Skip to main content

Secrets revealed: Easy ways to elevate your cocktail game from a pro mixologist

How to improve your home mixology game

grasshopper cocktail
Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

Making a top-notch cocktail is not implied. Even if you’re working with a great drink recipe or all the necessary ingredients, you still have to execute. Fortunately, we know some people in the trade who have been turning out incredible cocktails for years.

That’s certainly the case with Mike Milligan. He’s the lead barkeep at Four Seasons in Oahu. From twists on classic cocktails to nailing a good egg white drink, he’s the man for the job.

As is often the case, the skillset did not come overnight. Milligan has been putting in the shifts, reading up on the culture of the trade and reading his customers too. He gets assists from the right tools and pays attention to the details. In the end, it all adds up and if you ever find yourself in Oahu, pop over to his bar and have a drink — you’ll experience immediately what we’re talking about.

We looked him up for some tips that readers can use to up their home mixology game. “Leveling up the home bar game is quite easy,” he admits. “We lay the foundation with the proper tools coupled with supreme execution.”

Read on for his tips on making better cocktails.

The right tools

Bartender making alcoholic cocktail in red color, metal jigger and bar environment

“Everything we work with requires consistent measurement, so when we reach for tools such as jiggers, mixing vessels and other gadgets, we always use Cocktail Kingdom,” Milligan says. “They produce current, attractive, and functional equipment that is built sturdy.”

He likes the whole line, from bar spoons, strainers and shakers to droppers. The right tools will make following recipes or whipping up something of your own design all the easier. That does not mean you need the latest cocktail infuser or smoker — but perhaps that’s your thing — but it does mean you need some of the essentials. Investing a bit for better quality is almost always worth it, especially when it comes to staples like mixing glasses and shaker tins.

Better ice

Fumo Nero cocktail.

“When it comes to water and ice, we feel they are often overlooked,” he says. “We insist on the highest quality we can offer which greatly enhances the cocktails we create not only in flavor but in presentation as well. With no off-putting flavors the cocktails reach extraordinary levels.”

That means a variety of fresh ice. “We stock many different styles of ice in our daily operation from pebbles or crushed, big blocks, bars, and, of course, the Hoshizaki cubes,” he continues. “These variations give us tremendous flexibility when it comes to building recipes.”

What drink calls for what ice? “Time and place will always dictate style,” Milligan insists. “Sand between your toes and an umbrella over your head, it might just be Mai Tai time, so we’re definitely rolling with the crushed ice. Snow on the trees and a roaring fireplace, it’s big block time, perhaps a perfect Manhattan to keep cozy. Purified ice changes the game entirely.”

The right wisdom

Liquid Intelligence cocktail book.

We’re always students, no matter what the trade. Milligan relies on some great books to keep his game sharp. “Having access to a library of libations is also a must, and there are endless resources,” he says. “For those just beginning, we recommend Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold. It’s a great place in which to begin the journey.”

These days, there are mixology books that go way beyond just recipes. You can nerd out on everything from the chemistry of effervescence to the renegade cocktails devised during Prohibition. The scene has become sizable, and the number of related books is evidence. Study up to understand the culture better. At the very least, you’ll gain more appreciation, and that will rub off on your technique the next time you make a beverage.

Also, check out some of our favorite cocktail books. They’re easy to get your hands on and will illuminate the culture of the craft, on top of outfitting you with the knowledge and tips you need to make a better drink.

A few other tips

A pair of classic sidecar cocktails, served in vintage cocktail glasses with sugared rims, sitting on a vintage silver cocktail tray

Entire books have been devoted to mixology, and for good reason, as the topic is vast. Generally, though, there are a few additional things you can do to keep your cocktail-making game strong and full of victories:

  • Always use fresh citrus
  • Be sure your glassware is clean (and appropriate, depending on the cocktail)
  • Make ice in an odor-free environment
  • Practice making garnishes
  • Properly store your perishables (refrigerate juices, open bottles of amaro and vermouth, syrups, etc.)
  • Use sharp knives

With the above by your side, better cocktails are just around the corner. Don’t forget to experiment and play around with different types of spirits or different styles. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules, but do honor the tried-and-true guidelines that have lasted generations.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
The best sparkling water cocktails to rival hard seltzers
Like hard seltzers? You can make even more flavorful drinks at home with these great sparkling water cocktail recipes
Fresh spring sparkling water

With all due respect to the White Claw crowd, there are better hard seltzer options out there. Among them are the recipes you can tackle at home, provided you have at least a few popular spirits. After all, while canned cocktails can be delicious, it's tough to top one made fresh, especially when there's citrus and other fruit involved.

Bartenders know that sparkling water is a key ingredient in many cocktails and having some soda water or club soda ready is always a good idea. Sparkling water can balance out ingredients, add some fizzy texture, and impart a pleasant sense of minerality. Yes, it's clear and neutral looking but it pops with energy and is just begging to be in your next favorite cocktail.

Read more
Your home bar needs these quick and easy simple syrup recipes
Want to sweeten up your home bar? Try these simple syrup recipes to up your cocktail game
Man preparing quick cocktails at home

Whether you have a sweet tooth or simply need to balance out an earthy cocktail, simple syrup is an essential part of any bar. You can find various pre-made syrups and mixers on store shelves, but all you need for a great simple syrup is a saucepan and some sugar. Once you have the basics down, flavors are only limited by your imagination.

Aptly named, simple syrup is easy to make and can last up to three months in the refrigerator. Just boil equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves, and then let it cool. You can also make simple syrup in a jar or container if you have time to spare, but the resulting (thinner) syrup will have a shorter shelf life.

Read more
The classic vodka cocktails you need to know how to make
Here are some simple recipes that require vodka as the star ingredient
Moscow mule cocktail with lime and mint in a copper mug

Vodka may never wear the royal crown when it comes to celebrated spirits. But that's just fine, as the relatively neutral spirit tends to do better as a mixer than a standalone drink. Granted, there are some remarkable top-shelf vodkas out there, but by and large, this spirit wants to jump in the glass with some other ingredients and play around.

Want some more reasons to appreciate vodka? Let's start with price point, as it tends to be one of the most inexpensive spirits out there. Next, let's chat about its versatility. That mild flavor can do well with just about anything (yup, even a good vodka pasta sauce). Lastly, it's a fun drink with lots of history and folklore. This is the stuff of ice bars, caviar chasers, and, in some cases, putting potatoes to work.

Read more