Tips on becoming a better home bartender from cocktail expert Madeleine MacDonald

Stock up, get sorted and get set to become the best at-home bartender you can be this spring and summer

The grass is turning green, buds on the trees are ready to burst with vibrant, little leaves, the temperature is rising... My friends, it finally feels like spring. With warmer weather comes the inherent nature to want to entertain. I don't know about you, but my backyard is aching to have a few friends over for some (socially distant) drinks and feel-good conversations.

I've tapped an expert to provide some great tips on what to get stocked up on and how you can flex your creative cocktail muscles throughout these warmer months.

After working behind the bar at some of Calgary's top restaurants, including Model Milk and Calcutta Cricket Club, Madeleine MacDonald now teaches hospitality students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Here, MacDonald shares her insight from her career as an award-winning bartender in hopes of helping you (and me) feel like a confident home bartender when happy hour comes calling.

Essential cocktail equipment to have at home

A Boston shaker set and a fine mesh strainer. They're not “equipment” technically, but you should always make sure to have lots of ice!”

Spirits to stock up on outside of the usual suspects

Good quality vermouth (both sweet and dry), a few liqueurs in any flavours you like, Cointreau or some other type of dry curacao and [a mix of] bitters.

Are different brands of spirits interchangeable in a cocktail?

For the most part, yes. Whiskies, rye, bourbon and Canadian whisky can oftentimes be interchangeable, but Scotch and Japanese whisky, not as much. With gin, try to use similar botanical builds. If the gin is citrus-forward, try to use something that has those types of flavours within it. Rum cocktails can often work with bourbon depending on if it is a sweeter style or not.

Definitely experiment! That is how new cocktails are created by your favourite bartenders.

No muddler, no problem?

If you are muddling berries or other fruits, a spoon or even the end of a narrow rolling pin can work. If the recipe calls for herbs, simply remove the leaves from the stem, pile the leaves in your hand and clap with them between your palms before adding them to the shaker or mixing glass. This will release the essential oils without bruising the herbs.

Ok, I didn’t take your advice to buy a shaker. What to do?

A water bottle, a protein shaker, or even Tupperware will work. When shaking in something that is made with plastic, make sure you shake your cocktail for [a bit] longer since plastic is not a good conductor of temperature.

And I can’t find my strainer...

If you have a two-piece set, you can flip the glass part of the Boston over and drop it into the tin. You could use a home fine strainer if you need to, just try to hold back the used ice with whatever you've got and strain onto new ice. The ice in your "shaker" will be bruised and melt very quickly, diluting your drink.

On the topic of fresh juice versus bottled

Fresh is always best, but oftentimes, it is expensive.

Fine Food Stop in Calgary has some awesome products from Drink Arte. It is a cold pressed juice that is pasteurized that will keep in your fridge for longer than something freshly pressed.

If you are using Real Lime or Real Lemon or other store bought juices, you might have to lower the amount of juice you use. These products are very acidic compared to fresh products.


Barrel-aging and batch cocktailing; just for the experts?

If you have a barrel, you definitely could throw something in there to age it. Make sure you do not add the juice, syrups or bitters to the barrel as those things do not age well or they will ruin your barrel. I usually age things for up to a month. You can always check it and if you want more flavour from the barrel, leave it in there.

As for batch cocktails, this is really easy to do. You can take any recipe and just multiply the ingredients. Be careful with the amount of citrus and syrups when you’re multiplying the original recipe.

I usually start with less and taste as I go. You can always add more, but you can't take away.

Also when converting recipes, remember that 1oz. equals 30mL. This way, you can use a liquid measuring cup instead of pouring shot by shot.

Should I be intimidated about using egg white in a cocktail?

It can be intimidating at first. I would not make egg white drinks without the proper tools. If you are making any type of egg white drink, make sure that the cocktail has citrus involved, as it will kill any bacteria from the egg white.

It is also important to do a dry shake first. This means you add all the ingredients to the shaker, shake without ice to emulsify the egg white. Next, add ice and shake again.

How do you make a simple syrup and what is an easy way to infuse flavours into it?

Simple syrup is essential in balancing cocktails and adding mouth feel. It is normally equal parts sugar and water. Add this to a pot and heat it until all the sugar is dissolved. You can bottle this and keep it for up to two weeks. I usually make my simple syrup with two parts sugar to one part water. This creates a rich simple syrup that adds more mouth feel to your drinks as well as help to control dilution.

You can add almost anything to the simple syrup while its cooking to infuse it: fruits, vegetables, herbs or spices. Once the sugar dissolves, remove the pot from the heat and let it cool. Strain off the solids and store for up to two weeks.

Does having a variety of glassware make a difference? Won't my martini taste the same in a rocks glass as it would in a martini glass?

Your martini will definitely taste the same in any glass; in fact, most cocktails do. The only exception might be long drinks, something like a Tom Collins or a Paloma need a Collins glass or something similar to get the proportions of soda to cocktail correct.

What is a simple, but impressive classic cocktail recipe I can master to impress my friends?

Stirred: Manhattan, Bijou or Negroni

Shaken: Margarita, Sidecar, any type of buck

Built: Any variation of a spritz. These are amazing summer drinks and so easy to make!