Let My Cocktails Go: Freedom From Mixing By Batching And Bottling
Let My Cocktails Go (... to a Suitable Place for Drinking Cocktails)
A predictable thing happens when you get into making cocktails as a hobby - your collection of alcohol grows! As your collection expands, but it’s container (my apartment in this case) stubbornly remains the same size - one finds themselves with a problem that butts up against some fundamental limitations of the physical universe (remember those swimming pool algebra problems? No? Well it’s not terribly important for this article). The solution to this problem arrived in the form of friends - selfless souls willing to consume cocktails in the name of liberty (or well - liberation of countertop space).
In all those events, I pretty much made cocktails in the same way - the way most of us are used to seeing a cocktail made at a bar (though I’m sure with sloppier technique in my case): one or two drinks at a time, separately measured out in every case. This works fine, and can be fun or tedious depending on the mood the home-bartender. But more recently, a couple of lovey friends asked if I could come up with and plan out cocktails for their wedding. I quickly and enthusiastically said yes - and almost as quickly, realizing that I had zero idea how to make cocktails at scale, wished for a time machine to change said answer.
Batching cocktails can be tedious - but, as I learned, with the right set of guidelines and a willingness to experiment and make mistakes (often delicious mistakes!) - you too can make cocktails for 100 people (or for 5, or just for you? This is a judgement-free zone).
Lastly - these tips are equally useful if you’re making cocktails for a large event or for just one bottle to take to the park - this scaling advice is one-size-fits-all!
So here are some things I learned about bottling it all up:
1) Decide what kind of cocktail it’s going to be - the process isn’t the same for every type of drink. We’re going to consider three cases: (1) Cocktails with all spirit ingredients, (2) cocktails with perishable and acidic ingredients and (3) spritz or fizzy type cocktails.
For cocktails with all-spirit ingredients - meaning nothing perishable, and nothing carbonated - you can essentially make one giant cocktail.
For cocktails with perishable ingredients, you either have to batch the entire product very close to serving time (no longer then a couple of hours before and making sure it is staying well chilled) or batch just the non perishable parts together and combine with perishables ones at serving time.
Lastly, for cocktails with a carbonated component (sparkling wine, ginger ale, club soda, etc), consider batching the non-bubbly components separately and only adding the bubbles to each glass individually when it’s being served.
2) For the most part - simpler is better (or at least, cheaper and easier), so keep that in mind. But also remember that simple doesn’t mean that a cocktail can’t be nuanced and well rounded: minor additions of bold ingredients can make all the difference.
Instead of thinking of cocktails in ounces, think of them in parts. For example: if I’m making a single serving of the 50/50 Split Martini I might use 0.75 oz Blanc Vermouth, 0.75 oz Dry Vermouth and 1.5 oz gin. But for batching it, I’ll think of the same recipe as 1 part Blanc Vermouth, 1 part Dry Vermouth and 2 parts gin. The result is the same - but I can measure out much large amounts much more quickly.
3) Once you have a recipe, make a single serving of your cocktail to figure out the exact volume (without ice). That size of container issue, is an issue here too - you’ll need to figure out how many jars/bottles/barrels/oil tankers you might need to store your batched cocktail. For this, knowing the volume of one serving, and how many servings you’re making, will be pretty crucial. An average cocktail tends to be between 4 and 5 oz - but yours might be different.
4) How are you planning to serve this cocktail? Is it getting poured straight into a glass and served up? Is it being served over ice? Will it be sitting in a bowl full of ice? In most cases, the last scenario isn’t the best idea - it doesn’t take that long for the melting ice to dilute all flavor into a thin Kool-Aid, so let’s step away from that one.
Served up: In this case, consider that you will have to keep the cocktail cold up to the point, and in between, serving. Easy if you have an accessible refrigerator, a little trickier if not, but a cooler full of ice will do the job. The more important thing here is pre-diluting. Stirring or shaking a cocktail chills it - but it also dilutes, and you need to account for this if you want a cocktail to be ready to serve out of the bottle. The rule of thumb is debated on how much water per cocktail to add - and ranges from ½ oz to 1 ½ oz - that’s quite the range! My advice is to experiment: mix your ingredients for one serving, and then instead of ice add ½ oz of water - your taste buds will know best if you need anymore!
Served over ice: If the the batched cocktail is being poured into a glass with ice, pre-diluting is less important. The ice in the cup will start melting fairly quickly and your cocktail will be chilled and diluted in no time. This is the easier (though by no means automatically better) option.
5) Using bitters or strongly flavored syrups (think something like ginger)? You might need less than you think. Highly aromatic compounds are very potent, and don’t scale the same as your spirit or vermouth. A good assumption is that for a bottle of 10 cocktail servings you’ll need about half the amount (per cocktail) then you would use if you were making them individually. The best way to make sure is to make a batch using half the bitters that the recipe calls for, pour off a taste, and see if you need to add more. It’s much easier to add bitters then take them out (entropy - a mixologists best friends and worst enemy)!
6) Garnish? Pre cut close to serving time and store in an airtight container.
7) Mistakes? They will happen! Here are some things to help avoid them, and how to creatively fix them.
- Spreadsheets - keep track of all your ingredients and amounts. You’ll probably have to do some converting between ounces, milliliters and cups - google is your best friend here - but seeing it all on one spreadsheet helps spot any mistakes (“How am I making 90 cocktails with 2 bottles of rum?!”). It’s also a great way to price out how much your cocktail is going to cost and help you stay on budget.
- Checklists - check off each ingredient as you put into the container. Checklists are magical -- they save surgeons and astronauts, shouldn’t mixologists be in the same ranks?!
- “Ack! I forgot my checklists and just added double the amount of vermouth!” - don’t throw it out! Just subtract that amount from the next batch and mix them together. Spirits producers blend barrels to come up with a consistent taste - why can’t we blend batches of cocktails?
- Taste as you go - there is no substitutes for your taste buds. If you made a mistake, they will be your best alarm.
- Have extras - especially when it comes to garnishes. Things fall, people want more, etc - having more on hand never hurts.
8) Are you batching a cocktail for a longer event where guests will be imbibing for several hours? Consider that spirit heavy cocktails might not be the best way to go, unless you want a very quickly very tipsy gathering. A very general rule of thumb is that people will consume about 2 drinks in the first hour, and one drink per hour after that - with that in mind, longer drinks (those with lower ABV/larger amount of non-alcohol mixer like club soda or ginger beer) are genrally a great idea
Time for an example!
Cocktail: Pining For You (a wedding cocktail)
Ingredients in one serving:
1 ½ oz Beefeater gin (infused with a pine tea - four tea bags to a 750 ml bottle, regrigerated overnight, tea bags removed)
½ oz Lo-Fi Sweet Vermouth
½ - ⅓ oz Demerara Syrup
10 dashes Golden Bear Big Sur Citrus Bitters
3 oz Club Soda
Garnish - 1 sage leaf
Style of serving: over ice - we won’t have to consider dilution
Number of servings: 80
Containers: 1 Quarts jars
Number of cocktail servings per container: Remember we’re going to leave the club soda out until serving time and half the amount of bitters.
Volume of one cocktail is 1 ½ oz + ½ oz + ½ oz = 2.5 oz.
There are 32 oz in a quart.
32 oz / 2.5 oz = 12.8 cocktails per quart jar.
I’m going to round that down to 12, and assume each jar will hold the premixed spirit ingredients for 12 cocktails.
Number of containers: I need 80 cocktails, so I’m going to divide 80 by 12, which equals 6.67. Here we have to round up, so we’re going to need 7 jars.
Instead of measuring out each cocktail separately - I’m going to treat each jar as one giant cocktail:
Gin: 1 1/2 oz x 12 servings = 16 oz = 2 cups
Vermouth: ½ oz x 12 servings = 6 oz = ¾ cups
Demerara syrup: ½ oz x 12 servings = 6 oz = ¾ cups. But note: we did say ⅓-½ oz in the recipe depending on how sweet you want it. I’ll use ¾ cups as a max amount, but will probably fill a bit less as I do this.
Bitters: I had to measure what 10 dashes of this specific bitter (every dispenser bottle is a bit different) is in an actual volume - about ⅛ oz. Since we’re halving the amount, I’ll need 1/16 oz per cocktail. 1/16 oz x 12 servings = ¾ oz (per jar).
Phew! Done with the hard part - now all I need to do is mix all those together in a quart jar and repeat 7 times. Once sealed, these can sit indefinitely until the day of the event.
Make one test cocktail after finishing the first jar, just to make sure it worked out correctly. Fill the glass with ice, measure out 2 ½ oz of the mix we just made and pour it over the ice. For this test one, measure out 3 oz of club soda. You probably don’t want to be measuring club soda every time, but after pouring it into the cocktail, note roughly where on the glass the cocktail ends. Use this as a rough guideline for when you are pouring it for other people.
At the event, decant the jars into a dispenser. Instead of using a normal measuring cup or jigger, I marked a clear plastic cup with a permanent marker at the line where 2 ½ oz would be. This makes it super easy to measure out quickly.
That’s all there is to it - ice, 2 ½ oz of batched cocktail, top with club soda, roll and throw in a sage leaf!
Now watch the happy people, and don’t forget to pour yourself one while at it.