How to Make a Cocktail
It's best to gather and prepare all your materials before pouring anything, so you don't have hunt for it later. This includes corralling bottles, taking out tools and making any fresh citrus juice or simple syrup you may need, if you haven't made any beforehand. Be sure to have a trash can nearby and something to wipe up any inevitable spills!
When reduced to its core elements, making a cocktail is nothing more than combining booze with a few other ingredients, and chilling them down with ice. In fact, the basic steps to making most cocktails is pretty much the same. You gather and combine your ingredients, shake or stir them with ice, and strain the mixture into a glass.
While many of the pages on Social Hour delve into the finer (aka nerdy) points of cocktail methodology, which I encourage you to follow down the rabbit hole as far your little bunny feet desire, on this page we're just looking at the big picture. The majority of the time, this is what making a cocktail will involve:
Building a cocktail means to measure (important!) and combine all the ingredients into the mixing glass or shaker - excluding anything carbonated of course - before adding the ice (also important!). This can be done several minutes before you’re ready to serve the drinks. So if you have a moment, this would also be a good time to wipe up and put away any items you no longer need.
It’s go time! Fill the shaker or mixing glass all the way up with ice, and shake or stir, depending on the drink. To shake, vigorously thrust the shaker back and forth for 8-10 seconds. Give it all you’ve got! To stir, use a barspoon or the closest thing you have, and push the ice around for 18-25 seconds. If you have smaller ice cubes, you can shake/stir for a little less time. If they're larger, say an inch in diameter or so, they will melt slower, so you can go for a bit longer.
When you're finished mixing, strain your cocktail into the glass. This just means pouring from the mixing vessel into the glass it will be served in (preferably one that's been chilled) using a strainer as pictured above, which filters out the ice. If the cocktail is served on the rocks, it’s a good idea to strain over fresh ice. Finally, apply any garnishes. If it doesn't make a difference to you, a garnish can be omitted if it's purely for visuals. But don't skip citrus twists; those make a world of difference and should always be added anytime they are called for.
Here is some basic lingo used to describe the glass a drink may be served in and whether it contains ice. No doubt, many of you will be familiar with these, you are reading a cocktail site after all.
Common Cocktail Serves
Straight up, on the rocks, or neat.
Also sometimes simply called "up", this is a cocktail that is served in a stemmed cocktail glass - such as a coupe or martini glass - with no ice. A Manhattan or Martini are common examples. Unlike all other glasses, these are specifically used for to cocktails, which is why bars often use the image of a Martini glass as symbolic shorthand for “cocktails.”
This is the least utilized serve, and sort of a hybrid of the other two. Neat means a drink served in a rocks glass, but with no ice. It’s more common for sipping a single spirit without ice, as in “whiskey, neat”, but there are a handful of cocktails that are traditionally served this way, most notably the Sazerac, which is pictured above. It could be applied to any cocktail though. You might, for example, order a Manhattan neat, if you don't want it in a stemmed glass.
On the Rocks
“Rocks” are bar slang for ice cubes. A cocktail served on the rocks means it’s served in a lowball or “rocks glass” with ice.
You’re done! All that’s left to do is put your feet up and revel in that first sip. Cheers!
Keep in mind, these phrases only apply to cocktails which are served in rocks or up/cocktail glasses. You can see a broader list of common types of cocktail glassware here. For example, a drink served in highball glass, like a Gin & Tonic, will typically be served over ice, but you wouldn’t say it is served “on the rocks”. Or take a cocktail served in a Champagne flute, it won't have any ice, but isn't served “up”.
Also, while most cocktails have a way they are customarily served, don't feel shackled by tradition. It's your drink. You can have in any cocktail in any glass you like, with or without ice.