Cocktail preferences are as varied as personalities. Do you have a vintage heart like an Old-Fashioned, or are you refreshingly bold like a mojito? To find the cocktail that fits your taste, Black Pig executive chef Michael Nowak suggests starting out with a well-stocked home liquor cabinet. "By just having a dozen different bottles of liquor at your home bar, you can make a plethora of drinks," Nowak says.
Stock up. If you lack the knowledge of how different liquors taste on their own or mixed with other ingredients, Nowak has an easy fix. "Start with a cocktail you like drinking," he says, "and tweak things to your personal taste." Nowak takes one of his favorite drinks, a sidecar, and uses rye whiskey or applejack in place of brandy for a slightly different flavor profile.
Do the math. The stronger the spirit, the more acid and sweetener you can add. Pouring a simple syrup or muddling sugar into the glass is the easiest, but you can also use agave or honey. For acids, rely on lemons, limes and oranges as a base. "Every successful cocktail is strong, sweet and acidic," says Nowak. "So when you're creating a drink, just like creating a food dish, you look for a balance."
Get mixing. Unless you're drinking something steamy like a hot toddy, all cocktails use ice in some fashion. How you mix the drink determines if it's watered down or well-rounded. "If you're putting lemon, lime or orange juice in it, you're going to give the cocktail a shake because they have different weights and you need to blend them all together into one mixture," he says. "If you're blending different liquors, you're going to give the cocktail a gentle stir to bring it together."