The Case for Pre-batched Cocktails
How to make your own RTD bottled cocktails for whenever you need them
Sitting at a bar as a bartender prepares a drink in real time is a classic human ritual. However, a growing number of bars are doing away with shaking and stirring certain cocktails. Instead, after a guest orders the drink, it’s poured from a pre-made batch pulled straight from the freezer, refrigerator or off the shelf.
One of the bars that kicked off the trend was Amor Y Amargo with the drink Sharpie Mustache. A former bartender named Chris Elford (who’s now in Seattle and opened the bars No Anchor, Navy Strength and Vinnie’s with wife and business partner Anu Elford) created the drink, which is served out of a flask. “At first, guests had a sense of delightful surprise, they were certainly curious about it and thought it was fun,” says beverage director Sother Teague about the first reactions to a bottled cocktail from behind the bar. “You always feel a little bit naughty drinking a cocktail from a flask and our guests really embraced it from the start.”
In most instances, the bottled version is the exact same as the stirred cocktail, only with a bit of water to mimic the dilution from stirring with ice.
Like many trends that have hit modern cocktail bars in the past, however, bottled cocktails have roots in the Prohibition years. Jerry Thomas included a section on “Prepared Cocktails for Bottling” in his 1927 book How to Mix Drinks. He included two bottled brandy cocktails, one based on bourbon, and one based on gin. In the 2000s, the London bar empire by Ryan Chetiyawardana, a.k.a. Mr Lyan, put himself on the drinks map largely based on the pre-batched, bottled drinks served at the bars.
Drink serving styles come, go and mutate over time. This particular one has been percolating for long enough that the advantages and disadvantages are clear.
The plus side to pre-bottled cocktails
“Bartenders should consider pre-batched cocktails for reasons such as consistency and efficiency,” says Barry Young, cofounder and master distiller of Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries. “Faster service makes for happier guests and higher profitability.”
Increased speed without a hit to quality is an obvious win for any bar, and consistency is key for return customers. Drinks made by different bartenders (and in some cases the same bartender at different times of the night) can have slight variations in temperature and dilution. Since bottled cocktails need to be something spirit forward in the same vein as Martinis and Manhattans, they also keep without spoiling for days on end. Better yet, they can get better with age.
Think of a bottled cocktail like a blended whiskey: The latter lets a carefully calibrated mix of different whiskeys from different barrels sit together to marry the flavors into a cohesive blend. A blend that’s not left to rest can taste like how a middle school marching band sounds: all the right notes are there, but they’re competing with each other and dragging the whole experience down. Bottled cocktails left to sit work the same way. Give it time and the ingredients will become one cohesive drink.
Another advantage is the variety of things can be done. Jen Marshall, a New York bartender who also works with the brands Montelobos, Milagro and Ancho Reyes, has made single-serving Palomas in grapefruit Jarritos bottles and recapped them. At The Blushing Bar, a cocktail bar on the second floor of the Valerie in Manhattan, there’s a bottled cocktail for two on the menu.
“I definitely see the bottled cocktail becoming more popular,” Marshall Minaya, beverage director at Valerie, says. “This is especially due to authors like Maggie Hoffman, who just released a book titled Batch Cocktails and previously published The One-Bottle Cocktail. I think the at home bartender will be more and more aware of how great bottled cocktails can be.”
The downside to pre-bottled cocktails
Bartenders serving cocktails from a bottle isn’t for everyone, as seen by the 2017 reaction to a Times story about the Grill’s pre-batched Martinis. No one wants to feel like they’re overpaying for a drink, and it’s harder to see the value when it appears to the customer that all the bartender did was open a bottle and pour. A lot of work goes into making that pour happen, but showmanship and experience matter.
“A consumer could look at a bottle that is pulled from the freezer and describe it as lazy,” Minaya says. “I see their point of view, but a bartender can see that each ingredient is measured out and properly diluted to create a consistent and ready to serve cocktail—t’s just not done in front of your eyes.”
The other main downside is that bottled cocktails are, for the most part, limited to stirred and boozy. Citrus, egg whites, dairy and other perishable ingredients are much harder to stabilize.
“The best kind of cocktails for bottling in my opinion are those that are spirit-forward,” Minaya says. “I have heard arguments that cocktails will keep longer than expected by using citrus, but we tend to stick to spirit-forward bottled cocktails” like Martinis, Martinezes, and Negronis.
Plus, there’s the fact that bottled cocktails are susceptible to mistakes just like any other drink. The ratios are fixed as soon as it’s in the bottle. Mess that up and a big batch goes down the drain—and it’s all too easy to mess up thanks to water.
Bottled cocktails need to be pre-diluted. Ideally, the dilution mimics the same dilution from stirring a cocktail, which varies by type and number of ingredients. In 2010, Author and Existing Conditions bar co-owner Dave Arnold tackled the question of how much water to add using a multi-step equation. Another way is to measure the percent difference in weight of a drink before and after stirring, then use that as the percent to dilute. Trying, and then trying again, is the only sure-fire way to land on the proper dilution for a custom cocktail. Or, when you’re lucky, it just works.
“In the beginning, we served [the Sharpie Mustache] in a glass,” Teague says. “It just so happens that once stirred, it yields exactly 100 ml, which is the size of the flask. Chris was working at Kings County Distillery and had the idea to use the 100 ml flask they use for the drink.”
While we can’t all nail it just right on the first try, here are some bottled cocktail recipes to get you started. These are especially handy to have on hand in the fridge, ready to drink after a long day or for home entertaining.
Pre-bottled cocktail recipes
These recipes will give you a head start on pre-bottled cocktails, but Teague’s suggestion for making your own is simple:
“You can literally go ahead and make a cocktail as normal, then bottle,” Teague says. “If there’s anything perishable, like syrups or citrus, your shelf life is diminished. If there’s nothing perishable in the drink, it will last indefinitely.”
From Amor y Amargo, also published in New York Cocktails by Amanda Schuster
20 ml Amaro Meletti
20 ml Bonal Gentiane-Quina
20 ml London dry gin
20 ml water
1 dash of Bittermen’s tiki bitters
Instructions: Add ingredients to 100ml flask or bottle. Chill and serve with a twist.
From The Blushing Bar at Valerie
Directions: Add all ingredients into a cambro container. Stir and pour into bottles. Seal and tag each bottle.
Yield: Approx. 10 bottles
Serve over ice in rocks glasses with orange twist.
Brandy Cocktail for Bottling
From Jerry Thomas
Five gallons of brandy (we suggest E & J VSOP, silver medal 2019 NYISC)
One quart of bitters
One quart of gum syrup (you can use simple syrup)
Two gallons of water
One bottle of curaçao
Thomas’ instructions: “Mix thoroughly and filter through Canton flannel.” We suggest filtering through a mesh strainer into a cambro, then distributing into bottles. Chill before serving.
Consider this will make A LOT of individual cocktails. Adjust measurements as needed.