Cocktails on a Budget: How to Save Money in your Home Bar

MIXOLOGY TALK PODCAST #191

As someone who (now) loves gin, it’s hard to imagine that it’s one of the most polarizing spirits. But even I, an avid gin-drinker and recent gin-infuser, didn’t always care for it. So how do you go from a gin-hater to a gin-convert? Julia asked our Craft Cocktail Club Facebook group this exact question, and she and Chris are talking today about why you might not actually hate gin— and how to make your gin-drinking experience more pleasant and approachable.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 1:40– You’re Doing it Wrong: Cheap gin isn’t worth it
  • 6:25– You’re Trying the Wrong Style: London Dry vs. New Western Dry
  • 13:50–You’re Not Mixing It: Gin cocktail and mixer suggestions

CHEAP GIN DOES NOT MAKE A MARTINI… USE QUALITY GIN!

Like many people, maybe you think you hate gin because you’ve had some bad experiences with it. I mean, if you did shots of cheap, warm gin in high school, then yeah… You probably aren’t a fan. Here are some common mistakes that will ruin your appreciation for gin (or any spirit, really):

  • Buying cheap liquor: We get it. When you’re young and broke, you often go for the biggest, cheapest plastic handle on the bottom shelf. Don’t do it. Low-quality gin is especially abrasive, as Julia puts it, so of course you aren’t going to like it.

    “Here’s just a general guideline: If you can throw your bottle of booze and it bounces, it’s probably a bad purchase.” —Chris

  • Mixing your gin with low-quality mixers: Mixers can ruin your cocktail, especially if you use low-quality gin or other alcohol with your cheap mixer.
  • Mixing your cocktail incorrectly: Gin and tonic is not meant to be a 50/50 ratio! Learning how to properly mix a drink can go a long way.
  • Letting pop culture guide your idea of what drinking gin will be like: Movies like The Great Gatsby make drinking gin look so cool, but it’s not going to instantly put you in a tuxedo like Leo! If you do all of the above and make low-quality, crappy-tasting drinks, your gin cocktail is not going to live up to the hype.

    “When I was in college or probably late in high school, there were a lot of songs about gin, ‘Gin and Juice,’ so you kind of have this idea in your head of what it was going to taste like. And then you had it and you were like ‘This is awful. I hate everything about this. Why would I ever have this again?”— Chris

GIN STYLES MATTER: LONDON DRY VS. NEW WESTERN DRY GIN

Obviously there are several different styles of gin, but we’re focusing on two today: London Dry gin and New Western Dry gin. There are other styles of gin that we’ll cover this month (make sure to check out our next podcast with gin expert Phillip Duff), but for our purposes today, we’re really just talking about the two most common types of gin you’ll see on the market right now.

LONDON DRY GIN

If you’ve ever tasted a gin and felt like you’ve just been smacked in the face with a Christmas tree, you probably had London Dry gin. This popular, juniper-heavy gin isn’t for everyone. My husband and I describe London Dry as “piney,” and the juniper flavor comes through in mixed drinks but is especially strong in spirit-forward cocktails like martinis. 

Juniper-heavy gins can play well in certain cocktails because its flavor is more obvious, while other gins can be subtle. But whatever you do, don’t go buying yourself cheap Christmas tree gin! If you’re going with a London Dry style, buy quality gin. 

Examples: Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Bombay Sapphire

NEW WESTERN DRY GIN

This style of gin still includes juniper (it has to in order to be classified as gin), but this essential ingredient is balanced with everything else. New Western gins are often citrus-driven, making them more approachable for a variety of palates. 

If you’re new to gin cocktails, go for this more aromatic, floral, and citrusy style of gin. There are many options that are not “as offensive with the juniper,” as Julia puts it. Because they are more balanced and subtle, these gins play very differently in cocktails than London Dry gins, especially spirit-forward cocktails like martinis and a G&T. Try different styles and brands! 

“If you’re just starting to get into the world of gin, I think that the Western palate, certainly my palate, took a really long time to get used to that juniper flavor.” — Julia

Examples: Hendrick’s, Aviation, and Nolet’s

Personally, I got on board with gin after my husband introduced me to Hendrick’s, which is cucumber-heavy. It doesn’t hurt‌ ‌to‌ ‌experiment with styles and brands of gin to find the one that works best for‌ ‌you.

FINDING A GIN YOU LIKE ON A BUDGET

But wait, why would you want to spend a ton of money on various gins you may not even like? Of course, times are a little strange right now, but post-Covid, go make friends with your bartender! Visit to a craft bar (if you can find a gin-focused bar like Whitechapel in San Francisco, all the better) and ask to taste different styles and brands of gin, which will cost a lot less than buying several bottles and will also be a fun adventure.

  • Talk to your bartender about the flavor notes you love (and don’t).
  • Try a range of gins so you can narrow down what you like.
  • And tip your bartender very well— they are saving you lots of money!

    “This is a good way to taste quite a few gins without getting super drunk or… you know, poor.” —Julia

You’ll probably get a small taster, no more than ¼ oz– so you won’t get wasted from tasting a few varieties. It will be room temp, but that’s actually how you want to taste each spirit; the flavors and nuances will be more obvious. You’re not doing warm shots here, though! You’re just sipping and comparing.

“Whenever you get something cold, that’s when a lot of the aromas get subdued, so they’re not as intense. So if it’s warm, you’ll really be able to taste it, you’ll really be able to smell everything that’s in that gin, so I definitely recommend trying it warm. A little trick I learned is to actually put some in the palm of your hand, rub it, warm it up, and then just kind of cup it so that way all the aromas get sealed into your hand and then just kind of give it a quick smell. And that will give you some really interesting notes because you’re basically aerosolizing the gin and getting it warm so you can really get the aromatic notes in it.” —Chris

Just remember to wash your hands after!

MIX IT UP: GIN COCKTAILS AND MIXERS

How many times have you seen your friends exclude every gin cocktail on the menu? Or have you done this yourself? It breaks our hearts! You might miss out on something really great if you purposely don’t drink anything with gin. 

I once gave a bartender free reign at the San Diego speakeasy, Noble Experiment; he made me something I loved without any description, so I asked what was in it. His response: Gin and grapefruit. My husband almost fell off his barstool proclaiming, “But she hates gin and grapefruit!” The bartender’s response: “I guess she doesn’t.” Who knew?

This just goes to show that a beautifully-mixed craft cocktail with quality ingredients can really make a difference. Rember, there are other styles of gin besides London Dry, and there are great drinks that will mix and balance out all the flavors. A well-made cocktail will make sure you’re not getting inundated with juniper, even if the drink does use a London Dry gin.

TRY THESE PALATE-PLEASING GIN COCKTAILS

When she asked, Julia got way too many recommendations for yummy gin cocktails in our Facebook group! But here are some that come up often… Plus a few of our personal favorites:

Clover Club: With lemon, raspberry syrup, and egg white, this cocktail balances sweet and sour.
South Side: This is a great introduction to gin because it’s similar to a Mojito, but with gin and lemon instead of rum and lime.
Aviation: A classic cocktail, this also balances the sour of lemon juice with the sweet of Maraschino liqueur and Créme de Violette.
Corpse Reviver: Mixing several spirits with lemon juice, this is a strong but delicious cocktail!
Last Word: Equal parts gin, Maraschino liqueur, lime juice, and Green Chartreuse create a balanced, tart-but-slightly-sweet cocktail.

Although you might not want a London Dry style in certain cocktails, you may actually want the juniper to come through on other cocktails– so talk with your bartender, experiment, and figure out what works for your palate.

TIPS FOR GIN COCKTAILS AND MIXING GIN

OK, so now that you’re convinced to give gin another try, let’s review some tips to help you love gin:

  • When you’re new to gin, stay away from the spirit-focused cocktails that showcase juniper, such as a Negroni or martini.
  • Also stay away from simple mixers like tonic or soda water. There’s nothing to hide behind with these, so the gin will really be showcased.
  • If you are going to do something like G&T, make sure you also have a high-quality mixer!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your bartender for a gin that isn’t juniper-forward.
  • Gravitate towards cocktails that include citrus juice or simple syrup, which help subdue the juniper notes.
  • Try a sour, especially one with egg whites like the Clover Club.

“I think when you add egg white to a cocktail, it kind of mutes the flavor a little bit. And obviously you want the recipe to account for that, but it does the same for the gin, too. So even if you do make it with a really abrasive gin, it’s going to kind of calm that down a bit.” —Julia

  • A more visually-pleasing cocktail might also trick your brain into thinking the cocktail is wonderful before you even try it. We are visual creatures, after all.
  • Take baby steps on your gin journey! One cocktail will lead you to another and to another.

And if, after all of this, gin isn’t your thing… There’s nothing wrong with that! But if you’re guilty of the mistakes we’ve discussed today, give gin another shot! (Blame Chris and Julia for that pun.) If you don’t, you might never discover your new favorite drink. Our Facebook group will be happy to give you more tips, tricks, and recommendations— Our community loves to share their favorite spirits and cocktails, and we’d love to see what you make with your gin! And don’t forget to hop on over to our shop to grab all your cocktail-making supplies before you get started. Cheers!

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Melanie Tornroth

Melanie Tornroth

A former English teacher, Melanie optimistically embraces the struggle that is work-from-home parenthood as the in-house writer for A Bar Above. When not responding to “Mom” and writing articles for ABA, she also runs Goodnickels Photography, loves to cuddle her cats, and is perfecting the art of keeping her pandemic “fermentation babies” alive.

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