Raising The (Home) Bar: Tips To Sharpen Your Cocktail Game
10 Jun 2021
Never mind the expensive equipment and rare bottles of booze: mixing great drinks at home is about doing a lot of little things right. One of Singapore’s best shares his advice for fine-tuning your cocktail skills.
Dario Knox doesn’t like keeping secrets. At least when it comes to making cocktails.
“Whoever keeps secrets is an idiot,” says the Italian-born bartender and founder of The Other Room at the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel. “The only way the bartending world can get better is if we all share. Once we share, someone learns something, takes it, makes it better, and regurgitates it back to you in a different way, and you learn again. It’s a whole process.”
For Knox, this open-book philosophy was driven home during his time at Catalunya, a Spanish restaurant and bar he opened in Marina Bay with former staff from El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s ground-breaking Barcelona restaurant. While many were fixated on El Bulli’s lopsided supply-versus-demand ratio – each year, the restaurant fielded two million requests for just 8000 seats – El Bulli’s real legacy was its willingness to share knowledge. Each year, Adria and his staff would tour the world, demonstrating new techniques and discoveries such as spherification and applications for liquid nitrogen in the kitchen. El Bulli’s influence soon moved beyond cooking.
“The 1990s [the decade that Adria began experimenting in earnest] were the golden era of not only cuisine, but also cocktails,” says Knox. “The moment that gastronomy improved, cocktails followed. Ferran Adria was the first guy that said, ‘I’m not going to die with secrets, I’m going to share everything’. What he created was a revolution.”
Since opening The Other Room in 2016, Knox has happily shared his secrets with anyone eager to learn, from staff that have passed through the bar to enthusiastic guests that signed up for cocktail-making masterclasses. (Throughout lockdown, these classes were conducted online via Zoom). In the spirit of helping guests drink better, he offers these pointers for budding cocktail-makers fine-tuning their craft at home.
Learn from the best
Between books, apps and the Internet, there’s a lot of cocktail recipes out in the wild. While this might sound great in theory, in practice, this information overload is a problem.
“When you have so many things in front of you, you freeze and never know which one to go for,” says Knox. “It’s the fear of choice.”
Rather than playing recipe roulette with Google, Knox suggests home bartenders go to a source they trust: their favourite bar. Build a rapport with a bartender you like (read: be a good regular and have a few drinks), then let her or him know you’re interested in making drinks at home and ask for advice and recipes.
“We’re all happy to share,” says Knox. “I’ve been sharing recipes with guests since I started this job. Sharing cool stuff with one another can make us all feel a little bit more important during these times. If cocktails manage to bring us together, that’s a great result.”
While high-proof spirits and sugary liqueurs (Campari, triple secs such as Cointreau) are stable enough to be stored at room temperature, lower-alcohol beverages such as vermouth should be kept cool to preserve their aromatic qualities, especially in a hot and humid climate such as Singapore.
“My recommendation is keep it [vermouth] in the fridge from day one, even before you open it,” says Knox who believes vermouth has a fridge life, once opened, of around a week before it starts to fade. “Once you do have it open, try to drink more vermouth-based cocktails – Manhattans, Negronis, Martinezes – during that week.”
The importance of ice
Although cocktail people have a habit of geeking out over spirits and bitters, the most important ingredient in a mixed drink is water, even if it’s initially added to a mixing tin as ice. And just as all liquids vary in taste and quality, not all ice is created equal. In bartending circles, hard, clear ice is considered best for making drinks and prized for its slow melting rate and ability to quickly chill a liquid with minimal dilution.
While it’s possible to make hard ice at home – the trick to avoiding cloudy ice, says Knox, is to put ice cube trays in an insulated box so that the liquid freezes top-down rather than from the outside-in – good ice is about more than just aesthetics.
“More important than the clarity of ice or how transparent it is is the quality of the water,” says Knox. “If you’re making your own ice at home, use a bottle of whatever water you’re drinking at home because you like the taste of it. You don’t want those raspy mineral flavours that you might get from tap water.”
Keep things social
Like any craft, practice is the only way to get better at making cocktails. Unfortunately, tasting cocktail after cocktail can take a toll on solo bartenders.
He suggests to look to the past and the cocktail parties of the 60s and 70s where people would bring spirits and cocktail books to someone’s house, congregate around the record player, and make drinks while listening to music.
“That was a lovely thing that probably isn’t going to come back, but I’d love to see it happen more often because it’s a lot of fun,” says Knox. “At the end of the day, drinking is a social activity. You go to a bar, you meet people, you talk to the bartender and you forget, just for a moment, about what’s going on in your life.”