If you order a drink in a good bar, chances are it will taste better than what you can make at home. But it doesn't have to be like that. By following some simple strategies, you can greatly improve the quality of your cocktails. You may not reach A+ level, but with just a little work, you'll soon be the bartending star of the block.
1. Buy a couple pieces of decent equipment. At the very least you need a cocktail shaker and a jigger. The two together will only cost you $20 and you'll be set to make most drinks. (You can also buy a low-cost set from a store like BarProducts.com. I have this particular set and it's hard to beat for the price.)
2. Measure! Once you've got your jigger, you can start measuring all your liquids that go into the drink. This is crucial.
3. Use good ice. I wrote about ice a couple years ago, so I won't go into too much detail. If you can't make good, fresh ice at home (you need a clean, odorless freezer to do so), then buy a bag at the store. Some people are down on bought ice, but I think it's fine for most purposes.
4. Buy good quality booze. The better the booze, the better your drinks will taste. But this doesn't necessarily require you to spend a lot of money. Cruzan Rum, for example, is perfectly fine and costs less than Bacardi. Sobieski makes good quality vodka that is very cheap. You can find Tanqueray Gin on sale for under $20.
5. Know when to splurge. Bite the bullet and spend the extra money to get Cointreau and Grand Marnier (for example). They're more expensive than the other brands, but they're better. The difference between Cointreau and generic triple sec in a drink is night-and-day. The good news is, most cocktails only require an ounce or less of a liqueur. So you'll get at least 25 drinks from that one bottle. It's worth it.
6. Use fresh juices. Everyone says this, and there's a reason for that. I do sometimes use canned/bottled juices (Bad Professor!), but most varieties just don't taste very good. If you use fresh lime and lemon juice, your drinks will taste better. You can get away with buying orange juice and grapefruit juice from the store, but try to get fresh, not-from-concentrate.
7. Avoid any mixers with high fructose corn syrup. In addition to being bad for you, HFCS doesn't mix well in cocktails. You can almost always find substitutes that contain real sugar. They probably won't even cost any more. You just need to read labels.
8. Buy some decent glasses. A few highball, cocktail, rocks, and collins glasses won't set you back very much, but they'll make your drink experience so much nicer. The right glass can also make your drink taste better, by ensuring you don't flood it with too much mixer. You can buy Libbey brand glasses at Amazon or Target and they don't cost very much. Or you can find unique glasses at your local thrift store for very cheap.
9. Don't substitute ingredients until you know what you're doing. If a recipe calls for a particular kind of juice or liqueur or mixer, use it. You need to have a good understanding of the flavors before you can start changing things up. Sometimes substitutions work — but they often end up in a wasted glass of booze.
10. Taste your drinks before you serve them. If you watch videos on YouTube of bartenders in high-end cocktail bars, you'll often notice them tasting their cocktails before pouring them into the glass. (The usual method of doing this is to take a straw, plug one end, and dip it in the drink. This draws out a small amount that you can taste.) This is your last chance to fix anything in your cocktail that might be off. Too sweet? Add more citrus. Too tart? Add more sweetener. Etc.
If you have any tips that you'd like to share, please post them in the comments below, or email them along.