They Go Where You Go: DIY Bottled Cocktails

Bottled cocktails may seem a recent novelty, but bartenders have been throwing spirits in a bottle since Jerry Thomas's day. Kenzi Wilbur breaks down the DIY art of the to-go cocktail.

Walking into a bar and ordering a bottled cocktail can feel incongruous to the natural order of things.

It doesn’t let you lean seductively over the bar and say scotch, neat. And it doesn’t allow for watching a cast of bartenders perform something like well-rehearsed play—there’s no shaking, no stirring, no straining. You go to a bar for the liveliness of it all, the theatrics of cocktails being made right in front of you. So what, one might ask, is the appeal of the cocktail-in-a-bottle?

To the bartender, it’s speed of service and the elimination of error. (To you, an un-timed, spirited shake is entertainment; to the bar, it’s often standing in the way of a perfect drink.) What stands between a good drink and a great drink often, as unromantic as it sounds, depends on controlling dilution. Bottling cocktails makes it possible to decide the exact amount of dilution in each bottle, thus rendering ice—ordinarily the singular, fickle factor in dilution—irrelevant. It’s also cool. “Bottled cocktails catch on from guest to guest, and it builds a kind of energy in the bar,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bar manager at Portland, Oregon’s Clyde Common. It’s the I-want-what-she’s-having effect. It works, in large part, thanks to its novelty.

But it’s not all that novel, really. Flip through 1827’s Oxford Night Caps and you’ll find a number of recipes meant to be “bottled off” and stored to drink later—chief among them, a generous handful of milk punches. Jerry Thomas’s legendary compendium How to Mix Drinks began appearing on bartenders’ shelves in 1862, and it too included recipes for cocktails created expressly for bottling: Gin Punch, Victoria Punch, Nectar Punch and lest you miss the subtlety in the headnote, Bottle Cocktail—a lively mix of brandy, bitters, gum syrup and curaçao.

Heublein restaurant of Hartford, Connecticut followed suit (albeit by accident) when staff discovered that the batches of Martinis and Manhattans they’d made for a cancelled party were still good days later. They took the hint, and the Heublein’s line of premixed, bottled cocktails hit the market in 1892 with a small list of classics. Demand grew that list to 17 drinks by 1968; you could get anything from a Sidecar to a Black Russian to a Martini (extra-dry), and all you had to do was unscrew a cap.

Bars partook in the premixing, too, often bottling up batches of punch for patrons to take with them on their way out—for later, for the road and for Sundays when the otherwise tireless watering hole finally closed its doors. Much like they are today, the bottled cocktails of Jerry Thomas’s era were driven by pragmatism. They were, in the words of Heublein’s own tagline, “Always ready—always right.”

This is precisely why respected bars like Clyde Common have brought the bottled cocktail back. “We have certain lines of defense to get dependable drinks into peoples’ hands faster,” says Morgenthaler, “and this is one of them.”

But if we want them for later—for our porches if the bar is closed on Sunday—we’re going to have to undertake that endeavor ourselves, because taking drinks to-go is one thing we haven’t revived from the history books. The good news? It’s really not all that hard.

Choosing a cocktail to bottle has a lot to do with preference and only a little to do with strategy. As far as the latter, says Booker and Dax’s Dave Arnold, “never bottle a cocktail you’d ordinarily shake.” Shaken cocktails contain unstable ingredients—think egg white, citrus or cream—that normally require more miraculous mixing to combine. Hence the bartender; hence the shake. You want to bottle cocktails that don’t need too much fuss—something sturdy and strong and stirred.

Cocktails can be bottled at strength and diluted when served, or they can be diluted before bottling, which, says Arnold, is what most bars do. Choose the latter and you’ve eliminated the need for ice, a cocktail glass and extra time spent mixing à la minute.

When it comes to carbonating, pick a cocktail that’s lower in alcohol by volume. You’re looking for something that wants to be carbonated. These are the drinks that exist to refresh on patios and stoops and by the pool—the Aperol Spritzes, the Palomas, the Americanos of the world. According to Morgenthaler, the stronger, smoother cocktails like Martinis, are out: “If I hand you a carbonated Martini, your brain and your mouth don’t know what to do with it.” Arnold suggests that you think of carbonation as an ingredient, something that has the ability to change the taste of the finished drink.

Of course, to do this part at home you’ll need a carbonation tool. (A SodaStream, ThermoWhip or rigging your own, if you’re into that sort of thing, works just as well.) You’ll feel simultaneously a little Rambo, and a little Bill Nye. And when you’re done, you’ll have a cocktail that goes where you go.