Know your dark rum from your dry gin? A Virgin Wines expert gives cocktail making tips

A woman using her phone in a swimming pool, with a cocktail next to her
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by Limara Salt
13 May 2022

Bars are open, the weather’s getting warmer and according to a leading supermarket, retro cocktails are making a comeback. And while we love intently watching a professional create a concoction, making cocktails at home isn’t as hard as you may think.

Cocktails can be not only easy to create, but the final touch to throwing a banging bash. Virgin Wines’ Head Spirits Buyer Dave Roberts knows a thing or two about mixing a cracking cocktail, and as summer approaches, he’s here to give you the best tips for getting started.

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Start small

Thanks to movies like 1988’s Cocktail and popular city bars, we’ve been inundated with images of fancy concoctions created by bartenders throwing bottles in the air and behind their backs, but if you’re new to mixology you should focus on perfecting the basics.

According to Dave, “going for a cocktail that is too difficult and getting into a muddle” is a major mistake most newcomers make. “Start with something simple, nail it and then crank up the difficulty.” Cocktails with fewer ingredients like a classic Negroni, Martini, or Cosmopolitan are not only still popular, but a great place to start for any newbies.

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Choose carefully for parties

A steady stream of tasty cocktails is a sure-fire way to be a hit as a host, but choosing the wrong options can either make you a busy bartender all night, fretting as key ingredients run out, or getting your guests a little too merry. Firstly, a well-crafted cocktail will make any guest feel welcome.

“Welcome drinks are a great way to start things off and easy to do with a bottle of fizz and a few liqueur options like crème de cassis, crème de peche or crème de framboise,” explains Dave. “A dash on the bottom of a flute topped up with your fizz of choice and a fruity garnish” is elegant and suitable for most palates.

It is said that punch bowls were originated by the British in the late 17th Century, and the modern incarnation - a cocktail jug - is a great way to keep drinks flowing. According to Dave “classics like a Mojito can easily be sized up and will allow people to help themselves and free up your time as host”.

But beware of anything too strong like the aforementioned Negroni; “it’s a crowd pleaser - easy to make and make well - but they are potent, so be careful not to ruin your guests!”

Invest in the necessities

Not having the right tools is one of the reasons people shy away from making cocktails at home, and while there are fancy gift sets available there’s no need to deviate from the staples. “Not all cocktails require a full kit, but it is worth having most stuff to hand,” Dave says.

Regular kitchen utensils like a chopping board, peeler (for garnish) and sharp knife are on the list, as well as a stirring spoon. More specific cocktail tools include “a shaker you can also use as a stirring glass, a muddler (to mash fruits, herbs and spices), a strainer, and a jigger so the measurements are accurate,” explains Dave.

Don’t forget a non-alcoholic option

Whether your guest is a teetotaller, the designated driver or just doesn’t want to drink alcohol, it’s important to always have some mocktails on hand. Luckily there are numerous alternatives these days for those who love the taste of cocktails but don’t want the alcohol content.

“There are a whole host of non-alcoholic spirits and drinks on the market these days, so abstainers can be catered for easily,” explains Dave. “Personally, the gin alternatives are decent, so offering a non-alcoholic G&T and having a selection of booze-free beers is always handy.”

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Keep cupboards stocked for cocktails

While parties give us time to prepare, it’s also nice to have ingredients on hand for a random Friday night when you fancy a tipple at home. Dave recommends trying to keep the most popular spirits in stock (vodka, rum, whisky, gin, tequila, bourbon) along with extras like crème de cassis, Angostura bitters, triple sec and grenadine syrup.

The only items that would require a last minute dash to the local are perishables like lemons and limes and a decent amount of herbs. With some mix of these items you’ll be surprised what you can rustle up.

Please drink responsibly.