Cocktail Basics

Updated 12/2021

I created this guide for basic cocktail making when a friend retired. His wife, who was not retired, thought he might want to work on his cocktail skills to ensure that he had a tasty drink to hand her when she got home from a hard day at the office (and he had a fun-filled day in the mountains). These cocktail guidelines are for folks who appreciate that cocktail hour is the second-best hour of the day but are uncertain where to start. (What is the best hour of the day? Coffee hour. Together, they are the bookends of a great day.)

Making Cocktails at Home

Even aside from the pandemic, there are several reasons to mixologize at home rather than at a bar: those drinks get expensive! You may live in Utah where there are weird and ever-changing restrictions on the amount of booze in a drink. You might prefer the company of your dogs when you imbibe. Whatever the reasons, if you choose to take this on at home, you can get crazy fancy and spend a small fortune on equipment, booze, and glassware. Or you can learn from my experiments and go with a pared-down list of essential tools, liquor cabinet staples, and cocktail faves.

How Much Booze do you Really Need?

Building up a liquor collection is a whole lot of fun and RK and I embraced it with gusto. And then we moved and moved again (and again and again), and we started to realize that some of the same bottles were getting packed and unpacked and re-packed and not getting used. It turns out that we have a few favorite cocktails, a few favorite spirits, and we just don’t need quite that much variety in our cabinet. There are seasonal favorites, of course, and new faves, and quite possibly you enjoy flavors that we do not, but hopefully this simple list can be a starting point for your inner mixologist.

Do You Need to Buy Top-Shelf Liquor for Cocktails?

No, but almost always I would recommend that you don't buy bottom shelf. My general rule is this: if you wouldn’t drink it straight then don’t drink it at all. This doesn’t mean mix your very best whiskey (save that for sipping) but it means it should taste good without anything in it. If you mix crap booze with good ingredients, you are going to have a half-assed cocktail. (And if you mix crap booze with crap you will have a crap cocktail…) Save the best for drinking neat.

The Home Liquor Cabinet

We love gin and we love whiskey. And we love tequila and cognac and rum! However, for basic everyday cocktails, we drink more gin and whiskey than anything else. So if you are like us, start with gin and whiskey.

There are so many options in the gin category these days, with flavor profiles that range from a classic London dry to quite floral and complex. Try a few and see what you like. Some will taste great in a simple drink like a Gin Rickey but clash horribly with maraschino liquor in an Aviation. You may end up with a couple of different flavors, depending on what you like to drink and that is okay! You may end up with something you don’t like at all (beware the Genever), but it’s all fun and there is always punch to get rid of the weird ones.

For whiskey-based cocktails, we prefer bourbon and rye. Basically, bourbon is made with corn which makes it sweeter than rye (which tends to be spicier). There is, however, a range of sweetness to be found in different brands of bourbon, depending on the amount of corn in the mash. More corn means more sweetness. We tend to favor those that are less sweet and have been aged a bit longer. If you want to start with one bottle of whiskey, bourbon is a crowd pleaser... but we will sometimes substitute rye for bourbon and vice versa, depending on the mood.

Vermouth: dry and rouge. Please please please put your vermouth in your refrigerator and drink it within ~3 months of opening. This stuff goes bad, so if you are not going to drink enough Manhattans or Martinis to use a full bottle in a reasonable amount of time, get small bottles or drink it over ice with a squeeze of lemon. But do not put manky old vermouth in your quality gin or bourbon. Dolin is a great basic vermouth that is fairly inexpensive, but as with everything, try some and see what you like.

Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur: Oh-so important for our fave gin cocktail, the Aviation. It tends to be used by the half-ounce, so it lasts a long time and is worth the investment. Note that maraschino liqueur is not the same as cherry liqueur, not at all.

Dry Curaçao: Others may not agree, but this is our favorite orange liqueur. We use it in margaritas, we use it in a sidecar… Sometimes we will use Grand Marnier or Cointreau, both of which are sweeter. But mostly we love the full flavor that is orange and just a bit bitter in a bottle of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao.

Extra Credit — Creme Yvette: This is not essential but it is truly delicious. We love a Blue Moon and so we keep a bottle of Creme Yvette around.

Extra, Extra Credit — Créme de Pamplemousse: Grapefruit liqueur can be an excellent substitute for any recipe that calls for a sweet liqueur. I've been using it in the occasional Aviation lately, instead of Maraschino. This probably makes it a different drink, but no matter what, it is delish.

So: gin, bourbon (or rye), sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, maraschino, and Dry Curaçao. With these 6 bottles, you can mix up a pretty decent selection of drinks, impress your friends and make your spouse/partner/roommate happy if they’ve had a rough day at work.

Syrups and Soda Water

Simple syrup: so easy to mix! We make it cold so that we don’t have to do it in advance. 1 part water, 1 part sugar (we always use evaporated cane sugar because it is more delicious). Shake in a  jar until it is dissolved. Typically we make ~¼ cup at a time and store the extra in the fridge. We know from experience that it goes bad… in a very bad way.

Honey syrup is also quite amazing but requires more forethought. Mix equal parts honey and water in a small saucepan and warm until the honey is dissolved (best not to boil). Store in a jar in the refrigerator.

Maple syrup: one of the best sweeteners around that we use when we get a hankering for a Fifth Route. Luckily it can also be used for waffles and so never goes to waste.

Other syrups and soda water: When we want a gin & tonic, we use a tonic syrup (Jack Rudy makes a fine one, but there are others). Reasons for this: no high-fructose corn syrup, no need to use the whole bottle right away (like bottled tonic water, which will go flat), and syrup has the benefit that you can add a little or a lot, depending on preference. If you don't always have soda water in your fridge, however, I recommend Fever Tree brand tonic water, which makes tiny bottles of delicious tonic that can be found at higher end markets.

Other syrups, usually fruity, are great, easy to make (we just whipped out a batch of rhubarb syrup), and are a fun substitute for simple syrup. They do go bad, so if you make a batch, remember to use them up… Syrups are also handy for mocktails! For example: mix a little rhubarb syrup, lime juice, and soda water and suddenly the non-drinking guest feels cared for.


We have a small library of different kinds of bitters, used 1-2 dashes at a time. We like them! However, as with other things, we tend to like them simple (aromatic, orange, cardamom…). Complex bitters (such as lavender/grapefruit/hops…) can be confusing and might not get used unless we make a conscious effort to fit them with a specific drink. To start, get some sort of aromatic bitters, as well as orange bitters. If you end up digging bitters will have ample opportunity to experiment. If you are  a patient person, you can make your own bitters.


A shaker (we highly recommend an insulated one). Non-insulated shakers will sweat and often leak all over the place.

A jigger. Exact measurements are important! Get a jigger that measures ½ ounce to 2 ounces.

Hawthorne strainer. Essential for stirred drinks.

Small, sharp knife for slicing open fruit and for cutting your citrus twists.

Lemon/citrus squeezer. Fresh juice is a must.

Small glasses. I would recommend a variety of shapes, sizes, decorations, and colors for maximum enjoyment. Etsy and your local thrift store are all packed with eras worth of amazing glassware.

That’s it! Ready to have a drink? We have recipes for whiskey cocktails and gin cocktails. Recipes are also sprinkled throughout the site, but most should be found in the Cocktail Index.

Laurel Hunter

Laurel Hunter

Central Oregon, USA