Holiday cocktail parties are in full swing! To learn how to create classic cocktails at home, we turned to Rich Bubbico, the General Manager at Schiller’s Liquor Bar in New York. Here, he shares his best tips for mixing drinks: when to shake, when to stir, and the best drinks to serve a crowd. Get inspired, stock your bar, and start mixing!
What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when mixing cocktails at home?
Knowing when to shake a cocktail and when to stir one is very important. A cocktail that consists solely of ingredients with delicate flavors, such as a Manhattan or a Negroni, has to be stirred. This avoids overly-diluting them and also helps maintain balance. Any cocktail that has juice or egg whites should be shaken.
What are 3 essential tools you should have on your bar?
A Boston shaker, a Hawthorne strainer, and a Julep strainer. The Boston shaker has two parts: a mixing glass and a stainless steel shaker, so you can do a lot with that. If you need to strain right from the mixing glass (as you will if you are stirring the drink) you will need a Julep strainer. If you shake it, you will pour out of the stainless steel shaker, and for that you will use the Hawthorne strainer.
Tell us about stocking a bar. What are the basic spirits and mixers people should have?
You want to have good quality spirits: whiskey (bourbon, scotch, rye), vodka, gin, rum and tequila. Good bitters are also incredibly important; without bitters, a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned would be naked. Lemon juice is essential, and lime juice is important. Club soda, tonic and ginger ale are also key ingredients to have on hand. It’s also vital to have some vermouth, both sweet and dry. A great deal of classic cocktails require vermouth.
My answer for both is the Manhattan. It’s aromatic and it’s not a terribly complicated cocktail to make, but if done well there’s nothing better. In my opinion, it is the perfect cocktail.
What are the best cocktails for holiday entertaining?
Choose a drink that can be made in bulk. Make a large batch of eggnog (I know it’s cliché, but eggnog is really good if you make it from scratch) or punch. Making a large batch is great, because then you don’t have to worry about tending bar while everyone else is enjoying the party. Punches that have flavors and aromas of the season are good. Use ingredients such as allspice and cloves for those cold winter nights. Cinnamon sticks make a great garnish in the fall and winter. Warm cocktails are also a good option; the aromas really add to the holiday vibe. mulled wine, hot buttered rum and toddies are all great options.
Any tips for serving cocktails to a crowd?
As I said earlier, figure out a cocktail that you can make as a large batch: margaritas, Bloody Marys, Tom Collinses or sangria. You can prep them in advance and simply pour over ice and enjoy. If you are hosting a party, do the work in advance so you don’t have to worry about it once the party starts.
What are some guidelines for quantities (i.e. How much you need per guest)?
Think about how many drinks you will need and then double it. You don’t want to run out in the middle of the party. Worst-case scenario, you will have leftover booze. Luckily, it doesn’t go bad.
Any tips for taking home cocktails to the next level? Secret ingredients?
Powdered rhinoceros horn? There’s really no secret ingredient. The cocktails that we make at the bar at Schiller’s all use very simple ingredients. Again, I will stress the importance of bitters. It has less to do with secret ingredients — or ingredients at all for that matter — than with finesse. That comes with practice.
What are some of your favorite presentation ideas?
I really love the classics. A mint julep in a silver cup with crushed ice is such an elegant presentation.
Why does it matter what glassware you use?
Consider the classic martini glass. It’s functional, elegant, and beautiful. To the majority of the public, it’s just a glass. But if you really consider the design, it’s purposefully beautiful. It has a stem that keeps your hand from warming the cocktail. It has a wide top that puts the cocktail right in front of your nose so that when you take that first sip you will notice all of the aromatic elements of the drink.
As well-designed as that glass is, however, it’s best not to serve a glass of Champagne in it. That’s why the flute exists: it has a long slender cup to limit the amount of exchange between the air and the Champagne. I think by simply considering those two very functional glasses you can pick up the importance of glassware design.
What are some creative garnishes people can easily make at home? Why garnish at all? What does it add to the drink?
Garnishes that are too flashy are not necessary. A lemon twist or a lime wheel is simple yet elegant and, at the same time, functional. Consider a lemon twist: it contains essential oils that add an aromatic flair and imparts some citrus flavors to the drink. It also makes the drink look elegant. So, yes, garnishes are important, but I am not one to carve a rosebud out of a melon. Simplicity is a good thing.
Does the size of the ice cube matter? What’s the purpose of larger ice cubes in cocktails?
It really depends on the drink. Smaller cubes will chill more efficiently, but there’s so much more surface area that it will result in diluting the drink. The idea behind putting one big rock in a whiskey, for instance, is to avoid diluting the whiskey. A larger piece of ice will melt at a slower rate.
Check out the new book Schiller’s Liquor Bar, featuring recipes for classic cocktails and tips for making great drinks at home.