Craft Cocktails with Tips from a Sacramento Bartender

Shady Lady's Bartender, Chad Brown shakes up a cocktail. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.
Shady Lady’s bartender, Chad Brown shakes up a cocktail. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.

How to make your own cocktails at home with pizzaz.

Learn how to make impressive craft cocktails at home with expert tips from Sacramento bartenders. Discover recipes with complex flavors, seasonal ingredients, and gourmet garnishes for an affordable and stylish evening in.

Craft cocktails are having a bit of a heyday. Long gone are the days when a splash of orange juice and a lime wedge defined a cocktail. Today’s mixologists turn out cocktails with complex flavors, seasonal ingredients, and gourmet garnishes. With the expansion of the ingredient list comes a higher price, but Sacramento area bartenders are spilling their secrets for an affordable evening in.

Chad Brown, bartender at Shady Lady Saloon in Downtown Sacramento, says the essential components of a cocktail are standard — spirits, sugar, bitters, water — but the trick is achieving the right balance. More specifically, balancing the sugar and bitter is what makes a good cocktail great.

“An easy tip for a home bartender is to know how to balance the sweet ingredients with the bitter components,” he explains. This concept is known as the “Bartender’s Golden Ratio,” which is two parts spirits— one part sweet, and one part sour or bitter. Many popular cocktails follow this basic pattern, including the margarita — tequila, agave nectar, lime juice — and the old fashioned — whiskey, simple syrup, bitters.

Brown measures ingredients to ensure cocktail is balanced. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.
Brown measures ingredients to ensure cocktail is balanced. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.

Brown says one of the biggest mistakes home bartenders make is not measuring their ingredients. Even being a half-ounce off can result in a poorly balanced cocktail. A standard, double-sided jigger ensures the right amount of spirits every time.

Balance Cocktails with Sweet

When it comes to sweeteners, simple syrup (a 1:1 mixture of sugar and water) is the most common. But adding various ingredients to the mixture can change the profile and add a new dimension to a cocktail. Some to consider are rosemary, mint, citrus, cinnamon, and ginger. Another technique is to soak citrus peels in sugar to create a potent, sweet-tart syrup known as oleo-saccharum.

Shady Lady's Bartender, Chad Brown uses infused syrups to add a flavorful twist. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.
Brown uses infused syrups to add a flavorful twist and balance the craft cocktail. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.

Brown says another option is to use sweetened tea infusions. Just about any flavor of tea can be used as a base, then sweetened with the same 1:1 ratio. Brown uses this method so frequently, he’s launched his own line of bottled tea-based syrups, Modified Syrups Co., with flavors such as hibiscus and lavender mint. He uses teas from another local business, Allspicery, to make his concoctions.

“You can take a basic drink and add a syrup, and it elevates it.”

Chad Brown

Balance Cocktails with Bitter

A sprinkle or two of cocktail bitters is the most common way to add bitter complexity to a drink. Angostura, a concentrated preparation of herbs, spices, bark, and roots, is the most common brand. There are also gourmet bitters on the market with flavors such as cardamom and lavender. Bitterness can also come from liqueur itself — think Campari and, to a lesser degree, Aperol.

Garnishes to Elevate Cocktail to Craft

Garnishes are another important element of a cocktail. Although some bartenders bemoan the cocktail garnish due to waste, most recognize it as an important part of the drink. Not only does it add flavor and aroma to a drink, a garnish also adds visual interest, making for a multi-sensory experience.

But for a garnish to really impact a drink, it must go beyond a wedge of lime or a sprig of mint. One easy way to add oomph to home cocktails is with dehydrated fruit. Citrus is a good bet, as it retains its color and has a striking translucent appearance. Other options, especially for winter cocktails, include dried apples, pears, figs, and ginger.

Garnishes can elevate cocktail craft. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.
Garnishes can elevate cocktail craft. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati.

Other accoutrements for taking home cocktails to the next level include rimming the glass with sugar, salt, or spice. Creative home bartenders may even want to experiment with egg white foam, cocktail atomizers for spritzing drinks with absinthe or vermouth, or flamed orange peels, which involves squeezing a sliver of peel over a lit match above a drink to caramelize the oils.

Crafting Cocktail Ice

Ice may seem like the least important element of a cocktail, but it can truly change the experience. Brown says most drinks benefit from a larger ice cube, which slows down dilution, especially in spirit-forward cocktails such as the old fashioned.

But some drinks, such as margaritas, benefit from more contact with the surface of the ice, and thus smaller ice is preferable.

Home Bartending: The Cocktail Challenge

One home bartender who has taken her craft cocktail making to the next level is Monique Meyer. She and her husband Trevor have been conducting a cocktail-a-week challenge since January 2023. They began the challenge in late 2022 with the “12 Nights of Christmas Cocktails” and decided to keep it running throughout the new year. “We thought it was a fun way for us to get into the spirit and be festive,” she explains.

Monique and Trevor enjoy home bartending. Photo by Monique Bonin
Monique and Trevor enjoy home bartending. Photo by Monique Bonin

Usually a wine drinker, Meyer says part of the fun was experimenting with unfamiliar alcohols. She searches the internet to find unique recipes, like one of her favorite cocktails, a salted blood orange gold rush, featuring lemon, bourbon, blood orange, and vanilla.

Other than a brief stint working at TGI Fridays in her 20s, Meyer has no background or training in bartending. But she says the cocktail challenge has opened her eyes to the many possibilities out there. She makes her own simple syrups, with flavors like blood orange and brown sugar.

Cocktail Wow Factors

Meyer says when it comes to entertaining, adding that “wow” factor in presentation is essential. In the summer, for instance, she made a cocktail with dragon fruit purée; the bright fuchsia color was a head turner.

She also uses dried citrus in her drinks, as well as sugared rims for that added punch. In a brown sugar apple butter old fashioned, she created a cinnamon sugar rim. She has also used a flaming lime, which makes for a striking visual presentation.

“You can do all this stuff at home,” she says. “You can elevate your cocktail game for just a few extra bucks.”

Another favorite tip of hers is to hit the thrift stores and find cool and unique glassware in which to serve the craft cocktails. And while, of course, expert bartenders like Brown would be delighted to serve you in house, sometimes the experience is about the creativity and comfort found at home.