and versatile spirits.
- Consult in-store liquor experts to find the best quality product at your price point.
- Create your own infusions and simple syrups with what you already have on hand.
- Get an understanding of the basics so you can feel confident substitute ingredients.
Summertime is about getting together with family, friends and neighbors to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures. For many, relaxing in the sunshine is often accompanied by a tasty cocktail or an alcohol-free mocktail.
But when it comes to making cocktails at home, there are some misconceptions. You don’t have to be an expert to make a solid drink, and you definitely don’t have to spend a ton of money on it.
“Don't be intimidated with cocktails, they are supposed to be fun,” says Chris Tunstall, founder of A Bar Above, a bartender and drinks consultant. “Once you understand the fundamentals of cocktail families and how to substitute ingredients, then you can have a lot of fun creating your own drinks.”
Here is some expert insight on how to be a budget cocktail whiz.
Follow these money-saving tips when you shop at the liquor store.
Don’t dismiss lower-priced bottles
Amy Traynor, author of “Essential 3-Ingredient Cocktails” and “The Essential Bar Book for Home Mixologists,” says her best tip for saving money when making cocktails at home is not to overspend at the liquor store. “There are high quality bottles of just about every spirit in the $20 to $30 range,” she says. “You don’t need top-shelf spirits to make great cocktails at home.”
But don’t automatically go for the cheapest on the shelf, advises Gwendolyn Osborn, director of education at Wine.com. Her recommendation is to balance budget and quality, and look for simple ingredient spirits from a quality brand.
“One can look at the entry level style of a spirit, but then get a reputable brand, so a Blanco-style tequila will be less expensive than an Anejo style, but if you get a top-quality brand, you will still get a quality spirit,” Osborn says.
If you want to try something new, look for smaller bottles so you don’t spend a lot on something you’re not positive you’ll like. “Even the pricey liqueur Chartreuse is available in a half-sized bottle at retailers like Total Wine,” Traynor adds.
Ask for help
Once you have a price tag in mind, Tunstall says get insight from the experts. “There are a lot of good resources for finding good value spirits for the price, but I've found that if you ask your favorite craft bartender or associate that works at a bottle shop what their favorite spirits are at a certain price point, they would be happy to offer their thoughts.”
Good value spirits can be found in pretty much every category of base spirit, he says, including vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila, brandy and rum, but in general unaged spirits, like vodka or gin, tend to be more budget friendly. “Rum also tends to deliver high quality for a more approachable price,” he points out.
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Go with the basics
When it comes to what goes in your cart, Jayme Henderson, founder of the cocktail blog holly & flora and sommelier and wine maker at The Storm Cellar, says stick to the basics, and think quality over quantity.
“There are so many exciting and innovative liqueurs and spirits on the market, but you can easily exceed your budget and end up with a collection of bottles that worked for one or two obscure cocktails,” she says. “Start with a core group of high-quality, oft-used spirits and then slowly expand.”
If you’re going to venture outside of the basics, Tunstall suggests sticking with liqueurs that can be used in a variety of cocktails, not just one. “Cointreau, or a good triple sec, is a great example of a liqueur that is used in a large selection of cocktails, where Sambuca or Creme de Violette will only have a handful of cocktails that use it,” he says.
Know your cocktail families
The key to saving money on home drinks is understanding the “cocktail families,” Tunstall says. There are six: the Old Fashioned, the Sour, the Highball, the Flip, the Martini and the Daisy.
“Once you understand cocktail families, one bottle of alcohol, no matter what it is, can make thousands of different and unique cocktails and the only limit is your imagination,” he says.
The formula for a sour, for example, is 2 ounces of spirit, 1 ounce of a sweetener (typically simple syrup) and 1 ounce of acid (typically lemon or lime).
“With this example, you can add just about any base spirit into the spirit category, and it will produce a drinkable and enjoyable cocktail,” he says.
You can learn about the other cocktail families in more about the cocktail families? Tunstall gives a rundown of everything you need to know about cocktail families and techniques to make hundreds of drinks on his web site.
Meet the Expert
Chris Tunstall, founder of A Bar Above, and a bartender and drinks consultant
Drink your fruits and veggies
Turn to in-season produce for creating your own syrups, infusions and liqueurs. Henderson points out this is a budget-friendly alternative to purchasing various liqueurs with specific flavor profiles.
“Not only is it fun and creatively inspiring, it’s much less expensive than buying every flavor on the market,” she says.
Stock up on seasonal fruit, vegetables and herbs, she says, and learn to preserve or infuse them and their seasonal flavors. You can even opt to grow an inexpensive “cocktail garden” with basic herbs, such as mint, basil and thyme, creating a wealth of options for infusions, garnishes and syrups.
“I always recommend incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in to your home bar experience because you can cross-utilize them for cooking; this is an inexpensive and healthy way to have quality ingredients around instead of buying pre-made purees or mixers,” says Pete Tognetti, bar manager for Tamayo in Denver.
If you don’t have fresh fruit, frozen fruit can work, too. “Although the texture sometimes isn’t as amazing as the fresh version, frozen fruit can work wonderfully for blended drinks or syrups and infusions,” Henderson says.
Use what you have
Osborn points out that many cocktails start with basic ingredients—orange, lemon, lime or grapefruit, for example, or even spices, such as cinnamon or chili powder.
Even the leftover ingredients that aren’t making it onto your dinner plate may have a place in your cocktail instead of the trash. Henderson says think twice before throwing out food waste, such as strawberry tops, celery bases, apple peels or citrus zest.
“These are often tossed into the trash or the compost pile, but they are still packed with flavor and can live a new life as an infusion, syrup or liqueur,” she says.
Here are some ways you can make use of what you have:
Make a citrusy simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water, along with a handful of lemon peels or even the lemon skins remaining after juicing. Henderson says another way she makes a syrup is with apple peels or strawberry tops, combining equal parts of sugar and water, along with a handful of either.
“For a seasonal twist, I like to combine cinnamon or other baking spices with the apple peels,” she says. “The syrup is wonderful in bourbon cocktails.” She’s also used basil or mint stems with the same method in syrups, which would be seasonally appropriate for a mojito or a gin-based drink.
Day-old and unused wine can substitute for water in simple syrup recipes or add a layer of flavor in a cocktail. “Have boxed wine on hand? You have an inexpensive, shelf-stable mixer at all times,” Henderson adds.
Citrus and brine:
Before you juice any citrus, zest it, and reuse that zest in tasty and colorful salts and sugars for a delicious cocktail rim. Keep the brine from your olive or pickle juice for a dirty martini. For a spicy kick, utilize the brine from pickled jalapenos.
“If you have sugar, you can make simple syrup, a key ingredient in many classic cocktails like the Gimlet and Daiquiri,” Traynor says. Adding fruit, spices and teas also give simple syrups a quick but unique twist. Alcohol-free simple syrups are a great addition to making thoughtful mocktails, too.
Fruit juice, coffee and tea:
Swap water for fruit juice for a fruitier style drink or even coffee or tea for a twist on the simple syrup, suggests Tunstall.
Tea can be used for both traditional cocktails, and especially for alcohol-free mocktails. “Tea is so great because it adds depth and tannins, which so many non-alcoholic cocktails are missing,” Henderson says.
“If you’re not up for making a syrup, jams and jellies are a really fun way to add flavor and sweeten shaken cocktails like Margaritas,” Traynor adds.
Honey or maple syrup:
When there’s maple syrup or honey in the pantry instead, this can be an alternative to sugar for simple syrups. “These not only provide sweetness, but they also contribute depth and complexity to a cocktail,” Henderson says. If adding honey, Tunstall recommends adding about 30 percent water since honey is sweeter than simple and the water helps avoid the honey clumping when you add ice.
Tea can be another pantry staple for both traditional cocktails and especially for alcohol-free mocktails. “Tea is so great because it adds depth and tannins, which so many non-alcoholic cocktails are missing,” Henderson says.
Tips for showtime
Keep it simple, but interesting, Osborn says. “Start from some basics and add on from there,” she says. “Build up to the more complex cocktails so you can practice your craft and get comfortable making cocktails.”
To save money on cocktails when it comes to entertaining, Henderson recommends making a batch for gatherings. “Instead of offering an array of cocktail options for your next get-together, create one or two cocktails that are easily batched for a crowd,” she says, which is also a great way to utilize some under-used spirits that are collecting dust on your home bar.
Traynor believes one of the most common mistakes people make when creating cocktails at home is not using enough ice, which is important to ensuring drinks are properly chilled and diluted. “Fill your cocktail shaker, mixing glass and serving glasses at least three quarters [with ice] to avoid watered down tasting drinks,” she recommends.
Last but not least, use a jigger to properly measure ingredients. “Accurate measurements are key to great-tasting, balanced mixed drinks,” Traynor says.