improvised home bar ingredients cocktails
By Kirk Miller / April 29, 2020 9:50 am

A few weeks back I was trying to recreate a “breakfast cocktail” at home without making an unnecessary trip to the store (because pandemic). My initial panic at seeing the word “grenadine” in a recipe was fleeting; a quick internet search and I was soon making my own at home, which was probably better than anything bottled. Cheaper, too.

So in these times when ingredients aren’t always available and superfluous store visits or deliveries are discouraged, I wanted to explore ingredient replacements that utilize items you’re more likely to have at home. Admittedly, some of these will change your cocktail, but oftentimes the ingredient swap will make your drink more memorable.

“Sometimes the effort [of swapping ingredients] isn’t worth it, considering all the amazing ingredients we can now buy,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, a perennial Bartender of the Year honoree and founder of the acclaimed London bar White Lyan, which earned its reputation by utilizing zero perishables, fruit or ice. “But the task of making ingredients yourself is really fun, and teaches you a lot. And often the homemade version is better. Elderflower cordial, grenadine, orgeat — these are all worth having a go at. And if you can’t find a shelf option, switch up the ingredient and try a substitute. Recipes are guides, not set in stone.” 

There are plenty of online tutorials for making ingredients like grenadine

With that in mind, here are a few experts on their ideal cocktail ingredient swap: 

Sugar: Make your own honey simple syrup. “This is a better version of simple syrup for cocktails with bourbon, whiskey, tequila, whiskey or scotch, because it mellows the wood flavor,” says Miki Nikolic, Bar Director of New Orleans’s Double Dealer. Or utilize your fruit: “The juice from your finished cherries is a good sweetener,” says Kenneth McCoy of The Rum House. “A spoonful goes a long way in a cocktail.”

One wild idea? Melt down leftover candy like butterscotches or Jolly Ranchers, says Eric “ET” Tecosky, formerly of Jones Hollywood and the founder of Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice.

Vermouth: If you’re missing a sweet red vermouth, try a red wine “with a touch of soft spices, such as cinnamon or clove,” says Alexandre Gabriel, Maison Ferrand Proprietor and Master Blender. “These add nice vinous and fruity flavors to the cocktail. It has a different taste than an original Negroni, but it is so good.”

Egg whites: Use chunks of pineapple. “It gives your cocktails extra froth from the protein in the fruit,” says Nikolic. Another idea? If you’re already hoarding chickpeas, use the juice (called aquafaba) and you’ll never notice a difference. A third option: Canned corn and soy milk. “Corn mirrors the viscosity of the egg white and the soy milk adds the protein you need to get the fluff,” says Tecosky. 

A vegan whiskey sour with liquified corn and soy milk in lieu of egg whites (Claire Barrett)

Demerara: Pretty much every cocktail recipe seems to call for demerara, a brown sugar with the molasses left in during the refining process. You can make a substitute with equal parts brown sugar and water; bring water to a slight boil, add the brown sugar and stir until it dissolves. 

Mixers: “I’m always running out of fresh juice or sodas,” says Liana Oster, the head bartender at NYC’s Dante. “Instead of lime or lemon juice as the acid in your cocktail, you can mix things up and use a grapefruit or an orange. And with the leftover citrus husks or fruits and vegetables in the house you could make some tasty cordials to turn into the base of sodas —  a Sodastream or something similar here goes a long way.” 

Limes: If you’re running low on limes, you can stretch out the ones you have, says Ivy McLellan, Head Bartender/Bar Manager at the James Beard Award-winning Snackbar in Oxford, MS. “You can still put your juiced limes to good use by incorporating the oil from the skin as much as possible. Place your juiced lime segments in a bowl, cover them in sugar and let them sit for a day or so. The acid breaks the sugars down and starts to create a lovely citrus syrup. After that first day, add a bit of hot water to the mixture to dissolve the rest of the sugar and it’s ready to go.”

The easiest replacement in your drink, however? Replace water with … better water. “Cocktails are made up of at least 30% water, and that’s for a drink served up; it’s even more if it’s served on ice once the drink has settled into further dilution,” says Stephen Kurpinsky, U.S. Brand Ambassador for Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur. “I purchase water for my coffee and cocktails from a local water store that runs their water through a 13-step filtration system. If that sounds a little excessive, maybe start with a store-bought, pitcher-style filter system. When you make ice, make sure your ice cube trays are cleaned between uses, then put them inside of a freezer bag while they freeze to keep out odors. The next time you stir that old fashioned, you will taste and smell the complexity in the drink, not the freezer.”