You’ve laid the groundwork. You’ve read The Man’s Guide to Mixing, and you have the basics of your bar. But good liquor isn’t cheap, and even stocking your cabinet with the barest essentials of home mixing—bourbon, vodka, rum, gin, and tequila, although you really need a good blended whiskey—can be pricey. You can either swallow a month’s paycheck to get the really high-end stuff, or you could take a look at the following five mixers that will go a long way towards making your bottom-shelf liquor palatable. Well, maybe not palatable–how about “less like paint thinner”? Anyway, mix your rotgut with these cheap mixers, and you’ll have people thinking you spent your last rent check just to get them drunk (suckers).
What It Is: It’s…it’s juice. You drank it all the time when you were a kid.
Used In: Like, so many things. Sea Breezes, Bay Breezes, Tequila Sunrises, Screwdrivers, Sex on the Beaches, and that’s just off the top of my head.
Virtually every person in the United States is going to have some kind of soda in their house, and you don’t have to be an expert mixologist to know that pouring your cheap bourbon in some Coke will produce something you can sip all night. Having a variety of light and dark sodas available isn’t something you should worry about, because, statistically speaking, you probably have plenty. What you probably don’t have are the fruit juices that turn enamel-stripping vodka or tequila into delicious memory-makers (or, perhaps more realistically, memory-erasers).
Grapefruit, orange, pineapple, and cranberry are going to give you the most mileage, and all of them are available for cheap at your local grocery store. The sweetness in these juices will help mask the rough edges of cheaper liquor, and the tartness will add some much-needed flavor. Best of all, everyone has some experience with fruit juice, so a lot of the guesswork is taken out of the equation when you’re experimenting with new cocktails. “I know what cranberry juice tastes like,” you can tell yourself, “now what would it taste like if it could peel paint off the walls?” Congratulations, you know what your Cape Cod (vodka and cranberry) will taste like!
What It Is: A mixture of sugar, lime juice, lemon juice, and egg whites (sometimes).
Used In: Margaritas, Long Island Iced Teas, Lynchburg Lemonades, Tom Collinses, Whiskey Sours.
Sour mix (also called Sweet & Sour Mix) is absolutely indispensable to the amateur bartender. The Captain Planet of the liquor cabinet, sour mix combines the powers of lime juice, lemon juice, and simple syrup, with none of their weaknesses. Separately, you have to worry about proportions. Too much lemon or lime, and you’ve got an undrinkable mess too sour to swallow; too much simple syrup (also known as sugar and water), and you’ve got a cloying drink so sweet it’ll make you gag. But with sour mix, and it’s prepared ratio of sweet to sour, you’re much more likely to stay stable.
Sour mix, like the juices mentioned above, is an excellent addition to just about anything, since you’re going to want to use both sweet and sour to mask the taste of gasoline from the bottom-shelf liquor you’re using. The only downside is the lack of options—you’ve only got one kind of sour, and if you don’t like it, you’re out of luck. But the sheer amount of cocktails that utilize this terrific little concoction makes that small flaw into a minor inconvenience. Buy a bottle, or better yet, make your own: dissolve a cup of sugar in a cup of water, then add a cup of fresh lime juice and a cup of fresh lemon juice. The egg whites are optional.
What It Is: A bright red, vaguely fruit-flavored syrup. In the old days, it was pomegranate syrup; these days, it’s high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings.
Used In: Anything you’re trying to convince your girlfriend to drink.
I’ll be honest here—you’re not going to use grenadine to flavor too many drinks. It’s sweet, yes, and it’s fruity, but it’s rarely worth bothering with. The most mileage you’re likely to get out of grenadine as an actual mixer is probably going to be a Shirley Temple for your teetotaler friend. No, the reason you have grenadine is to make your drinks look pretty.
That’s not meant to be an insult—grenadine makes some gorgeous-looking drinks. It layers beautifully, so if you’re willing to invest a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to make absolutely stunning works of cocktail art. The Tequila Sunrise is the most famous example, but the uses of grenadine are limited only by your imagination. While we’re on the subject, consider affecting the purchase of a small quantity of blue curaçao. It’s the easiest way to make an otherwise boring drink look exotic, and if you can layer it with the grenadine, you’ll be the star of the party. Both grenadine and blue curaçao are cheap, and since you won’t be using much in each drink, you can make little bottles last a while (or big bottles last forever).
What It Is: A coffee- and vanilla-flavored Mexican liqueur. Named for the Acolhua people of ancient Mesoamerica, who are probably thrilled to have such a tribute.
Used In: Black Russians, White Russians, pretty much anything with cream.
I’m not going to lie here. I have absolutely no idea why Kahlua doesn’t make cream curdle. Everything I know about mixing drinks (and what I was able to pick up from Intro Chem) says the alcohol in the Kahlua should cause the proteins in cream to clump up. Let your shot of Bailey’s sit in your glass of Guiness next time you order an Irish Car Bomb to see what I mean.
So no, I don’t know what kind of dark magic has infused Kahlua (perhaps the spirits of the Acolhua people, because when liqueur is all you have left, you’re going to fight to protect it) but for whatever reason, it leads to less disgusting spoiled milk and more absolute deliciousness. Almost every sweet liqueur goes well with Kahlua: Bailey’s, butterscotch schnapps, Amaretto, and Galliano, just to name a few. But since you only have the bare essentials, just toss it in a glass with some vodka. Boom, you’ve got a Black Russian. Add some cream if you want to re-enact The Big Lebowski.
What It Is: Fortified wine with more herbs and spices than a family-size KFC bucket.
Used In: Every drink a famous person orders.
The great thing about vermouth is its versatility. A simple bartending formula is “vermouth+whatever cheap stuff you have lying around=a recognized cocktail.” Seriously. Mix it with gin, it’s a martini; mix it with bourbon, it’s a Manhattan; mix it with Scotch, it’s a Rob Roy; mix it with vodka, it’s a vodka martini. You can’t trip over vermouth without accidentally making something everybody likes.
There are two types of vermouth: dry and sweet. Both are equally valid, although it is important to note they are not interchangeable. Sweet vermouth is…well, it’s sweeter, with around three times as much sugar as the more bitter dry vermouth. If you have to pick one, go with dry, as dry vermouth appears in slightly more cocktails than its sweeter brother. But choosing between vermouth is like choosing between hot twins—it’s best if you can get both. The most famous vermouth cocktails—martini, Manhattan, etc—unleash their true potential when mixed with both sweet and dry vermouth.
Ross C. Hardy is a freelance writer and not-so-freelance barista operating out of middle Georgia. He has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing from Mercer University, where he worked as a teaching assistant, writing instructor, and press house editor. He currently divides his time between throwing empty whiskey bottles at his English degree and writing Wu-Tang Clan fanfiction. If you want to read more of Ross’s writing, you can check out his blog, Later I Will Destroy This Earth!, or Planet Ivy, where he pretends to be British. If you want to follow someone on Twitter who doesn’t have a lot to say, check him out on Twitter @AtomicSleepwalk. He knows more about the Atomic Knights than anyone else on the internet.
Ross is also the guy who told you what Comics to Read Now that You’ve Watched “The Dark Knight Rises.”