To make a great cocktail you need a great recipe, quality ingredients & good technique, with each preparation step followed in the right order. Our guide will take you through the basic steps & techniques needed to confidently start making cocktails yourself, whether you're a beginner home mixer or aspiring professional mixologist, you're sure to learn something new.

Table Of Contents

How to make a cocktail
How to make a cocktail.

How to Make a Cocktail: The Steps

The order of steps in making a cocktail is suggested as follows:

  1. Read the cocktail recipe careful, making sure you're familiar with the techniques & have all necessary ingredients
  2. Ensure you have a plentiful supply of ice & that all cocktail ingredients are available to hand
  3. Select a suitable cocktail serving glass (ideally pre-chilled)
  4. Prepare the garnish for your cocktail
  5. Carefully measure & poor ingredients into your mixing glass or cocktail shaker
  6. Add ice to the mixing glass or cocktail shaker
  7. Mix the ingredients (build, stir, shake etc.)
  8. Poor (or strain) the mixed ingredients into the cocktail serving glass (with ice if necessary)
  9. Add the garnish to the serving glass to complete your cocktail

The final step is of course to serve & enjoy!

If you use quality ingredients & do not take any shortcuts or substitute ingredients, then your cocktail should turn out just fine. There is of course a little more you should know about making a cocktail to help you on your way to mixogolist perfection - continue reading & you'll find out how to:

Getting the Ice Right

You will most likely be surprised by just how much ice you'll need on-hand when making cocktails at home & you'll be in for a shock when you hold a cocktail party. Strictly speaking, you should never use ice twice, using fresh ice for each step in shaking, stirring & serving your cocktail - even when using the same ingredients.

Good Ice

Good ice for cocktails is dry, thick & solid ice that melts slowly – the type that your fingers easily stick to. Bad ice for cocktails is easily chipped & feels wet – the type that would melt quickly in your hand. Why is this important? Poor ice, or ice that is used multiple times will overly dilute your cocktails – both during the mixing & when being consumed making the drinking experience far less pleasurable.

Bagged Ice

Bagged ice is readily available in most supermarkets nowadays & is by far the easiest way of getting a lot of ice on hand, quickly. If buying ice, go for brands with thick solid cubes rather than hollow tube or crushed ice. Crushed ice can always be prepared in an ice crusher, or by placing ice into a thick plastic freezer bag & bashing gently with a tenderiser or rolling pin.

Preparing Ice at Home

If preparing ice for cocktails at home, choose a couple of ice trays that make large chunky ice cubes rather than the smaller or gimmicky shaped ice cube types available. It is also a good idea to have a freezer storage container or Tupperware that you can place frozen ice cubes into from your tray. This will allow you to prepare a more plentiful supply of ice cubes that you can scoop out as necessary when making your cocktails. If you’re unlucky & the water out of your home tap is tainted slightly with say, a chlorine taste, try using bottled water instead to prepare your ice.

When serving a cocktail, remember to always be generous & fill the glass with ice rather than adding just a few cubes.

Adding plenty of ice will make the drink colder, and the ice will last a little longer so there will be less dilution of the cocktail as it is drunk over time, making for an overall more pleasurable experience.

Essential Items to Help Prepare Ice

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Ice Cube Tray

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Ice Crusher

Selecting Cocktail Glassware

The glass is almost as important as the liquid that it contains - the appearance, shape, material, weight & balance of the glass effects the way we perceive & consume the drink inside. A cocktail takes time to prepare & contains luxurious spirits that have been carefully distilled & flavoured. As such, a cocktail deserves to be served in a glass that maximises enjoyment & demonstrates appreciation of the effort in preparation & quality of ingredients. Whatever the glass, it must be clean.

Essential Cocktail Glassware

For a fully stocked home bar cocktail cabinet there are four essential glasses you need to make the majority of cocktails:

  • Cocktail Glass
    You'll need either a classic V-shaped Martin glass, a coupe/coupette glass or perhaps a Nick & Nora glass to serve any drink that is "straight up", like the Martini or Manhattan cocktails. A smaller 12-16 cl (4-5.5 oz) sized glass is recommended so that the glass is almost filled when served. Any larger & you’ll start to look stingy. A cocktail is never served in a cocktail glass with ice.

  • Highball Glass
    Available in many styles, the highball glass is essential for serving cocktails over ice with a fizzy top-up, such as the Gin & Tonic, or Tom Collins cocktails. Here you’re looking for a glass that is 30-36 cl (10-12 oz). Aim for a smaller size than you might be used to – the large the glass the more you’re likely to dilute the cocktail.

  • Tumbler Glass
    Also known as a "Rocks" or "Old-Fashioned" glass, the Tumbler is a masculine, short, thick bottomed glass that makes you feel that you're holding a drink with importance - or at least something with lots of booze in it. Typically 18-24 oz (6-8 oz) in size but rarely filled to the top, they’re essential for serving boozy cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned or Negroni Cocktail.

  • Champagne Flute
    Although very stylish Champagne saucers are available, a flute holds its fizz for longer. A champagne glass is essential for serving cocktails such as the Bellini.

Four Essential Cocktail Glasses

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Cocktail Glass

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Highball Glass

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Tumbler Glass

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Champagne Flute

Useful Cocktail Glassware

Often useful for serving cocktails, the following glass types have a broad range of uses:

  • Wine Glass
    If you've only room for one type - choose a medium sized wine glass that is appropriate for both red & white wines. A medium sized wine glass is often filled with ice & used to serve spritzers, sangria & wine cooler cocktails.

  • Brandy Glass
    Often called a "Brandy Balloon" or "Snifter", the brandy glass is not only useful to serve - you guessed it - brandy, but also boozy delightfully aromatic cocktails, such as the B & B (Brandy & Benedictine). The large rounded bottom allows the glass to be cupped in the hand, warming the contents slightly so that it evaporates, while the narrow mouth traps the aroma inside allowing the drinker to enjoy the aroma. Most brandy glasses hold around 180 to 240 ml (6 to 8 oz.) of liquid.

  • Shot Glass
    Go for something fine looking &/or heavy weighted that shows respect & appreciation of the fine choice of spirits that you put inside. Also useful for serving layered cocktails, such as the B52.

  • Hurricane Glass
    Similar in volume to a Highball glass, an exotic, flared glass that adds a sense of the Caribbean to any juicy cocktail you’ll be serving. Essential for serving juicy or creamy cocktails, such as the Hurricane, Ramos Gin Fizz or Pina Colada. Note that its name stems from the “hurricane lamp” that shares the glass’s form & not the cocktail.

  • Port or Sherry Glass Useful for serving port & sherry.

Useful Glassware

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Medium Wine Glass

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Brandy Snifter

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Shot Glass

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Hurricane Glass

Special Cocktail Glassware

For those with more space, a fully stocked bar cabinet would also include more specialist cocktail glassware:

  • Toddy Glass
    The Toddy Glass is for any hot cocktail that you need to handle. Although a nice mug might suffice, a dedicated Toddy glass allows you to appreciate the colour & contents of the cocktail a little more, elevating it above your daily tea &/or coffee. Essential of course for serving an Irish Coffee or a Hot Toddy.

  • Margarita Glass
    Essential for serving Margarita cocktails.

  • Julep Tin
    Essential for serving a Julep cocktail.

  • Copper Mug
    Essential for serving a Moscow Mule.

Specialist Cocktail Glassware

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Toddy Glass

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Margarita Glass

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Julep Tin

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Copper Mug

Chilling Cocktail Glassware

Any drink served cold benefits from being served in a chilled glass. Sure you can add more ice, but chilled glassware keeps your cocktail cold for longer without diluting your ingredients. Ideally, any glassware you use should be chilled for up to half an hour in a freezer before use. This is particularly important for any cocktails that are served without ice in a martini, coupette or flute glass, such as the Martini or Manhattan cocktail.

Whilst chilling glassware in a freezer is the superior, not everybody has a freezer big enough to pre-chill their glassware, or can wait half an hour for their glass to chill. A good compromise is instead to fill the glass with ice & a little water before preparing your cocktails. The glass can then cool while your preparing your drink - just remember to discard the ice & water before pouring!

Warming Cocktail Glassware

To warm a glass place a bar spoon in the glass & fill with hot water. Then discard the water and pour into the drink. Only then remove the spoon - which helps disperse shock of the heat.

Preparing the Cocktail Garnish

Firstly, it is important to prepare your garnish before mixing ingredients with ice - that way you can finish & serve the drink as quickly as possible after mixing your cocktail, so that the cocktail does not become overly diluted as the ice melts while you rush to prepare the garnish.

The garnish is an important part of a well-made & presented cocktail, so there are a number of things to consider when preparing your garnishes.

When choosing fruit garnishes, select pieces of fruit that are juicy, whose skin do not posses imperfections because these will become blinding obvious when the cocktail is consumed.

If cutting your garnish into slices or wedges, use a sharp knife so that you can achieve a clean precise cut, & slice to a size that is appropriate for glass, while considering how much flavour you want to impart on the cocktail. You can store softer fruit in the refrigerator to make them a little firmer & easier to slice. Also remember to scrape away an seeds with the tip of your knife.

Not all garnishes should be place into the drink - some cocktail garnishes are only intended to sit on the rim of the glass, so that the aroma of the garnish is caught as the cocktail is consumed, adding to the experience.

When preparing citrus peel twists, use a paring knife rather than a peeler - this will give you finer control over the size & thickness of the citrus peel, while also allowing you to be perhaps a little more artistic - garnishes are an easy way of adding an all important personal touch to your cocktail creations.

Tools for Preparing Cocktail Garnishes

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Bar Knife

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Bar Chopping Board

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Citrus Peeler

Measuring Cocktail Ingredients

Measuring the relative proportion of ingredients accurately is a key part of making a cocktail that tastes as great as intended. To measure accurately a spirit measure or "jigger" is used. These are available in a range of sizes that are easiest & most accurate to use when measuring full quantities. Most commonly, each jigger will have to measures, for example, 30 & 15 ml (1 & 0.5 oz), top & bottom, respectively.

Many cocktails require quarter measures that must often be judged by eye. For this reason, straight-sided measuring 'jiggers' are preferable to make it easier to accurately judge three-quarter or quarter measures accurately.

For a home bar, it is useful to own two jiggers: a 22 / 45 ml (¾ / 1.5 oz) & a 15 / 30 ml (0.5 / 1 oz), ideally straight-sided, to accurately measure the majority of cocktail quantities you’ll ever need to make.

Useful Jiggers for Your Home-bar

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Jigger Small

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Jigger Large

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Stepped Jigger

Main Methods of Mixing Cocktails

1. Building

To 'build' a cocktail means to combine the ingredients into a serving glass, mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Some cocktails, such as a Gin & Tonic, Tom Collins, Americano or similar high-ball cocktails are "built" into the glass that they’re served in. Cocktails that require stirring for dilution are built into a mixing glass, whereas cocktail that require shaking are built into the cocktail shaker.

2. Stirring

Stirring the ingredients using a bar spoon in a mixing glass is trying to achieve more than just mixing the ingredients. When preparing your cocktail by stirring, you should be aiming to also cool & dilute the ingredients to the extent that you just take the edge off the burn from the alcohol, while keeping the drink crystal clear with no bubbles or ice shards. You might not believe it but achieving the perfect dilution without creating bubbles & cracking ice requires a gentle touch & takes a bit of practice.

For Stirring your Cocktails

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Bar Spoon

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Mixing Glass

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Japanese Bar Spoon

3. Shaking Cocktails

There are two ways of shaking a cocktail: the "wet shake" - shaking with ice - & the "dry shake" - shaking without ice.

i. How to Wet Shake

Wet shaking a cocktail involves building the ingredients into a shaker filled with ice, & briskly shaking the cocktail so that the ingredients are not only cooled, but also aerated & diluted - just enough - to take the edge off alcoholic burn of the spirits in the cocktail.

To wet shake a cocktail you need to:

  • Build the ingredients of the cocktail into the cocktail shaker
  • Fill your cocktail shaker to about 2/3rds with ice - using less ice may result in a cocktail that is not sufficiently cooled & is over-diluted
  • Place the lid on the cocktail shaker & hold the cocktail shaker together firmly in two hands (you may want to hold the shaker with a tea towel to stop your hands freezing)
  • Shake vigorously for approximately 15 to 20 seconds - or until condensation has formed on the outside of the cocktail shaker - remember to hold firmly!
  • Strain the ingredients into the cocktail serving glass

That's all there is too it, not much can go wrong; although as a general rule: remember to never shake fizzy ingredients!

ii. How to Dry Shake

Dry shaking is - put simply - shaking the ingredients in a cocktail without ice. This is common amongst cocktails containing cream &/or egg-whites because shaking without ice allows the ingredients to aerate & emulsify better giving a lighter mouth feel to the cocktails.

To dry shake a cocktail you need to:

  • Build the ingredients of the cocktail into the cocktail shaker
  • Place the lid on the cocktail shaker & hold the cocktail shaker together firmly in two hands
  • Shake briskly for approximately 30 to 60 seconds - remember to hold firmly!

After dry shaking, the ingredients are typically then wet shaken (with ice - see above) or stirred with ice to cool & dilute the ingredients, as necessary, before serving.

Essential Cocktail Shakers

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Boston Shaker

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Cobbler Shaker

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Parisian Shaker