Cocktails on a student budget

Loughlin Sweeney 7 March 2013

Nothing adds to the elegance of a party like a good selection of cocktails. However, cocktails are an acquired taste, expensive and time-consuming to assemble… Or are they? Is it possible to construct a decent cocktail cabinet without spending hundreds of pounds?

The short answer is no. A cocktail is only as good as its ingredients. The long answer, however, is that if you’re willing to pare down your cocktail bar to the bare essentials, and compromise somewhat on the quality of your liquor, you can acquire the tools to host respectable cocktail parties for about fifty quid. Here are some tips to ensure the evening goes successfully.

It is important to remember that the success of the evening depends on the first cocktail – after that, your guests will become increasingly compliant and sympathetic. If you’re going to splash out, therefore, do so early and save the paint thinner for the very end.

The first thing to consider when assembling a budget cocktail cabinet is a collection of spirits. According to the experts, every cocktail bar worth its salt will have six basic spirits: gin, vodka, whisky, rum, brandy and tequila. For our pared-down purposes, we selected three of these which can be found in countless cocktail recipes: vodka, whisky and rum.

According to our friendly local barman, the cheapest spirits can be got at Aldi on Histon Road – a bit of a trek, especially considering the local bus only runs once every hour. However, at less than ten pounds a bottle it’s definitely worth a trip. The vodka is hideous, as you might expect, but the bourbon and rum, while decidedly third-rate, were nonetheless sufficient for our purposes.

An overlooked ingredient for cocktails on the cheap is sparkling wine, which became our fourth bottle. It’s a surprisingly versatile cocktail ingredient, which harmonises with all sorts of weird ingredients. If you have a bottle of disgusting peach schnapps lying around and no way to get rid of it, make it more palatable by adding sparkling wine, producing a Bellini dodgier than an Italian election. Both Tesco and Sainsbury’s offer cava at under £5 a bottle, though Sainsbury’s is marginally better quality.

So, there we have it – we’re well on our way to cocktail mastery, and we’ve only spent £35.

Where the whole thing begins to get less cost-effective is with the addition of mixers. Many classic cocktails involve the addition of a second type of booze which on its own is quite unpalatable. No-one wants to blow £26 on a bottle of Fernet Branca that just sits on your shelf, waiting for the next time you bother to mix up a Toronto (or ‘Canadian Manhattan’, where it replaces the vermouth).

If you want a really bare-bones setup, I would advise steering clear of these ingredients. Otherwise, you should probably invest in some sweet vermouth for Martinis and Manhattans, coffee liqueur for White Russians, and Cointreau, a versatile ingredient in many classic cocktails. You’ll also need soda water, Indian tonic, ginger ale and various fruit juices and soft drinks. Oh, and plenty of ice. Cocktails, generally speaking, are pretty horrible warm.

If you want to experiment with odd flavours, and have about a month to spare, you could always try making your own flavoured vodka. This quite simply involves putting whole fruit, sweets or spices into a bottle of cheap vodka and leaving it to stew for around four weeks. This is popularly done with Smarties, lemons, cinnamon and red chili (though not all at once). According to a recipe from the 1860s, it also works with brandy.

If you want to branch out into proper mixology, but for some reason desire only two of the necessary mixological ingredients (you mad person, you), then those two ingredients ought to be Angostura bitters and limes. They go with almost everything, and they are delicious. Angostura, made in Jamaica to a closely-guarded secret recipe, imparts a delicious spiced flavor to a drink. Once you try them, you will want to add them to all your creations!

Cocktail garnishes, especially various kinds of fruit, are well worth the extra effort. They’re not only there for visual appeal, either – anyone who has ever had a Manhattan will know the booze-soaked cherry at the bottom is the best part.

Many cocktail recipes call for the addition of ‘simple syrup’, to add sweetness and take some of the edge off the alcohol. This is quite literally just sugar and water, and it’s incredibly simple to make – just dissolve some sugar into hot water (in a ratio of 1:1) and leave to cool.

There are a lot of fantastic cocktails out there made with ingredient you probably have lying around the place. An often-overlooked ingredient that makes a beautiful cocktail is honey, as in the Air Mail, below.

As for cocktail making apparatus, much of it is fairly self-explanatory. A bar spoon is for stirring. A muddler is for ‘muddling’ ingredients together in the glass, releasing their delicious juices. A fairly indispensable bit of kit is the cocktail shaker, which forcefully combines ingredients through vigourous shaking. Also, it makes you look like a real pro.

There is no easy way of making crushed ice without an ice maker. Anyone who has found a simple method for crushing ice, please write in and let us know. One old-school method which can give you a bit more surface area than a standard ice cube is to freeze a large block of water in a Tupperware container and chip off fragments with an ice pick.

It goes without saying that, if you are planning to indulge to excess, especially on the cheap, don’t expect to get a whole lot done the following morning.

Simple, well-worth-it cocktails with easy-to-obtain ingredients (these are not definitive recipes; the most important thing is to make them how you like):

1. Vodka Gimlet: vodka and lime cordial in a ratio of 4:1. Garnish with a lime slice. Can be served straight or on the rocks.

2. Planter’s Punch: 2 measures dark rum, 1 measure orange juice, 1 measure pineapple juice, 0.5 measures lemon juice and 0.5 measures sugar syrup. Mix in a highball tumbler filled with ice and add four dashes of Angostura bitters. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.

3. White Russian: 2 measures vodka, 1 measure coffee liqueur in an ice-filled tumbler. Pour approximately three measures of milk or cream over the back of a spoon so it floats on top of the alcohol.

4. Air mail: 2 measures rum, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, 1 measure honey syrup, shaken and strained into a champagne glass. Top up with cava, and add 2 shakes of Angostura bitters

5. Whisky Sour: 2 measures bourbon, 1 measure fresh lemon juice, 0.5 measures sugar syrup. Shake well and serve over ice.

6. Brown Derby #2: 2 measures bourbon, 1 measure grapefruit juice and 1 spoonful honey. Shake with ice and serve in a cocktail glass

7. French 75: 1 measure gin, 0.5 measures lemon juice, 2 tsp demerara sugar, shaken with ice. Pour into a champagne glass and top up with cava (which I suppose really makes it a ‘Spanish 75′)

8. Cuba Libre (the grownup’s answer to rum and coke): a squeeze of fresh lime juice from a halved lime, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, a double measure of rum, coca-cola and ice. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a dash of gin. Garnish with a lime slice.

9. Cosmopolitan: 2 measures vodka, 1 measure Cointreau, 1 measure cranberry juice, squeeze of lime juice. Shake with ice and serve in a cocktail glass.

10. Classic Daiquiri: 2 measures rum, 1 measure Cointreau, squeeze of lime juice, 0.5 measures simple syrup. Shake with ice and serve in a cocktail glass.

Loughlin Sweeney