Keep your spirits up: Classic cocktails and DIY tips to help you become a bartender at home

Myffy Rigby
Continental Deli bartender Mikey Nicolian behind his home bar.
Continental Deli bartender Mikey Nicolian behind his home bar. Photo: Louie Douvis

Greetings from quarantine. Population: the world. Social distancing has meant the closing of venues worldwide, just at the time when we could really use a stiff drink. But if Hemingway managed to get a decent cocktail during the Spanish flu, we can damn well do it too.

For a lot of us, when we want a bone-dry martini, sweet Manhattan or an ice-cold daiquiri shaken to within an inch of its life, we've simply gone to a bar.

But since there aren't any of those left, we're going to have to learn to do what our booze-loving ancestors did before us: DIY.

Whether you're drinking solo or having virtual cocktail hour with your besties (if you're not on Zoom, you're not living; download it immediately), we've got you covered.

The classic drinks you need to know how to make

Now, for the record, this is not the forum to get fussy about specific types of bitters and the historical accuracy of the use of a twist over a cocktail cherry. This is simply a guide to the drinks I make at home, using my methods.

The Age, Good Food. Di Stasio Citta Bar for story on the coolest Bars in Australia. ic Simon Schluter 23 August 2019

A martini with extra olives at Di Stasio Citta in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

The martini

If you can make a martini, you can make anything. All you need is gin, ice and dry vermouth. I like a dash of grapefruit bitters in mine too, but if you don't have any, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's as cold as possible.

Now, a martini is a highly personal drink. Some people like them bone-dry, which means a whisper of vermouth (Winston Churchill liked his sans the fortified wine, and was happy if the vermouth was simply in the same room as his gin). Some like a wet martini, which means more vermouth and less gin. Others like it dirty, which is basically a very wet martini with a good slug of olive brine.

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My advice is to play around with the measurements until you find the combination that works best for you. And if you make too much, you can always bottle the leftovers and pop it in the fridge for later.

To nail the martini, you will need ...

30ml gin

10ml dry vermouth

dash of grapefruit bitters

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Measure out the ingredients, and stir down until the ice frosts up the glass. Martinis can never be too cold. Strain, and serve "up" in a cocktail glass, dashing the bitters into the finished drink.

Martini variations

This is the fun bit. Once you have a martini down, you can turn it into just about anything.

Take out the bitters and add a couple of pickled onions and you have a Gibson.

Take out the vermouth and sub in a crushed up, bitters-soaked sugar cube, and you have a gin old-fashioned.

Replace the dry vermouth with sweet vermouth and a dash of maraschino liqueur, and you have yourself a Martinez – the precursor to the martini.

Sub half the gin for vodka and replace the vermouth with Lillet Blanc and you have yourself a Vesper (the only martini that should be shaken, not stirred).

Manhattan cocktail drink decorated on bar counter in pub or restaurant.

A couple of perfect Manhattans maintaining social distancing. Photo: iStock

The Manhattan

A perfect storm of dark, rich sweetness stirred down into aromatic dryness that can be enjoyed on the rocks or straight up. This is also a drink you can pre-batch and the amount of sweet vermouth you choose to add (to make your Manhattan sweet, dry or perfect) is a matter of personal taste.

The more you make your own drinks, the more you'll come to be more familiar with and trust your own palate. The books tell you to use Angostura bitters in this drink, but given the amount of incredible bitters on the market now, there's room to move. Just because that's what they used at the Manhattan Club in the late 19th century, doesn't mean we have to do the same in Australia, 2020. Heresy, you say? Come at me.

To create this punch in the kisser, you will need ...

30ml rye

15ml sweet vermouth

bitters

a cocktail cherry or a twist of lemon

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Measure out the ingredients, and stir down until the ice frosts up the glass. Strain, and serve "up" in a cocktail glass, or over ice in a rocks glass (I think this is way cooler than a coupe, but you do you), dashing the bitters into the finished drink and garnishing with a cocktail cherry or three.

Manhattan variations

Some of my favourite drinks are Manhattan variations. The old-fashioned, of course, is the ultimate: all you do is take out the vermouth and replace with a crushed, bitters-soaked sugar cube and build the rest over ice.

Apply the same idea and go one step further by halving the rye and replacing with Cognac for that New Orleans favourite, the sazerac.

For a Rob Roy, you just take out the rye completely and replace with scotch.

The Negroni Royale is what our writer dubs 'possibly the most delicious goddamn drink I've ever tried'.

The world's easiest cocktail: the negroni. Photo: Supplied

The negroni

This is the perfect bitter and herbaceous drink for desk-side cocktail hour, and takes less effort and time than making a cup of tea.

Hey, if you were in Florence where this drink was born, you wouldn't blink at drinking one of these at 3pm – just serve it with a wedge of parmesan and a few olives and call it aperitivo.

The best thing is, because it's equal parts of everything, you can make this drink three sheets to the wind and still come out looking like a genius.

Here's how to make the world's easiest cocktail

30ml gin

30ml sweet vermouth

30ml Campari

​orange peel

Pour everything into a rocks glass filled with ice. Give it a stir with a swizzle stick, and if you want to really impress yourself and the people you're being held captive with, twist an orange peel over the glass.

Negroni variations

When it comes to variations on the negroni, we could be here all day. From the negroni sbagliato, where gin is replaced with sparkling wine and a dash of soda water, to the Americano, which omits the gin in favour of a dash of soda water.

The rosita replaces gin with reposado tequila (woof!), while an old pal subs out the gin and sweet vermouth with rye and dry vermouth, respectively.

A white negroni marries white vermouth and the much-harder-to-come-by white Campari together for a sort of albino twist on the classic.

I far prefer the boulevardier – another New Orleans classic – that subs out the gin for bourbon, with an orange twist.

The DIY lover's guide to making a cocktail kit with found objects

Impress your friends! Impress yourself in the mirror!

Don't have a stirring glass, spoon and fancy strainer?

No stress – a jug or vase will do the trick, as will a chopstick to stir with. A tea strainer over the glass will work just fine in place of a Hawthorn strainer.

Making margaritas or daiquiris with no shaker?

Use a Mason jar/tupperware to shake everything except the ice together (the ice could crack the jar, which would be a disaster for everyone involved). Dip your glasses in water and pop them in the freezer overnight for super cold glassware.

Fancy a negroni, martini or Manhattan but feeling low on energy?

Consider pre-batching on a high energy day. Stir down enough ingredients for, say, five drinks and then pour into a sterilised jar or glass bottle. Refrigerate, and pour over a couple of cubes of ice when you're ready to toast the end of the world.

Does all your booze suck because you've drunk the good stuff already?

Help is at hand from Continental Deli's head bartender, Mikey Nicolian. He suggests raiding your spice rack and infusing that 10-year-old bottle of bottom-shelf vodka with aromats such as coriander seeds, cinnamon quills and star anise. You can even use those spices to get funky with your sugar syrups if you don't want to commit them to straight alcohol. Or make a series of spiced salts for your margaritas and bloody marys.

No ice cube trays to make lovely stylish ice?

Use the plastic takeaway containers you've invariably been stockpiling since the start of the pandemic, and fill them with water and freeze. To get nice chunks to stir down in your drinks, simply take the ice out of the container, wrap in a tea-towel and use a hammer to break into pieces.

Back-of-the-fridge cocktail tricks

Over to you, Archie Rose Distilling Company's cocktail agony aunt Rachelle Hair...

I have a whole lot of hot sauces and seasonings and more tomato juice than I know what to do with. What can I make?

A bloody mary! In a tall glass, combine a couple of dashes of Maggi seasoning and hot sauce with a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, 15ml of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, a shot of vodka and half a cup of tomato juice. Garnish with whatever you have in the fridge.

I found a couple of Beroccas in the back of the cupboard, and half a lemon in the fridge. Can I do anything with those?

You bet. You've got yourself a Corona Reviver#2 right there. Dissolve your Berocca in a cup of water, add 15ml of honey, 30ml of lemon juice and 30ml of distiller's strength gin. Shake vigorously over ice and serve in a tall glass.

I've run out of proper coffee – all I have is this five-year-old tin of Blend 43 and a box of oat milk a visitor left. Is there any hope for me?

Hope is at hand. You can make a lo-fi espresso martini. And any substitute will do here (soy milk, pea milk, almond milk). Combine 45ml of vodka, an egg white, a teaspoon of sugar syrup, a teaspoon of milk, and a shot of dissolved instant coffee in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass.