In his forthcoming book Drink What You Want, former Momofuku bartender John deBary dedicates an entire chapter to “desperation” cocktails. That is, cocktails that “compromise intelligently, using what you have on hand to make drinks that are still great.”
This is the liminal space where many cocktail lovers—including many professional bartenders—currently reside: cobbling drinks together with whatever tools or ingredients are in the pantry.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. DeBary observes that this process can be fun, even useful: “It forces us to be creative, to find solutions where we might not have thought to look.” And it still can yield delicious cocktails, like his Desperation Flip, consisting of aged rum—preferably free-poured—shaken with a large egg and a dollop of maple syrup.
It's this Mr. Potato Head way of thinking, swapping different flavors into familiar blueprints, that has given rise to so many cocktails now considered to be modern classics. In the spirit of making do, we've asked a handful of bartenders to offer their tips for crafting better drinks with whatever you have on hand.
Coffee Maker or Cocktail Shaker?
For Naren Young, former creative director of New York’s Dante, cocktail-making tools are not on-hand at home, where he generally sticks to beer and wine.
“I literally own nothing,” he declares in one recent video, while free-pouring vodka into a small square Cambro to make a Vodka Collins riff. “You don’t need tools! You don’t need a strainer!” he exclaims. He picks up the now-lidded Cambro, shakes it, then uses the top of the container to hold back the ice as he pours the drink into what appear to be tall water glasses. “If you have any sort of Tupperware or a quart container from some Chinese delivery, then you have a cocktail shaker and a mixing glass,” he says.
Jose Medina-Camacho, of Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham, Alabama, meanwhile, uses his French press coffee maker as a makeshift mixing glass for Negronis and other stirred cocktails. “It’s got a built-in strainer,” he notes, adding that he simply uses the long handle of a wooden spoon in place of a metal barspoon to stir the mixture.
Everything Is an Ice Tray
Akin to using Jell-O molds or loaf pans to make large-format punchbowl ice, Kala Brooks of Asheville, North Carolina’s Top of the Monk utilizes muffin tins to freeze large chunks of ice for her at-home drinks.
If using regular freezer ice, Alex Jump of Death & Co. Denver advises shaking for a shorter period of time, to not overdilute cocktails. She cites Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence as the source for her other at-home ice hack, which simply requires serving your drinks on the same ice that you stir it with—another method to prevent a watery drink. “I do this at home not only to keep myself from over-diluting my drink,” says Jump, “but also to save myself trips to the freezer.”
New Pantry Blueprints
“The wife and I have been drinking pretty much nothing but tiki drinks since quarantine kicked off,” notes Erick Castro, of Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves in San Diego and Boilermaker in New York. While their inherent escapism is part of the appeal, he notes, it’s also about the “generous build” of most tropical drinks: “[They] can be forgiving when it comes to utilizing whatever is in the pantry at any given moment,” he explains. “Irish whiskey and falernum? Sure. Just add some pineapple and lime and you got yourself a party.”
Perhaps the easiest pantry hack, however, comes from Jump. “I like to shake jams or preserves into cocktails when I don’t feel like making a flavored syrup,” she says. “If something calls for strawberry syrup for instance, I just sub in a little strawberry jam in addition to simple syrup.” It’s that easy.