A Matter of Taste | The art of home bartending

This festive season navigate the art of home bartending with simplicity, by stocking essentials, and crafting flavorful drinks.

Updated - November 11, 2023 09:30 am IST

Published - November 11, 2023 08:50 am IST



This piece, coming right around Diwali couldn’t have been better-timed. Of all the professions that we thought were the “dream jobs” as kids – pilot, spy, fireman, truck driver, cricketer, bartender – very few survived all the way into adulthood. For my generation, it was Tom Cruise’s effortless cool in the movie Cocktail, which released in 1988, and had all of us wanting to shake drinks on a tropical island for the rest of our lives as a career plan. Also, Cocktail, the movie, is not to be confused with that mind-numbing swill of a Bolly-version which came out in 2012, which probably could have led to the rise of the next temperance movement against all things slapstick.

Home bartending

Home bartending

Back on track, there is something about how seasoned bartenders move behind the bar, also called the wood, or simply, stick. (Learn the parlance, it helps with the swagger.) The slide front and back, one end to the other, almost gliding like pieces on a chessboard, a symmetric dance despite all the 10pm chaos of a Saturday night shift. But when we try and mix two liquids together in a jar at home, it doesn’t look all that suave. Classic stuff of insta’ reels, as my young readers might surmise.

Well, the trick to being a good bartender at home is to keep things simple, and lazy. If it requires more than 4-5 steps, then it’s too much to expect of yourself, especially on an evening when you not only the bartender, but also the host, doorman, cook, entertainment organiser and general majordome for all last-minute requests. So if the drink involves shaking or stirring three things together before pouring them out, that’s fine. Its even better if it can be made in the glass in which it will be served so you don’t have an extra vessel to wash right after. What is avoidable is trying to cook ingredients and then cooling them down, or having to peel, chop, slice, dice, anything a la minute. Either one should be to pre-prep and store it or else completely give it a miss.

Which brings me conveniently to the next big thing: stocking. You can’t make great drinks if you don’t have the right supplies at hand, all prepped and ready to roll. So juice the lemons, make that sugar syrup, zest the oranges, whatever you wish to work with, keep it all ready to deploy when the time comes. If you have to keep switching between being bartender and set-up bar-boy, you will never manage to churn out enough drinks in time. As for garnishes, keep them simple but if you must have umbrellas loaded with a fruit salad, then keep it all ready and skewered earlier in the evening.

While still on stocks, make sure you have enough ice to positively influence global warming at least in your part of the planet. Do not ever run out of ice.

Glassware is another important consideration and here too, keep things minimal. The more variety you introduce the harder it will be to keep replenishing them, not to mention the space they will collectively take up. I like a three-glass setup – the Martini (or Nick & Nora) glass, the Short (aka Rocks aka Old-Fashioned) glass, and the Highball (or taller encore, Collins) glass. If a drink can’t go into one of these glasses, drop it from the menu.

Besides these, a basic bar kit comprising a Hawthorne strainer, a muddler, a shaker (any shape or size) and a stirrer are essential to keep at hand, if not to use, then at least to display on the bar to lend you, the host, some serious cocktail cred.

Now that you have it all, here are the 3 drinks I propose.

Basil gin smash

Basil gin smash

Basil and sugar muddled in a glass, topped up with ice, your favourite spirit, and some soda (or Sprite, if you like it sweeter), that’s the Smash family of drinks. Substitute basil for with another fresh herb like, say, mint and it still works. Lemongrass too. But not Rosemary or Oregano; a lot in bartending is about knowing when a thing will not work, and it best comes with hit and trial.
With a twist The past year saw some interesting ups and downs in the Indian Spirits industry; (below) Sandeep Arora Special Arrangement and R Ragu

With a twist The past year saw some interesting ups and downs in the Indian Spirits industry; (below) Sandeep Arora Special Arrangement and R Ragu

Old Fashioned
The Old-Fashioned is an easy one to mix. Crush some sugar into a glass, add a few dashes of a bitter, and then top it up with a double measure of a spirit ideally Bourbon whiskey, but aged rum works well too, as does Cognac. Stir it all with a huge chunk of ice and serve in the same glass where you did all the work. The trick here is to make sure the glass isn’t sticky on the outside and, to ensure you have some decent bitters stocked in your bar. Any spirit can be used, because this is what was served up when someone asked for a mixed drink the ‘Old-fashioned way’.


Aka Bucks, this is a double measure of spirit with some lemon juice, finished off with ice and a top up of good ol’ ginger ale. This latter is a highly undervalued mixer in our bars and with winters approaching, it should be one most sought after flavour. Vodka is commonly used but don’t shy away from experimenting with tequila here. 

Before I leave you to with your new lab kit, remember that no cocktail party is complete without some good finger foods to go around; don’t scrimp on the snacks. After that, as long as the glasses are full and the playlist well appointed, the festive mood will ensure the rest. Cheers!

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