• Eric Palm

Cocktail Shortcuts for Beginners

Traditionally, a cocktail consists of three ingredients: your spirit, your mixer and your garnish (Because a Gin &Tonic just isn’t a Gin & Tonic without that little slice of lime). That’s it. That’s all it takes. Some cocktails are a bit more complicated and some require several years of post-graduate work in mixology. But even the simplest recipes often call for strainers and shakers and special spoons—very specific glassware and ice that can’t be in cubes for some reason. It’s gotten to the point where having a proper drink or two at the end of a long day leaves you with a sink full of dirty dishes and little corners cut out of all your fruit.

I could use this time to explain the difference between a Collins glass and a rocks glass. I could describe the proper technique for using that little spoon to get one beer to ‘float’ on top of the other or why different cocktails call for different kinds of ice. I know these things. Promise. But right now in this little corner of the internet, we’ll be talking about all those little ways you can cut your cocktail prep time, start drinking and leave the strainer in the cupboard (at least until the weekend).

Martini drinkers figured out a long time ago that you can save a ton of time and ice and special stirring spoons by storing your vodka in the freezer. It totally works. Anything over 70 proof or so can be safely stored in most freezers without actually freezing. But what works for vodka also works for gin, for rum, for brandy—even whiskey. Ice is still nice—especially in many whiskey cocktails, but if you have room in your freezer, you can still save yourself a lot of time.

One of the most time consuming elements of cocktail prep for me is the garnishes. I skip them when I can, and some are more ornamental than anything and easily skippable, but there are some garnishes that are essential. Give a kid a Shirley Temple without a maraschino cherry in it and there will be consequences. A G&T without a bit of lime better be beyond cold because without that little touch of citrus to cut the bitterness of the quinine, your tonic is going to beat up your gin and take its lunch money. So what can you do? First, if the drink calls for a cherry, it has a cherry, no exceptions. Second, if the flavor is essential, cheat and get that flavor from somewhere else. A splash of lime juice isn’t the same as a fresh lime, but it works. I once found myself with a glass of bourbon, vermouth, bitters and an empty spot in the fridge where my jar of maraschino cherries was supposed to be. Without the cherry it didn’t taste quite right, so, to the great shame of me and my family, I finished off my Manhattan with a splash of Hawaiian Punch.

My favorite shortcut, however, I discovered years ago due to my love of fine wine and my total inability to afford it. So what I did was, I took some thoroughly okayish wine and added a shot of booze. That’s it. Mischief managed. Cocktail complete. My first such experiment involved a glass of red zinfandel and a shot of blackberry brandy. But I’ve added limoncello to sauvignon blanc, bourbon to cabernet, peach schnapps to chardonnay, and even spiced rum to champagne. Wine is the ultimate short-cut mixer. It’s already a drink all by itself, you don’t need special glassware, and that little shot of booze gives you an extra kick in more than just the flavor department.

Sometimes it is worth taking the time to do something right. Other times, you’re thirsty and just want to sit down, relax and have a drink. Either way, cheers!

Short-cut Cocktail Recipes

1. Pour a glass of wine

2. Add a shot of booze

3. Enjoy!

(Mostly)Successful Experiments

1. “Shortcut Sangria” Zinfandel and Blackberry Brandy

2. “The Lemon Plop” Sauvignon Blanc and Lemoncello

3. “Kentucky Cabernet” Cabernet Sauvignon and Bourbon

4. “Hairy Naval” Chardonnay and Peach Schnapps

5. “The Corsair” Sparkling Wine and Spiced Rum


Time permitting, you can always make a shortcut cocktail into a proper cocktail with a little garnish. Personally, I like adding cherries to things. Cherries make most things better. You finish your cocktail and you get a little fire-engine-red nugget of deliciousness. Plus, they come in little jars so you can add a single cherry (or a handful, again, we don’t judge) without breaking out the paring knife and ending up with several mostly whole lemons wrapped in plastic wrap gathering dust in the fridge.

Many of these shortcut cocktails also spritzer rather well (yes, I verbed the noun but it’s cool, we’re all friends here). A splash of seltzer or club soda can be a refreshing addition to “The Lemon Plop” or “Hairy Naval”. I also tried it with the “Shortcut Sangria” but that didn’t work out very well until I threw a couple ice cubes in and doubled down on the blackberry brandy. Which reminds me, any time you are mixing drinks and you don’t like the way it tastes, remember: you’re not done mixing.

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