Here's how to take some simple and cheap pantry ingredients and make them feel like a fancy drink.

Jessica Ball, MS RD
May 24, 2020
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Pictured Recipe: Bee's Knees Cocktail

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

I am not much of a home bartender and, honestly, I usually just default to wine or occasionally beer after a long day. However, I typically like to enjoy a fun cocktail or two when I'm out to eat or at a bar with friends. Since that isn't really an option for many of us these days, I have learned to turn to my own pantry and fridge for cocktail inspiration. From coconut milk to pickle juice, you'd be surprised at how useful pantry items can be in making a fancy drink when you're in the mood (which, is almost every night these days).

There are several options to make cocktails at home with affordable ingredients you probably already have on hand and some may surprise you. With a little know-how, you can make drinks just as craveable as the ones we love and miss from our favorite bars and eateries.

The Base: Alcohol

First things first, most cocktails require at least some form of liquor or liqueur. Being a cocktail novice, this was the first thing I needed to acquire, but don't make an extra trip if you don't have to. You don't have to have one of everything, just zero in on a few types of alcohol that you know you like or already have and go from there. For me, we have really delicious local gin in Vermont that has become my new obsession (thanks to our Bee's Knees Cocktail). I also keep bourbon on hand for hot toddies and more.

Liquor can be more expensive to buy upfront than the typical bottle of wine or six-pack of beer that I would buy, but it lasts for many more servings, which helps make it more affordable in the long run (FYI: a serving is 1.5 ounces). Plus, drinking at home is cheaper than bar cocktails, so now might be a good time to invest in your home bar.

Pantry Ingredients for Cocktails

Things you already have on hand can be surprisingly useful for whipping up a fun beverage. Here are a few items that turn into fancy cocktail ingredients in a pinch.

  • Coconut milk: This creamy, vegan mixer can make any drink feel tropical. Simply blend with fruit and booze, and be transported to the beach.
  • Pickle juice: Don't throw away pickle liquid! It can be useful in many instances, and is especially delicious in a spicy Bloody Mary.
  • Olive brine: One word: martinis.
  • Coffee or tea: It may surprise you to hear that coffee and tea have made their way into happy hour. They add an earthy bitterness that offsets sweetness nicely in several mixed drinks, from Boozy Coffee Milkshakes to Blackberry Tea Sangria.
  • Honey or maple syrup: Many cocktail recipes call for simple syrup to add sweetness. This is not something I usually keep on hand (although it's easy enough to make your own with sugar and water), so I swap for honey or maple syrup where it makes sense. Additionally, several cocktails call for honey or maple syrup specifically to add their flavor along with sweetness.
  • Fruit juice: Yes, mimosas and vodka cranberries immediately come to mind. But mixing up your fruit juices can make drinks feel unique and new, as if you're trying this Festive Mezcal Cocktail at a local brunch place for the first time.
  • Canned or frozen fruit: The possibilities with blended frozen or canned fruit drinks are endless, especially if you pair them with coconut milk.
  • Canned tomatoes: Let me rock your breakfast world quickly: canned tomatoes can be blended and strained to make tomato juice in a pinch. Mix in some cayenne pepper or hot sauce if you like your Bloody Mary spicy.
  • Canned beans: There is this magical liquid called aqufaba that surrounds canned beans such as chickpeas. If you have been pouring it down the drain, stop right there. This liquid foams up and is a great vegan or vegetarian alternative to egg whites to add a froth to cocktails. Try our Aquafaba Gin Fizz or Maple Whiskey Sour to see for yourself.
  • Seltzer or tonic: From simple gin and tonics to an evening spritz, keeping some bubbles on hand will allow you to make several fun and refreshing drinks.

Choose Your Drink

Now for the fun part: choosing your drink of choice. Once you get more familiar with what ingredients go with what drinks, this will get easier. I found a few cocktails that work well with things I know I usually have, and they have become my new go-tos. I can pretty much always count on having lemons and honey, which puts the Bee's Knees and hot toddies on the menu. When I have seltzer, I know I have the liqueurs to make an Aperol spritz. Your preferences may be different and totally delicious, like this blended coconut milk Boozy Piña Colada fellow EatingWell editor, Victoria Seaver, raves about. Go with what you have and what you are in the mood for, and check out our cocktail recipes for ample inspiration.

Bottom Line

You may not be headed out to bars as much right now, but that doesn't mean you have to miss out on your favorite drinks. Bring the flavors of a fancy night out home with affordable ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. Mixing yourself something nice is a good way to make any night feel special. This long weekend, I'll be in the sun with my Bee's Knees at the ready.