The Curious Bartender himself Tristan Stephenson has a new book out next month which is specifically designed for making cocktails at home. Here he reveals some of his top tips for making drinks like a pro, without leaving your house. Plus three delicious simple recipes.
“I enjoy having friends over for dinner, but must confess that I rarely make cocktails for my guests. It’s for the simple fact that I find mixing drinks at home a bit of a chore.” Not a very promising start to a cocktail book, you might think. But then The Curious Bartender Cocktails at Home is a book with a difference because it’s specifically designed with the domestic setting in mind.
Domestic vs professional
“A professional bar station and a domestic kitchen have very little in common with one another,” he writes, “asking a top bartender to make world-class drinks at home is no easier than expecting a Michelin star chef to produce a tasting menu from scratch in a domestic kitchen.”
There’s no doubt Stephenson is a top bartender. He began his career tending bars in Cornwall, including being in the opening team for Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in Newquay. Following a stint as a brand ambassador for Diageo, he opened a series of bars in London. Today he has two venues: “we’ve got Black Rock, the whisky bar in London and the restaurant Surfside down here in Cornwall,” he told me when I spoke to him last week. But he’s best known as the prolific writer of the Curious Bartender books covering all aspects of drinks. This latest book is partly a greatest hits compilation and partly about Stephenson relearning how to make drinks out of a professional environment.
“Most of them [drinks books] don’t tend to address the sort of fundamental issues of making cocktails in the kitchen. How to organise your space. What the basics are to have in your fridge and/or freezer. How much ice you’re going to need. What basic equipment you’re going to need. What equipment you can sub for that equipment if you don’t want to go out and buy brand new cocktail shakers and jiggers and all this sort of thing,” he said.
Because of lockdown Stephenson had to learn to be a home bartender, something he had never really done before. He even thinks that the amateur is at an advantage in some ways: “because as a home bartender you’re starting from square one, you have no expectations of how efficient you should be when you’re making cocktails,” he said.
Ice ice baby
Amazingly, when lockdown hit, Stephenson was making do with a broken half of a plastic ice tray! Which is crazy because the first thing that he stresses is the importance of ice when making cocktails. “You’re going to need about three times as much ice as you think you’re going to need!” he said, “everyone always underestimates ice quantities.”
You’ll be pleased to know that he now has a set of silicon trays bought from a well-known online retailer and then, he said: “whenever you’re accessing the freezer, dump that ice into the drawer and refill it. Make a habit out of it because you will go through ice at an alarming rate.”
“Kitchens just aren’t really very well set up for making cocktails. I mean you don’t have an ice well, your ingredients that you use for cocktails tend to be scattered around all over the place rather than in a convenient area,” he said. So when cocktailing, Stephenson recommends getting all your equipment, bottles etc in one place. “I would recommend doing it with some sort of syrup and things at the ready. It’s worth making them in bulk and just keeping them in the fridge so that they’re good to go,” he added.
The right equipment
“Let’s set the record straight from the start: you don’t need lots of fancy equipment to make great drinks at home: Most of the drinks featured in this book can be produced with nothing more than a jigger, a cocktail shaker, a barspoon and a good supply of ice.” He even says that a cocktail shaker can be subbed with a plastic container or jam jar with a lid. Not what you’d expect a professional bartender to say. His advice is to keep it functional.
As for glassware: “90% of cocktails can be served in one of three glasses: coupe, Highball and Old Fashioned (also known as rocks),” he said. He does, however, recommend having matching glasses “suitable for the number of people you’re making drinks for – which at the moment I doubt is more than two!”
Stephenson’s Secret weapon
Finally, I asked him whether he had a secret weapon in this bartender’s arsenal: “I’d probably have to say sherry. A splash of dry sherry, be that fino or oloroso or amontillado, pretty much improves any cocktail. It adds that sort of nuttiness, that oak characteristic, especially with dark spirits. I tend to have a bottle of sherry in the fridge anyway, well, actually that’s a lie, it tends to get drunk and then I don’t have one! But I always say I have one… I always want to have one, in the fridge”.
Here are three delicious and simple cocktails from the book:
Salted Lime Rickey
50ml Plymouth Gin
15ml fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
Chilled soda water
This drink needs to be cold – like, really cold. If possible use glasses from the freezer and make sure that your ice is dry. Fill a Highball glass with chunks of ice; add the gin, lime and salt, then give it a good stir with a barspoon. While still stirring, pour the soda water in, learning a small space at the top. Add more cubed ice, stir some more and finish with a wedge of lime.
Corn ‘N’ Oil
Shake everything except the bitters with cubed ice and strain into an ice filled tumbler. Top with the bitters garnish with a lime wedge.
A few dashes of your favourite cocktail bitters (entirely optional)
Stir all the ingredients together in a mixing beaker with cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe. You can add a few dashes of bitters if you want to be cool and break the rules.
The Curious Bartender: Cocktails At Home by Tristan Stephenson, published by Ryland Peters & Small (£19.99) 13 April 2001. Photography by Addie Chinn © Ryland Peters & Small.