top of page

Cocktail Crash Course Part 2: Essential Ingredients

Foreword by Nick Parker

I’ve been really enjoying working with Dr. Dickoless III. He has been invaluable for addressing something very close to my heart: demystification. There is so much misinformation and general bad advice out there for alcohol and cocktails. I hope this series will equip our readers to sift through information to pull out the valuable stuff and leave everything else behind. To this end we've put together some guiding principles for good cocktailing that I’d like to share with you before Dr. Dickoless dives into the Essential Ingredients for a home bar.

Some guiding principles for good cocktailing

  • You can't make a bad spirit good, but you can make it palatable.

  • You can definitely ruin excellent spirits with bad ingredients.

  • Treat every ingredient that goes into your cocktail with the respect it deserves.

  • Taste everything.

  • Everything that goes into a cocktail is designed to enhance or compliment the base spirit.

  • Every time you add something to a drink ask yourself, "Is this going to make it better?"

  • Spend your money on good alcohol. Spend your time on good, fresh ingredients.

  • If you've tried something you didn't like it's probably because it had bad ingredients. If there is anything I've learned in life, it's that there are good versions of almost everything that exists. Things that are bad are usually knockoffs or budget versions of things that are good.

Essential Ingredients

While essential will differ for everyone there are a few basics that almost all cocktails call for. The more ingredients you have the greater variety of drinks you can make. The more drinks you can make the more friends you will have. The more friends you have the happier you will feel. Everything is connected. There are 2 reasons you should stock something in your bar. 1: You like it. 2: Whoever you want to get drunk likes it. When choosing ingredients for your home bar ask yourself, “Who am I trying to get consensually drunk?”


"an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, and botanicals in high proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin)." Originally used as a medicine. It was an attempt at the extraction of the medicinal properties of plants. - From Bitters - Brad Thomas Parsons

Bitters are bitter, like that girl at the bar who said she didn't want to talk to you five times. Bitters are legally considered non potable so you can buy them at places that can’t sell alcohol and you don’t need an ID, like my ex wife. They add a bit of complexity to your drink. A few drops usually get the job done. A “dash” is the amount that comes out of the bottle when you flip it completely upside down. For a second dash just do another shake. It’s imprecise. It’s flair. Deal with it.

Angostura (Aromatic)

This is your basic catch-all bitters. It's going to impart a woodsy, earthy flavor to whatever you put it into. It helps draw out the oak flavor in bourbon which is why it's called for in Old Fashioned recipes. Angostura is the most called-for bitters, so if you only buy one let it be this one. Angostura is the brand, aromatic is the type. If you don't want your cocktail to taste like it was made in a boomer’s “man cave” then look for “aromatic” in other brands like Scrappy’s.

I think everyone should have a bottle of aromatic bitters in their home bar. They are inexpensive, don't take up much space, and last indefinitely. Even if you don't like the types of drinks they're used in, you should still have some in case one of your guests does. Macho men love anything with lots of aromatic bitters. They love it when their tongues feel like someone scraped sandpaper across it so they can feel powerful. Real men don’t gender their drinks.


This is a basic bitter that has that classic medicinal flavor that you remember from cough syrup growing up. This is an essential ingredient in a sazerac. This is pretty much the only drink I've ever used peychaud's bitters in. Occasionally I'll use it for a garnish on an egg white cocktail. When you think bitter, this is likely the taste that comes to mind. This flavor is essential for a lot of classic cocktails so it will expand the types of drinks you can make but you can skip it for building out your bar.


These taste like the orange flavor from a chocolate orange just without the chocolate. You can make your own or you can waste your money on someone else’s. Try a dash or 2 in your martini! If you are into that sort of thing

There are a TON of other kinds of bitters but these are the essentials. My favorite brand of bitters is Scrappy's. They are pretty widely available and are reasonably priced. A standout of the brand is their firewater. Careful. It’s hot. Way hotter than you’d expect. Use only 1 drop at a time between taste tests. This is by no means an essential. It's technically a tincture which is the same thing as bitters but only one or two ingredients. Bitters are made up of tinctures. Some people use the terms interchangeably/loosely. Those people are wrong.

Simple Syrup

Simple syrup is a pretentious way to say sugar water. It’s sugar water. I prefer a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water because it takes up less storage space and sweetens your drink without watering it down too much. DO NOT use store bought simple syrup. That shit is naaasty! If you are reading this and are too lazy to make your own simple syrup then you should just buy all your drinks at a bar in Texas that’s still open during the pandemic.

  • Sugar water. I like 2:1 simple syrup made from good sugar.

  • 1/2 cup water

  • 1 cup sugar

  • Heat in a saucepan stirring until its completely dissolved

  • Let cool and store in an airtight container (I use a small bottle so I can pour it easier) in the fridge for up to 1 month before flavor starts degrading. It's made of sugar, so it can go bad. I recommend only making what you plan to use in a week or two. It's not hard to make.


Fresh citrus is an essential ingredient in pretty much all cocktails. Either as a juice or the peel for the garnish. Remember the origins of cocktails are rooted in medicine. Citrus has vitamin C. It’s good for you.



How to Peel

  • You want a good piece of peel that's around 1" x 3". Try to get as little pith (the white stuff. it's bitter.) as possible.

  • To express a citrus peel hold it between your thumb and forefinger of each hand with the outside of the citrus peel facing your cocktail. Pinch it as you flair it over the surface of the cocktail. It won't look like anything is happening from your perspective but the oils from the peel will be spraying out, over, and into the orifice of your glass—the money shot. Look at the drink before and after you do this step and you will notice the oils from the peel resting on top of the liquid of the drink.

  • If the drink calls for just an express toss the peel after this step. If it calls for you to insert it, give the peel a little twist and run the outside of the peel around the outside edge of your glass and insert into the drink. Generally good advice to follow before inserting 😏.

This is the only halfway decent video I could find on expressing a citrus peel. Most cocktail videos suck. Maybe I should get into the YouTube space… 🧐


It’s the liquid that exists inside of fruit. If you’ve ever had orange juice you’ve had juice.

If you've got a small strainer it can be a good idea to strain freshly squeezed citrus juice. Straining will prevent pulp and seeds from sticking to the sides of your glasses as you drink. It's one of those things where you only notice it when you don't do it and a big chunk of pulp sneaks into your cocktail. The solids from the citrus also get in the way of your taste buds tasting the delicate nuance of your cocktail and can shift it out of balance. Straining citrus juice is like taking the time to listen to what your tinder date has to say before talking about your amazingly underappreciated cocktail skills.

Soda Water

Sodas originated as non alcoholic cocktails. They were a way for alcohol companies to continue to sell a product during prohibition. Coca Cola was originally a vehicle for cocaine. It’s no surprise that before nonalcoholic soda there was alcoholic soda. These were known as cocktails.

  • Not all sparkling waters are created equal. This will end up being a large percentage of your cocktail and the same attention should be paid to this as any other ingredient. If you don't like drinking it on its own, chances are it won't make your cocktail better. My favorite is Topo Chico but Topo Chico isn't the best out there. I just like it because it's lol hipster. Topo Chico also used to be a lot better before they sold out to Coke. If you have or find a favorite let me know in the comments so I can try it. Jarritos is supposedly one of the best but it was not widely available in Nashville but I plan to try some once I get around to it.

  • Smaller bottles are better so you don't end up throwing out old flat soda water especially if you are making cocktails for one. An open bottle of soda water can be dangerous as I tend to use it as permission to drink another cocktail since I've still got soda water that I need to use up. You can put a good stopper in it and it should keep its fizziness for up to 3 days.

  • Don’t buy Perrier, San Pellegrino, La Croix, or Schweppes. They are all either sick nasty or overpriced.

  • You CAN make your own soda water but I haven't found much success here. The minerals in sparkling mineral water add flavor and the stuff you can make at home generally requires bulky kitchen gadgets and/or use C02 cartridges that are v bad for the environment. #environment #zerowaste #ecofriendly #ecojusticewarrior

Old Fashioned

I've been talking about this a lot so it's about time I gave you a recipe for an Old Fashioned. An Old Fashioned is a basic classic cocktail that went through a wild fruity period during the 80s that we are still trying to forget about. The Old Fashioned I am going to teach you is the one that existed pre-prohibition. It's just Bourbon + Simple Syrup + Angostura(aromatic) bitters with an orange peel express garnish poured over a big ass ice cube. It's meant to enhance and showcase the bourbon so feel free to use a nice bottle just try some first so you can see what the added ingredients do the the beverage.

If you are using a scale 1ml = 1g.

This is taken directly from Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book

  • 1tsp/5ml 2:1 simple syrup

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 2oz/60ml bourbon whiskey

  • Large ice cube

  • 1 orange peel for garnish

Combine the simple syrup, bitters, and bourbon in a mixing glass and stir with ice cubes. Strain over a nice big fresh ice cube in a rock's glass. Express the peel, rub the rim of the glass with the peel, and drop in the drink to serve.

Keep posting questions in the comments and I’ll make sure somebody directly addresses them—cough, Nick, cough.

This is Dr. Dickoless III signing off!

43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page