Even if you’re stuck at home, dipping into the emergency whiskey, you can usually still make something tasty. In fact, you probably have what you need on hand already — because nearly every great cocktail just comes down to four basic ingredients.

You’ve made it through the long week, and it’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. How long has that bottle been sitting in the back of the cabinet?

Let me start by saying that this is in no way meant to trivialise the suffering of the thousands and thousands of victims of Hurricane Sandy. This was a true disaster, and our hearts go out to everyone effected. If you can, please consider donating to Red Cross Hurricane Aid and/or volunteering.

 

Backstory

I was one of the lucky ones when Sandy hit. My apartment happens to be at a pretty high elevation and the flood never came anywhere near us. I had flashlights, water, food and everything ready should we lose power, but I was confident that we were in no immediate danger. So we decided to make some drinks.

My “bar”, if you can call it that, is a pretty random hodgepodge of booze, collected haphazardly over the years. It’s not what one might call well-balanced. But you see, that doesn’t really matter, because a little wisdom goes a long way, and a wise man taught me the golden rule.

 

The Formula

What do you think goes into an Old Fashioned cocktail? It’s rye or bourbon, simple syrup, angostura and orange bitters, served over ice, garnished with a twist, right? Well, that’s right. But it’s not the whole story. That’s only one example of what an Old Fashioned can be.

According to our friend, master barman Sother Teague, an Old Fashioned isn’t a recipe, it’s a formula. “Sugar, water, spirits, bitters. That’s an Old Fashioned,” says Sother. “That’s the cocktail, right? And people seem to have it in their heads that it’s rye whiskey, angostura bitters, white sugar, and water. It’s not. It’s sugar, water, spirits, bitters — which means I can use any spirit I can get my hands on. I can use white sugar, brown sugar, pomegranate, molasses…”

Armed with that knowledge, let’s go forth an conquer some taste buds.

 

The Necessities

The one thing that you absolutely must have and cannot get away from is spirits, as in hard alcohol. It doesn’t matter what kind of spirits. But if you don’t have any I’m afraid you’re out of luck. As the saying goes, “It is not advisable to attempt home-distilling during a hurricane (or really any other time).” I just said that. Now it’s a saying.

Do not attempt to do something stupid, like use rubbing alcohol, hand sanitiser, hairspray, or mouthwash. I promise you, you’re better off sober. Seriously. This should be obvious, but it’s dangerous, so do not drink. Lesson for next time: Whiskey is a part of your storm preparation supply checklist.

The other almost-necessity is bitters. Bitters offer a very unique flavour that’s pretty much impossible to spoof with random ingredients. Just buy a bottle now and keep it around. It lasts a long time, and it is the glue that will hold your cocktail together. That said, if you’re reading this from a bunker and you forgot your bitters, we do have a suggestion for a substitute, but it’s not nearly as good as the real thing.

 

The Ratio

The exact ratio will vary depending on the ingredients you’re using and the flavour you’re going after. However, I would recommend starting with this ratio, and tweaking from there.

 

  • 56mL of spirits
  • 14mL of syrup
  • 1 dash of bitters
  • 1 or 2 ice cubes

 

Mix the ingredients in a rocks glass (tumbler) add one or two ice cubes, and stir steadily for 45 seconds. Express an orange peel over the top if you’ve got it, or use a few drops of orange bitters.

Working with what I had, my go-to cocktail this week ended up being:

 

  • 56mL ounces of bourbon
  • 14mL ounce of ginger syrup
  • 1 dash of Angostura bitters
  • 1 large ice cube
  • A few drops of Orange Citrate to top

 

It was freaking delicious and definitely helped calm me down a bit as my city was descending into chaos.

 

Break It Down

As Sother mention, the “sugar” component can really be just about anything. Syrup is great because it also helps take care of the “water” component. A good cocktail needs some dilution.

My ginger syrup was extremely simple. I had bought a bunch of ginger several months ago, and it was going to go bad, so I juiced it. I then used a 1:1 ratio of sugar by weight. Once combined I simply stirred until it dissolved. Some people will tell you to heat it, but that adds caramelised flavours and makes it too sweet. The raw sugar juice keeps all of that spicy bite. I put a lid on it, stuck it in the fridge and it still tastes about as fresh as the day it was made.

Another great way to make a syrup is with any fruit juices you happen to have in your fridge. Pour it into a pot, set the heat on low, bring it to a low simmer and keep it there, constantly stirring until you have a more viscous fluid. Let it cool some, then give it a taste. Add some sugar if necessary. This works with orange juice, apple juice, cranberry juice, really, pretty much anything. It’s delicious (as long as you don’t rush and burn it).

Or, y’know, just use maple syrup. Or make a simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water by weight (or double the sugar, if by volume).

As I said, for bitters, there isn’t a whole lot you can do to replace a good bottle of Angostura. The closest subsitution I was able to find was by tossing four bags of black tea and a pinch of ground coffee into 340mL of boiling water and simmering it until the water was just about completely gone. Then put the solids into a paper coffee filter (or a clean sock — hey, it’s an emergency), and squeeze into a container. It certainly won’t be as bitter as real bitters, but it can help bind your cocktail in a pinch. You can also try adding a little zest off a lemon peel if you have one lying around.

 

Why Bother?

Some of you will no doubt be wondering, “What the point? You’ve got the booze, the booze gets you drunk. Why gussy it up with all this fancy crapt?” To each his own. I can only tell you why I’m recommending sipping cocktails rather than throwing back shots.

When the shit hits the fan, and things are falling down around you, sometimes you want our escape to not just be a deadening of the mind, but an awakening of something else. Treating yourself to something delicious in a dire situation can help remind you that, regardless of today’s struggles, there are sweeter times ahead.

Anyway. Those are the basics. Now that you have the formula, you can experiment with your own formulas. Try some crazy combinations. You might just end up inventing the next great cocktail. If you have a custom concoction you’re especially proud of, please let us know.