Get Off Your Lazy Ass and Make Yourself a Decent Cocktail

Drink Features cocktails
Get Off Your Lazy Ass and Make Yourself a Decent Cocktail

One of the prevailing challenges in the American cocktail scene is one of those problems a drinks writer is perhaps least likely to write about. We’re not about to argue that drinkers’ tastes are so poor they can’t appreciate a good cocktail–many adventurous drinkers are willing to branch out into the bold and exciting flavors that have fueled the mixology revolution of the last couple decades. The problem ultimately isn’t that folks don’t value the experience of drinking good cocktails … it’s that all too many drinkers are unwilling to take the next step and make those cocktails for themselves. Whether it’s because they think cocktails are too complex, or because they think it’s too much work, or because they’ve been increasingly infantilized by poorly made “ready to drink” (RTD) products proliferating on store shelves, the biggest problem in cocktail culture these days is often that people can’t be bothered to make a real one in the first place.

At a time when spirits are hotter than ever on the American market, it’s just sort of funny to see such an aversion to home mixology from many drinkers. It should go without saying that this obviously does not apply to everyone, as there are clearly many passionate home bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts mixing up thousands and thousands of libations on a daily basis. But I have personally met all too many drinkers who love to visit a craft cocktail bar and plunk down their $15 for a Manhattan … but would never make one for themselves at home. The ongoing surge of RTD products points toward the existence of this subset of the market–if these drinkers preferred to mix their own basic cocktails, then sales of canned old fashioneds, manhattans or margaritas wouldn’t be skyrocketing in 2022-2023. The boom of RTD indicates a willingness to accept convenience–or the perception of convenience–over quality.

This is a deeper issue, though, than simply characterizing drinkers as lazy–apologies for the confrontational headline, but it got your attention, right? We’ll dive more into the RTD shelf shortly, but first let’s examine some of the other reasons why consumers seem to be reticent to make their own cocktails.

The Mystique of the Craft Cocktail

In the boom of American cocktail bars and serious cocktail culture that has unfolded from the 2000s onward, the tastes of American drinkers have matured in appreciable ways. Lost classics of an earlier era have been unearthed and repopularized, while modern innovation has driven the creation of numerous now-classic cocktails. The worst, most saccharine faux cocktails (Harvey Wallbanger, etc.) of the 1970s-1990s have been largely discarded, relegated to dive bars or ironic happy hours. In general, it’s a good time to be a person who appreciates spirits, and it’s not hard to find a great drink.

The flip side of the increased esteem we’ve afforded to cocktail culture, bartenders and “mixologists,” however, is that it puts the people creating our drinks onto something of a pedestal for many consumers. The more we characterize their work as artisanal and brilliant, the more it implies that what they do behind the bar can’t be done to a reasonable capacity by an average person in their kitchen. This simply isn’t true, but this perception is one of the things that holds back the average consumer from making their own cocktails: They believe it’s a special skill and are anxious about their own lack of expertise. They see the mixing of a Manhattan–not to mention cocktails that are significantly more complex–as something to be “left to the professionals.”

Suffice to say, I don’t like this outlook one bit. It is absolutely true that a professional bartender can probably make a better overall cocktail than you or me, knowing tricks of the trade as they do, but it’s also true that the average consumer can make a drink just as delicious, or so close as to really make no difference. Do we let the fact that we can’t always make restaurant-worthy food stop us from cooking at home? Of course not; so why should the same thing stop us from making drinks? It’s this aura of cocktails that needs to be demystified for many, the idea that they’re specialized potions that need some kind of alchemical degree to create. The recipes are all available online, it’s just a matter of making an effort. You screwed a cocktail up? There’s no reason you can’t simply try again. You’ll probably be inventing your own drinks in no time.

5 Delicious Variations on the Last Word Cocktail Tell me you don’t want to enjoy a handmade cocktail in your own backyard.

Likewise, some consumers look at cocktail recipes and simply shrug in apathy because they think the effort of acquiring ingredients will be too time consuming, expensive or difficult to make home cocktails practical. And yet, these are so often the same people who are fine with spending $15 on that Manhattan riff, provided it comes from a hotel bar. Suffice to say, expense is a relative idea, and yes, getting into making home cocktails does require a certain investment in things such as spirits, bitters, juices, glassware, a drink shaker/tin, etc. But many of those products are infinitely reusable, or will last you for a long, long time. Is it pricey to pick up, say, a bottle of Green Chartreuse? Yeah, but you’ll probably be making Last Word cocktails with it for a year or two once you do. Someone who is very new to mixing drinks, meanwhile, can start in a specific corner of the cocktail world to simplify this process, collecting only ingredients that work in say, whiskey-based cocktails. More advanced genres such as tiki cocktails, which frequently require many ingredients, represent a level enthusiasts might explore later on.

Where to get those ingredients, tools and gadgets? Well, they’ve never been more widely available, and there’s never been a better time to explore the home cocktail market. There are so many companies specializing in providing every conceivable style of bitters, cocktail syrups or juices that we’re typically presented with an embarrassment of options.

Finally, I think it bears mentioning that spirits writers–myself included–have also played a role in mystifying cocktails and putting them on a pedestal, making average consumers arguably less likely to mix them. How many times have you read a recipe online, insisting that you must have fresh-squeezed lime juice to make any given drink? This kind of language is rampant, and I hate the argument it seems to make: That if you’re going to make a drink, it has to be completely perfect and optimal.

Suffice to say, I think that’s a terrible philosophy, one that is likely to stop consumers from ever trying to make anything, because they’ll always believe that the conditions aren’t right. Oh darn, no fresh lime juice, I guess I shouldn’t make that daiquiri! Oh no, my vermouth is on the stale side, guess I won’t have a Manhattan! Damn, I’m out of bourbon, guess I won’t experiment with substituting rye whiskey.

No fresh lime juice? Make do with what you have, and don’t let that stop you.

Cocktails don’t need to be optimal, or perfect. Is fresh lime juice nice to have? Sure, by all means buy and squeeze some limes if you’re planning on having people over and mixing up a batch of cocktails. But when it’s a weekday evening and you want to make a drink, but don’t have any limes? Use the bottled lime juice from concentrate! Use the tiny canned pineapple juices! Try substituting one spirit or liqueur for another, if you’ve run out! You had better believe that if I want a mai tai, and I have the rum, curacao and orgeat on hand, I’m not about to hold off on making it just because I don’t have any fresh limes. A cocktail that is 90% optimal is still 90% better than no cocktail at all.

RTD Drinks Are Getting Lazier and Lazier

I don’t hate the world of ready-to-drink cocktails off hand. I’ve sampled quite a few of these brands for Paste at this point, and I do believe they serve a purpose in some cases. RTD drinks are well suited for making simple cocktails (G&T, old fashioned, etc.) in particular, and I will grant that they allow people to bring simple mixed drinks and cocktails into places where they wouldn’t usually go. More complex drinks such as tiki cocktails are often absolutely butchered in RTD form, but that’s to be expected. There’s no denying, though, that the convenience pitch made by RTD cocktails in the last few years has played its own role in consumers deciding not to mix their own drinks, and that is a problem. When we’ve reached a point where people are actually buying canned Jack & Coke to consume at home, we know we’ve hit some new peak of laziness.

The Canned "RTD" Cocktail Boom is a Worst Case Scenario for Tiki Drinks No classic cocktail gets bastardized quite as badly as the mai tai.

I will at least concede that you can easily bring a product like canned Jack & Coke on a hike (yuck), or to the beach, or in a cooler to a BBQ without needing to bring a bottle of liquor or worry about finding cups. Those are legitimately convenient aspects. Where I draw the line is the idea of cracking one of these open in your own home, rather than spending the 20 extra seconds it would take to make a far better whiskey cola of your own, one that is actually tailored to your own tastes. Acting like putting whiskey and cola in a cup is “inconvenient” is patently absurd.

This is the push-and-pull of so many mediocre RTD mixed drinks and cocktails–most fall into “okay” territory, but choosing them simultaneously means ultimately settling for something significantly less delicious than what you could easily make for yourself. And consumers are seemingly willing to forgive so much in these products, for reasons unknown–they don’t seem to mind that many are lacking in carbonation when they should have it, or feature starkly artificial citrus flavors, or are far weaker than the cocktail in question should actually be. Most of the time they’re even far more expensive than making superior home cocktails would be … and that’s assuming what you’ve purchased contains spirits at all, and isn’t a hard seltzer with alcohol from malt fermentation, trying to trick the consumer into thinking it’s a proper cocktail.

The RTD market has widened and diversified to such a sprawl, in fact, that there are now even super premium, ultra-luxe bottled cocktails out there today, such as the $150 bottle of old fashioned I tasted a while back. Was it a quality drink? Sure, but for $150 I could provide quality drinks for my household for months.

In the end, it all comes down to what we value in the world of spirits and cocktails. At the end of the day, is flavor and quality important to you? Or is the prospect of saving 60 seconds–in exchange for a worse drink–too enticing to pass up? Remember, the cocktail you mix at home doesn’t need to be perfect in order to have value. In fact, whatever you make will almost certainly have more value than what you pour from a can, regardless of whether your ingredients or technique aren’t quite right.

A great home cocktail is a beautiful thing. Don’t deny yourself that pleasure for no reason.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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