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Pittsburgh bartender Wes Shonk on how to make (better) cocktails at home

Spoiler alert: Ice is really important

by Wes Shonk
September 8, 2020


Editor’s note: Sure, all that patio-sitting is great right now, but when the weather gets colder, it might be a good idea to up your home cocktail game. Pittsburgh bartender Wes Shonk has probably served you a cocktail during his stints at Hidden Harbor, Butcher & The Rye, or Wigle Whiskey. Now he’s here to pass along some pro tips.

Planning + Practice

Beer and wine are wonderful because all the work has already been done — just open and enjoy. Cocktails require work, but that’s part of what makes them so enjoyable. The work makes them taste a little bit better.

Planning and preparation are important. A large portion of the work of any good bar or restaurant cocktail is done ahead of time, including preparation of the ingredients and garnishes and making sure all the tools and glassware are set up and ready to go. You have to apply the same mentality to your homemade cocktails.

Plan ahead. Imagine you’re going to make a few of your (chosen) cocktails. Figure out where in your house you’ll assemble them, where your ingredients will be placed, how you’ll slice your garnishes and how you’ll clean up. This process is crucial and will ensure you’re prepared when you need to make a half-dozen whiskey sours on the spot.

For shopping, the Strip District is the best. Visit Pennsylvania Libations for local spirits, Sunfresh Food Service for larger amounts of produce, and Lotus Food Company for all the herbs you’ll need.

Practice. Any good home cook finds a few favorite recipes and makes them again and again until they become second nature. That smooth bartender you’ve seen — they’ve made that cocktail a thousand times. To get really good at making any one cocktail, you’ll have to make it a lot. Fortunately, this is pretty fun work.

Recipes + Tools

There’s a lot of cocktail misinformation out there, including bad recipes and unnecessary tools. So when you’re ready to make your own drinks, be sure you’re drawing from the best information.

For recipes, I often start (and end) with “Difford’s Guide.” Started nearly 20 years ago, it has an incredible library of classic cocktail recipes that are accurate and accompanied by some history. If I can’t remember how to make an Aviation, I go to Difford’s. For inspiration, I like to peruse PUNCH. It’s the best collection of what’s happening right now with cocktails, with beautiful pictures to match.

Most bar professionals collect tools from Cocktail Kingdom, a New York-based manufacturer of barware. This set of tools that will help you make the vast majority of cocktails:

You can further outfit your home bar with nice cocktail picks, some reusable straws, and fancy glassware. But these things aren’t required for excellent cocktails.

[We put together an Amazon wishlist of items mentioned in this story]

Ice Game

To serve great cocktails you’ll need lots of ice. One of the biggest differences between bar cocktails and ones made at home is the amount of ice that goes into each drink. Typically, a full scoop goes in the shaker and then the drink is strained over even more ice in the glass. Is it a little wasteful? Yes. But cocktails are frivolous by nature, which is one reason they’re so fun.

So, make sure you have plenty of ice. I usually use ice trays (with that good water from the newly-reopened Highland Park Microfiltration Plant). But I always have a bag of ice in my freezer as a backup. You don’t want to be caught without enough ice, or worse yet — using ice cubes that haven’t finished freezing.

If you want to step-up your ice game further, buying square cube trays is a good option. Whole Foods also sells bags of nice square “cocktail cubes.” You can call your local ice company (like the Hill District’s Mastro Ice) for big clear cubes or blocks.

Master the Highball

The highball — an oldie but a goodie — is an often overlooked all-time great cocktail with only two ingredients, no tools required, and it can be made quickly. It’s a simple cocktail to make, one of the best when made right, but easy to mess up. Highball iterations can be well known (gin and tonic, Moscow mule) or obscure (Reposado tequila and celery soda anyone?). When made correctly they’re all refreshing and satisfying. But they’re easy to get wrong: think thin, flat, and watery — a terrible combination. Don’t ruin your highball.

Here’s how to show the highball the respect it (and you) deserve:

  • Pre-chilling is key. Keep your spirits in the freezer and your carbonated soda in the refrigerator. A good highball has lots of effervescence and very cold liquids will keep that cocktail bubbly.
  • Get your ratios right. Many recipes for a highball will instruct you to “top the glass with soda” but that isn’t specific enough! A good ratio is 1½ ounces of spirits to 4 ounces of soda. Pour these into the glass accurately.
  • Be gentle. Pouring the liquids first and then carefully adding ice will keep things bubbly. The carbonation is a signature element of a highball — don’t waste it all by being too rough!
  • Add some citrus. Almost all highballs are happier with a squeeze of citrus juice or a nice twist.

Too much work? There’s always takeout

The rise of the takeout cocktail might be one of the only bright spots to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The relaxed liquor laws in Pennsylvania have allowed some of our favorite bars and restaurants to get creative with getting mixed drinks into our hands. Wes’ recommendations are Lorelei and The Summit, while the Very Local team would add canned to-go cocktails from The Warren, Hidden Harbor/The Independent, Bar Botanico, and Soju to the list.

Back to School: Home Ec

This story is part of Very Local’s Back to School series. Here are a few more of our Home Ec. stories that we think you might enjoy:


📸 Header photo credit: Adam Jaime on Unsplash

Wes Shonk has worked at Hidden Harbor, Butcher & The Rye, and Wigle Whiskey. He is currently developing a cocktail business in Pittsburgh.

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