It’s simple, if you want to know how to master the art of making cocktails at home, ask a bartender. According to Cuban-born, London-trained bartender and Hotel Starlino ambassador Karel ‘Papi’ Reyes, it’s all about who you’re making cocktails for. “My style of bartending is precise and methodical with an extreme focus on the guest. Whatever you want, I will make it,” he says. Unsurprisingly for someone who prides himself on “pushing out thousands of perfectly precise and delicious drinks for thousands of excited guests in a night”, Papi says it’s important to be consistent when you’re making cocktails.
For Natalie Ng, Vanguard Luxury Brands ambassador and owner of Door Knock bar in Sydney, the key to creating great drinks is “keeping it fun, simple and delicious”. Meanwhile, award winning bartender Jay Lambert’s philosophy is making drinks that are “simple, considered and flavour-focused”. He says: “You want to see people enjoy what you put in front of them.” From the key drinks trends of 2023 to new ways to twist the classics, here are the expert tips that will set you up for success.
According to Natalie, amateur mixologists will be inspired to play with new ways to add interesting flavours to DIY drinks. “Fermentation techniques are trending – you can see this with people already making their own kombuchas or pickles,” she says. “I also think people are also going to start expanding their search for more bespoke and cool cocktail liquors as well as vermouths.”
There’s also the trend towards aperitivo-style drinks – a laid-back and lower-alcohol style that’s perfectly suited to Australian summer drinking and entertaining. “In Australia, we set trends as much as we adopt them,” Papi says. I think we’ll continue to drive the low-alcohol cocktail trend, but social media plays a role too – the Sbagliato is having a moment.” Papi says Hotel Starlino Arancione Aperitivo is what you need to make your mates a less-sweet spritz to suit the 2023 mood. “The Spritz palate has needed this breath of fresh air for a while. It plays the classic role of the ‘orange’ Spritz but has far less sugar, is lighter and more fragrant and mixes with a wide range of wines and sodas,” he says.
Jay says batch cocktails are a summer trend to get behind, especially when you’re catering to a crowd. “When you’re having a party, make a punch so you can spend more time hosting and less time making drinks,” he says.
There are no hard and fast rules to what you should have in your home cocktail kit, but there are some pieces of equipment that will come in handy for making great drinks.
To get started, Jay recommends doing your research. “Think about the type or style of drinks you’d like to make and drink, and get the things you need for those. If you like old fashioneds, get some bitters and if you like making sours, have a good elbow citrus press.”
Most cocktails call for ice cubes, so stock up on moulds for making your own – the bigger, the better. “Spend money on large ice moulds!” Natalie explains large ice takes longer to melt, so this will slow down the dilution rate of your drinks so the flavours won’t get washed out. To make sure you’re not going to run out mid-party, Jay recommends: “Always have more ice than you think you need.”
A good cocktail shaker or mixing glass is also a must. “They don’t have to be expensive,” Natalie says, “but choose equipment that will stand the test of time…and your house parties! I love my mixing glass as I make a lot of martinis and margaritas at home.”
Like Jay, Natalie recommends using an elbow citrus press for squeezing fresh lemon or lime into the mix. If you don’t have one handy or you’re short of time, remember to pick up good-quality ready-to-use juices along with your spirits and liqueurs.
Jay says a good jigger is essential to measure accurately, and Papi seconds this – it’s the one bit of kit you won’t be able to do without. “A good measuring device is essential, everything else is replaceable,” he says. “Mason jars can be cocktail shakers, tongs can be citrus presses, but the most important thing is to be precise.”
Start collecting stylish modern or vintage glassware too. “If you invest in some good glasses, they’ll act as their own garnish,” says Papi.
Ready to shop for your next cocktail party? Diageo whisky ambassador Katie Nagar offers advice for getting yourself set up. “Buy one bottle of each major base spirit: whisky, gin, tequila, vodka, and rum, which will allow you to experiment with many different types of drinks,” she says. “Invest in an aromatic bitters and a dry vermouth and sweet vermouth, too.”
A bottle of your favourite spirit may be all you need to get started, but that can only take you so far in the creativity stakes. “Don’t underestimate how useful it is having different vermouths, liquors and bitters in your home bar,” says Natalie. “You’ll find it so much easier when creating new cocktails or falling in love with old classics.”
Papi agrees that premium spirits are a must if you want to develop a wide repertoire of drinks, but successful cocktails aren’t all about the hard stuff. “Never underestimate your quality mixers and aromatised wines, especially in summer,” he says. Natalie also recommends using top-notch mixers to elevate home cocktails. “I use good-quality sparkling water or soda,” she says. “I’m not a big fan of tonic so I always have gin and sodas.”
For home enthusiasts who want to garnish cocktails like a pro, there are so many ways to do it – whether you reach for ready-made garnishes designed for topping cocktails or surprise your guests with something outside the box. “Edible, aromatic or eye-catching garnishes are the best to impress – they really elevate your guests’ drinking experience,” says Natalie. “Whether you use edible flowers, herbs, fruit or even a little edible snack, your garnishes should add an extra level of wow factor and, most importantly, fun! I like to add a Malteser ball as well as the usual twist of orange to my old-fashioneds at home – people love it.”
Jay says all you really need for garnishing cocktails is “fresh fruit, a sharp knife and a quality peeler,” while Papi thinks you should raid your kitchen garden for herbs to garnish cocktails if you can. “Fragrant fresh things that grow on your balcony are always fun,” he says. “Other than that, make your garnish a different colour to your drink. The world doesn’t need any more ginger drinks garnished with ginger. Brighten it up!”
For Katie, the perfect garnish is about more than just the look. “People often get caught up in the visual appeal, but a great garnish should also enhance the aroma and flavour of the drink,” she says. “A garnish will help provide a ‘lift’ to your drink, but think about the best way to provide that boost, whether it’s a fresh herb, a wedge of lime, or the oils from orange zest.”
Want to make your home bar more sustainable? Try this tip from Kelham Waterfield of Sydney’s Hickson House Distilling Co. “Instead of peeling a whole vertical peel of a lemon for a martini, cocktail bars now cut a coin shape from the skin and use an old wine cap like a cookie cutter to perfectly shape it in a circle,” Kelham says. “It looks elegant and saves the fruit, so there’s less waste.”
Natalie’s favourite Australian cocktail ingredients include Tilde raw vodka, lemon verbena and local honey in all its variations. “Leatherwood, Beechworth, banksia… they all taste so different. You can use honey as a simple sweetener in your drinks instead of adding sugar syrup or caster sugar. You can even use it as a substitute for liqueurs. It completely changes the simplest of drinks and adds a whole new dimension of flavour.”
At this time of year, your inspiration for making cocktails at home can come from the foods that are going to be on your grazing table. “Try watermelon Palomas, frozen margaritas – just add your favourite fruit – or Vesper Martinis, which are perfect with all those salty cured meats or seafood,” Natalie says. Katie suggests experimenting with tropical cocktail twists using Aussie-grown mangoes. “Mango daiquiri, mango margarita, mango whisky sour – all delicious!” she says.
Papi says the basic spritz recipe is an easy base for experimenting with different flavours. “Your classic spritz is a healthy measure of Starlino, topped with prosecco and soda,” he says. “Start with that, play with those fragrant garnishes and then try new mixers – think kombucha or cold brew coffee instead of soda.”
If you really want to make drinks like a pro, always be open to inspiration and don’t be afraid to experiment. Natalie says the experience of eating and drinking at different restaurants at bars is often what inspires her to come up with new recipes. “Not even just what was on the menu, but sometimes the vibe or scent or even the conversations from that night can bring inspiration to me,” she says.
Create great-tasting G&Ts and other essential gin cocktails with Pure Origin Tasmanian Gin. Made in a traditional copper pot still, it has a classic juniper profile with herbal and floral notes.
Expand your repertoire of bitter liqueurs with Økar Bitter Amaro. With a bolder flavour than lighter citrus-driven aperitivi, it’s made using Australian botanicals including riberries, Davidson plums, native currants and wild thyme. For a native twist on Negroni, mix 30mL Økar Bitter Amaro, 30ml Aussie gin and 30mL sweet vermouth, then serve with ice and an orange wedge.
Try a tequila twist on classic gin, whisky and rum cocktails with award-winning VIVIR Tequila Reposado. This 100 per cent agave tequila is aged for 6 months in American oak bourbon barrels for a complex flavour that includes hints of vanilla, caramel and melted butter. For something simple and refreshing, pour it over ice and top with ginger ale.
Crafted from 100 per cent local ingredients including spring water, yeast from White Rabbit brewery and premium Australian grain, hops and oats, Tilde Australian Raw Vodka is made using low-intervention distillation and minimal filtration. Enjoy it with soda and lemon, or use it to make silky-smooth vodka martini cocktails.
Hotel Starlino Arancione Aperitivo is a bittersweet Italian orange vermouth made from Trebbiano wine and botanicals including grapefruit peel, elderflower, coriander and cloves. It’s delicious over ice or mixed with tonic, soda or sparkling wine.