We spoke with beverage experts to find out just what makes drinks taste so good at a bar. Plus, tips on how to replicate the experience at home!
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Elderberry Sunset Cocktail
Credit: Photographer: Johnny Autry, Prop Styling: Charlotte Autry

There's just something special about enjoying a cocktail out at a bar instead of searching through kitchen drawers for tools and digging in the back of your freezer for liquor. But what is it about having someone else make you a drink that makes them taste so good? It's not just the alcohol going to your head; there are actually more reasons than you might think.

We spoke with a bar owner and a beverage director to get the lowdown on what exactly makes drinks taste so good when you aren't the one putting in the work. Plus, some tips on how you can replicate the bar experience at home.

Sourcing Quality Liquor

Bars typically source their liquor, especially harder-to-find items and top-shelf brands, via a wholesaler or beverage distributor. These wholesalers and distributors compete for bartenders' and bar owners' attention, conducting tastings and offering up plenty of information. Sometimes they'll even invite bartenders and bar owners on trips to the source—like a whisky distillery in Scotland or tequila bodegas in Mexico. So, your local cocktail bar has advantages over you when it comes buying the best spirits.

Also, compared to the retail prices that the average shopper faces while picking out alcohol at the store, bars have access to the same brands in larger quantities and at better prices. So, in general, they're able to source better liquor at better prices than the average consumer can.

However, just because bars have a bit of an advantage when it comes to sourcing doesn't mean you should go for cheap liquor at home. Alcohol contains congeners, produced during the fermentation process, which can be partially responsible for hangovers (secondary to how much you're drinking). Lower-priced liquors are more distilled than top-shelf brands and contain more congeners, so if you have the spare money to spend, you could also be saving yourself from a headache.

Relying on Experts

Bartenders keep an arsenal of drink recipes in their brains and notebooks. In the rare occurrence that they're asked for something they aren't as familiar with, many establishments have some kind of bar library or reference materials on hand for a quick refresher, or they can ask their fellow bartenders. They also usually know just what to add or subtract from classic drinks to modify as needed according to the drinker's specifications.

"Expertise is really just another word for experience. Bartenders—good bartenders—interact with their guests. They know how to talk about what they're serving. You would be surprised at how many times we have the exact same conversation with different guests. There is nothing new under the sun. Know your product, and the rest takes care of itself," says beverage director Jerom Morris of Accomplice Bar in Los Angeles.

As we mentioned, many bar owners and beverage directors source their product from distributors and wholesalers to get the best possible price and product. Having this dedicated person on staff with access to harder-to-find items can be especially useful when bringing new drinks onto the menu.

Quality of Ingredients

When it comes to the ingredients for just about anything, fresh is best. Especially at high-end cocktail lounges or mixology bars, you'll likely find fresh fruits and garnishes, a variety of house bitters, tinctures and shrubs. Not to mention, plenty of different ice cube shapes for pairing with drinks.

"Quality and unique ingredients are what largely separates the experience of going to a bar versus drinking at home. Having more esoteric ingredients provides us with an opportunity to offer our guests something truly special. The more unique an ingredient, the more interesting the offering can be," Morris says.

An often-overlooked-at-home, but very important, part of great cocktails is the ice. Ice cubes that are too small in a shaker can dilute the cocktail too much because they take longer to chill (before being poured into your glass). Similarly, ice that's on the bigger side will cool fast, but needs longer to dilute your drink properly.

"One of the most important tools any bar has is ice," shares Morris. "Good-quality ice is a decent size. Crushed ice melts away a lot faster than large-format cubes, which means your drink stays fresh for longer [with an oversized cube or sphere]. More ice in a glass means the drink will stay colder for longer. This will stop it from diluting down into a sad memory of that first sip."

Correct Glassware & Equipment

It's not just the liquor and ingredients that go into making a great drink, you also need some tools to properly measure, vessels to mix the drinks, and glassware to served them in.

Morris says: "Glassware is the vessel in which we engage with spirits and cocktails. It negotiates the relationship we have with what's inside and dictates how we experience different libations. A lot of drinks are served in specific glassware styles (not everything is about an Instagram-worthy aesthetic). So, embrace the diversity available to you in a bar! You will ultimately get more out of your drinks, more bang for your buck."

If you're stocking your bar cart for the first time, there are a few purchases you might want to make as you get serious about your at-home cocktail journey. Pick up a muddler, a double jigger, a stirring spoon, a shaker and a fine-mesh strainer.

Proper Dilution

You may be surprised to learn that water is also key to a perfectly mixed cocktail.

"Water is a necessary ingredient in cocktails. It's typically added by shaking, stirring and/or adding ice," says Anu Apte, a Washington state-based bar and restaurant owner. "When making freezer cocktails or big batches, you can simply add in water before bottling. It's important because cocktails are all about balance, and water smooths all the flavors out. Water also has a lower freezing point, so adding water will allow you to get a colder drink than alcohol alone."

Most cocktails call to be shaken not stirred (especially those with juice or cream), to properly mix the flavors of your drink and create the proper texture or mouthfeel. You can stir cocktails that are liquor-forward, like a Negroni or a Manhattan. These are meant to be smooth and clear, not emulsified from being shaken.

Atmosphere

Atmosphere plays a big role in what makes the bar experience so special. Soft and dim lighting, a good music selection and various seating options are commonly found in dive bars and high-end bars alike. Bonuses that take things up a notch (depending on the setting) can include games like darts or pool, art and tasteful decor, and a menu of shareable plates or snacks.

How to Duplicate These Advantages at Home

To ensure you're making the best drinks possible, Apte says the magic is in the details, even if you don't have an arsenal of ingredients on hand. Focus on the tools and "use a jigger, stir or shake with good big dense ice cubes for the proper amount of time, and class it up! Use fancy glassware and pay attention to garnishes."

Morris suggests working with fresh juices and syrups at home, which can bring your drink to life: "Long-life syrups and juices often don't have that same impact in a drink; they taste flat. If you don't want to commit to making everything from fresh ingredients, start with just the citrus elements. The difference is night and day." When using freshly squeezed lemons, limes or oranges, try double-straining your homemade juice. This will ensure no pulp gets through, leaving you with a smooth final product.

When all else fails, branch out and keep at it, Morris says: "There is an ungodly amount of DIY cocktail videos and recipes on the internet. They cover recipes, techniques and product reviews. With resources like these, it's so easy to get a decent understanding of how to make a bar-par drink at home. The best thing to remember is the more you practice, the better your drinks will turn out."

Bottom Line

There are many good reasons why a cocktail at a bar often tastes better than the one you've mixed at home. Bartenders are experts with access to a plethora of resources and equipment, plus a deep well of knowledge. But you have access to many resources as well, and by using them and starting small with elements like fresh juices and proper glassware, you can level up your cocktail mixing game with ease.

Put your newfound knowledge to the test, and shake up these 25 Happy Hour-Ready Cocktail Recipes. Cheers!