Serious Eats: Drinks
DIY vs. Buy: Cocktail Ingredients You Should Not Make Yourself
If I had a nickel for every mason jar full of herbs, spices, and liquor steeping in my kitchen, I'd have 55 cents. (That's not a lot of money, but it is a lot of weird jars.) So it might seem like I am biased against store-bought cocktail ingredients. But when it comes down to it, there are only three things I would never buy for my cocktails: simple syrup, pre-juiced citrus, and sour mix. Seriously, if you can't combine sugar and water or juice a lemon, I'm not sure you should be allowed to drink.
We all have different reasons for DIY projects. I'm not particularly motivated by saving money or making clones of big brands—for me, making homemade cocktail ingredients is awesome because it allows me to experiment and control the flavor of my own personal blends. But there are a few items that I will just never try to make myself. And I don't think you should either.
No Home Distilling
I've been tempted by the age-your-own-whiskey kits and I'm playing around with faking gin by steeping herbs, spices, and citrus in vodka and then filtering it. But those are novelties that aren't going to replace buying spirits. Even if it were legal for me to distill spirits at home, I still wouldn't do it—it's more of a manufacturing proposition than I'd like to take on. It's complicated and expensive to do it right.
Assuming I managed to make something delicious without blowing up my house, I'd still rather have eight 750-milliliter bottles of different whiskeys than a garage-full of gallon jugs of one kind of homemade hooch. I know of people who distill on the down-low and make really impressive spirits, but they usually end up trying to sell or give away a lot of what they make. I make a DIY ingredient because I want a cocktail, not a business venture.
No Lifetime Supplies
There are some things that are impossible to make in practical quantities. I generally don't like to make recipes that yield more than a bottle's worth. Certain herbs and spices are so potent that you can't simply scale down. It's like trying to make a thimble full of tea using a partial tea bag. It's not going to taste right. I ran into this when trying to make dry vermouth, which is made by steeping wormwood and other herbs in white wine. No matter how little wormwood I used or how I prepared it, the taste was too overpowering to be balanced in 750-milliliters of wine. After some experimentation, it seemed like it would take at least four bottles of wine to even get close to the right balance. (The sugar in sweet vermouth made balancing this bitterness in a small batch possible—here's my recipe for that fun project.)
Wormwood is also the key ingredient in absinthe, which I am not going to try to make. Other considerations aside, I would need to make a gallon of the stuff before I even knew if I liked my herb combination.
No 'Highlander' Ingredients
If I walked into a bar and said, "Give me a coffee liqueur," the bartender would know what I meant from that generic description and I'd get something that tasted the way I expected. I might prefer Kahlua to Tia Maria, but they both taste like coffee. So by making my own coffee liqueur I can play with flavors while still creating something that I'd use the same way I'd use Kahlua or Tia Maria.
But Campari? It is one of my Highlander ingredients: there can be only one. This isn't simple brand loyalty. I've never tasted anything close to Campari and couldn't for the life of me name all the ingredients I taste. You could call Campari an aperitif, bitter, or amaro—but if I said those generic words to a bartender, I could end up with any of dozens of different things that all taste radically different. (Gran Classico is a delicious, and related, bitter—and some like it better—but it's not the same stuff and will yield different results in cocktails.)
The same general rule goes for Benedictine, Yellow Chartreuse, and Green Chartreuse. They're all herbal liqueurs, but good luck to me or anyone else trying to combine a hundred herbs in a way that gets close to the secret recipes of these products. Leave it to the monks. You can—and should—make all sorts of delicious concoctions with herbs, but you won't be replicating the classics.
So, DIYers: what is your sacred ingredient? What would you never try to make at home?
About the Author: Marcia Simmons is the co-author of DIY Cocktails: A Simple Guide to Creating Your Own Signature Drinks. She also shares cocktail recipes and tips on the DIY Cocktails blog and on Twitter @DIYCocktails.
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