Eventually, spring will arrive and you will have friends over for cocktail parties—we promise. So, how are your bartending skills? We asked local experts for their advice on simple, DIY ingredients that will make your drinks shine, from fresh-squeezed juice to infused liquors. In most cases, you're saving money compared to buying pre-made bottles or jars, and your cocktails will taste fresher if you use your own ingredients. Don't be intimidated; just imagine the tangy daiquiris and refreshing mojitos that await. email@example.com | @redeyeeatdrink
What you'll need: Gardening pot or container, potting soil, herb seeds or seedlings
Expert advice: Sara Gasbarra, lead gardener at Verdura, launched her business a year ago to help Chicago restaurants and bars that wanted to grow their own herbs and vegetables on-site but didn't know where to begin. She recommends basil and mint as the obvious choices for a home cocktail garden, but said that within those categories there are plenty of varieties—Thai basil, mojito mint, chocolate mint—that can add complexity to drinks. Lemon verbena is an overlooked herb, Gasbarra said, but it's easy to grow and has a delicate lemon flavor that works well when made into syrups. Sorrel also is a citrusy herb to grow alongside basil and mint. Whichever plants you choose, Gasbarra said, you're likely doing yourself a favor versus buying herbs from the grocery store. "When you buy those packets, you use a small amount and the rest sits in the fridge and gets old," she said. "Many of the herbs you can grow at home are cut-and-come-again. As you cut them, you help the plant produce more." She suggests shopping for seedlings at Green City Market (indoors until May at 2430 N. Cannon Drive), Gethsemane Garden Center (5739 N. Clark St.) or City Escape (3022 W. Lake St.).
What you'll need: Citrus juicer, mesh strainer, citrus fruits
Expert advice: Punch House bartender—and RedEye's Best Bartender 2014 winner—Carlos Matias III knows his way around a juicer, since citrus is one of the major components in most punch recipes. He said that even if you only have a basic home citrus press, it's worth using it to make your own lemon, lime or grapefruit juice (which taste great with tequila, Matias adds). "It really does change a drink's flavor," Matias said. "If you're using fresh citrus, you're going to have crisp notes in your cocktail versus [bottled juices] falling flat." Try to select ripe fruits, and roll them under your palm on a table before juicing to tenderize them. Consider peeling a bit of rind from the lemon or lime before juicing it, too, since you can use that as a garnish or add it to your cocktail shaker for additional bitterness in the drink. Matias recommends straining your juices after squeezing them to remove pulp, then placing them in an air-tight container in your fridge, where they can last a day or two. Bonus: Once you have fresh juices, you can make your own sour mix (vastly fresher tasting than the bottled stuff) by combining equal parts lemon or lime juice with simple syrup.
What you'll need: Sugar, water, microwave or stove top, microwave-safe bowl or pot, herbs or spices
Expert advice: Revae Schneider, founder of cocktail consultancy Femme du Coupe, created her own line of gourmet cocktail syrups called Le Sirop in flavors such as ginger and blueberry-lavender. She said making cocktail syrups at home doesn't even have to involve your stove; try combining equal parts water and sugar (that's simple syrup) plus an herb or spice, then dissolving the sugar by bringing it to just before boiling in the microwave. Remove the bowl, strain out the herb or spice, cool the mixture and voila: flavored syrup. Whole cinnamon sticks, pink peppercorns, peeled ginger root and citrus zest all are easy to work with. Schneider said fruit is a tempting addition to syrup but can get messy, so when she wants to add a dash of fruit and sweetness to a drink, she reaches for a small spoonful of fruit jam.
What you'll need: Bottle of a base spirit, large pitcher or jar, herbs/spices/fruit, strainer or cheesecloth
Expert advice: At CH Distillery cocktail bar, beverage director Krissy Schutte infuses the West Loop distillery's two gins, bourbon and vodka with flavors ranging from lapsang souchong tea to chestnuts. For home bartenders, Schutte suggests starting with vodka infused with herbs (such as rosemary) or serrano chilies, which can be a base for spicy cocktails or bloody marys. Pour the bottle of vodka, gin or whichever spirit you've chosen into a pitcher or jar, then submerge the herbs or chilies. Cover and wait. "You can infuse the spirit for anywhere from one to 48 hours," Schutte said. "Just keep tasting. You definitely want to monitor it. You can always start with less [herbs or chilies] and add more." Once you've reached the desired flavor, strain the mixture through a mesh strainer or cheesecloth and funnel it back into its original bottle.
See our entire home bartending guide and learn which essential bottles and tools to stock for your home bar. Copyright © 2015, RedEye