We're living in the golden age of craft cocktails, and highly rated bars are opening monthly in Houston. In addition, we also have the world's largest liquor store, which proves that plenty of Houstonians like to kick back with a classic cocktail at home, or entertain there with friends. Here are ten things, in no particular order, to make mixing drinks at home a thing of leisure, not work.
10. Mezzetta Maraschino Cherries
If you want realistic maraschino cherries, locate some fresh Montmorency cherries and marinate them in Luxardo Maraschino liqueur for several days. They're expensive and almost authentic. For my money ($3.99), I prefer the classic fake American cherries, and nobody fakes them tastier than Mezzeta. Find them at Kroger.
9. Mayonnaise Jar
Never mind about boiling sugar and water together to make simple syrup. Just put equal parts white sugar and water together in a jar, shake it vigorously, wait five minutes and shake it again. The 1:1 simple syrup is room temperature and ready to mix, and one-fourth ounce of it is the same as one teaspoon of sugar.
Make sure you use filtered or bottled water. Houston tap water can be a bad mixer.
8. Double Jigger Shot
This OXO design is excellent, and better yet, it's available everywhere, from grocery stores to liquor stores. Its biggest advantage is that along with the usual shot (1 ounce) and jigger (1½ ounce), it has the smaller increments of ¼ and ½ and ¾ ounces, for today's more precise cocktails. It's available at Target for $9.49.
7. Citrus Tools
A true genius can make delicious margaritas with sour mix, but I've met only one of those saints. My general rule is: If at least half of your margarita's lime juice isn't fresh, you shouldn't be in charge of margaritas.
If you want to be an artiste de cocquetel, then by all means get a channel knife and use it for cutting edgy citrus garnishes. Otherwise, I've found the Kuhn-Rikon peeler to be reliable for flavorful twists. Available for $4 at Sur la Table.
6. Small Bar Cutting Board
Not essential, but you do not want to cut an orange slice for a Negroni and have it absorb garlic flavor from last night's marinara preparation. I know they're both Italian, but no.
I prefer the wooden muddler I got free with a bottle of Flor de Caña rum -- I like the feel of it -- but dishwasher-safe metal ones are available. The most amusing muddlers are the tiny wooden souvenir baseball bats. Required for mojitos, Southsides, mint juleps and when using a sugar cube in Sazeracs and Old-Fashioneds.
The spoon end is a 1-teaspoon measure, and the handle is usually twisty. Professional bartenders often order an expensive Japanese model. A fancy barspoon won't make you a better bartender, but a more stylish one? Sure. To be honest, I've never bought a barspoon, as I use a 1-teaspoon measuring spoon, and I stir everything with a pair of unfancy Japanese chopsticks.
When a cocktail calls for bitters, it's usually Angostura. Peychaud's bitters are the standard in a Sazerac, but even in Peychaud's hometown of New Orleans, many bartenders also add a few drops of Angostura to dry out the Sazerac and enhance the absinthe.
Orange bitters finish third on my list. Many bartenders use Gary Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, which you can order online. A recent innovation is an equal mix of Fee's Orange Bitters and Angostura orange bitters. The only time I used orange bitters was for the original Martini, which tastes of Windex.
2. Hawthorne Strainer
I always wondered why a bartender needed to strain the ice from a cocktail, only to pour it over more ice. I discovered why when a cocktail and ice plopped into an empty rocks glass and splashed all over a woman. She never drank with me again.
A fine-mesh strainer is used to strain pulp from lemon juice for a smoother, clearer cocktail, such as a Sidecar.
The OXO Hawthorne is available at Target, $7.39.
1. Boston Shaker
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There's dozens of exquisite three-piece cocktail shakers, but nothing beats the professional Boston Shaker. You mix the cocktail in the clear pint glass, add ice, put the metal shaker firmly on top of the glass, invert the whole device and start shaking.
At first it seems hazardous, like the two parts are going to disastrously come apart and spray your house with a sticky daiquirí. In actuality, the ice quickly contracts the metal shaker and forms a perfect seal around the top of the glass.
Shake the cocktail 40 times, until the metal starts getting too cold to handle. If you can't get the glass off of the shaker, pop the metal shaker against a counter, just below where the top of the glass seals it, and the seal will be broken.
Don't get too involved with the shaking, or like too many good bartenders, you could get hurt. The most common Boston Shaker, the stainless steel Co-Rect, is easy to find, and cheap. The retro pint glass has 1-ounce increments that are indeed correct, and cocktail recipes that are, at best, In-Co-Rect. For a better view of the drink you are mixing, just replace it with a clear pint glass. You can get one at the world's largest liquor store for about $9.