You’d be hard-pressed to find a more respected influence on the world of mixology than bartender, journalist, and author Jim Meehan, whose Beard Award–winning PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York City has helped shape the national landscape of cocktails—on both sides of the bar.
To help you master your at-home bartending game, we tapped the industry icon, who recently published the comprehensive Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Below, Meehan shares his top five tips for building better drinks, plus an inspired riff on the classic Negroni.
It’s preferable to have jiggers of various volumes, so your pours always fill the cup, instead of having to eyeball a measure within the cup for a smaller pour. I use Cocktail Kingdom’s Japanese-style 2-ounce / 1-ounce jigger along with their 3/4-ounce / 1/2-ounce jigger, and I carefully eyeball 1/4-ounce measures with the 1/2-ounce side of the second jigger, because there isn’t a baking spoon or jigger cup of this size.
I build cocktails from the smallest ingredient quantity to the largest, and (if two ingredient quantities are the same) from the least costly ingredient to the most expensive. The rationale is that you're constantly interrupted while making drinks behind a bar, so if you lose your train of thought, you know where you are based on what bottle you just put down. Also, if you make a mistake, chances are you’ll be dumping sugar and juice down the drain rather than costly spirits.
The moment after you’ve added all the ingredients to your mixing vessels, right before you ice them, is the ideal time to taste your drinks (you’ll have to envision what they’ll taste like after they’ve been chilled, diluted, or built, which you’ll get better at with practice). Plunge a straw (ideally a metal one that can be washed and reused) into the liquid and cap the top with your index finger, using the straw like a pipette.
You’ll want to be sure all the glasses are prepared (rimmed, rinsed, and chilled or preheated) before you add ice to your mixing glass or shaker so no extra dilution occurs between when you finish shaking or stirring and when you strain the drink. For cocktails served over a large cube or a ball of ice, place the ice in the serving glass first, as it will need at least a minute to temper, so it doesn’t crack when you pour the liquid over it. Once the frost begins to disappear, it should be fine to pour the liquid into the glass. For drinks prepared with smaller cubes, pour all the drinks into their glasses first, then top with the ice right before service, to minimize dilution.
When adding each element of a garnish (wedges, wheels, straws, picks, or decorations), think about how the guest will experience their cocktail from the front, back, and sides. A good rule of thumb: garnishes should be planted at the equivalent of two o’clock for right-handed guests or ten o’clock if they’re left-handed, so they don’t have to turn the glass when they pick it up to sip.
Put Jim’s tips to good use with his East India Negroni recipe.