Bartender Basics: DIY Substitutions for Common Cocktail Ingredients

Animation of liquor bottles being put in trash can
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

One of the trickiest aspects of making cocktails at home is the breadth of specific bottles called for in recipes, that few people keep on hand.

But, much like cooking, it’s easy to swap cocktail ingredients based on what you have at home. Sometimes, this can even lead you to develop your own signature flourishes on classic cocktails. Here are a few tips for the next time you don’t want to make a trip to the bottle shop.

No Triple Sec, Pamplemousse or Kahlúa? No Problem

As we’ve previously covered, most cocktails balance a handful of flavor profiles: sweet, spirit, sour and/or bitter. The good news is most of these are interchangeable. This is how bartenders memorize seemingly thousands of cocktails—many recipes are mostly the same, with a few small tweaks.

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The specific ingredients found that you’ll most often lack at home tend to fall in the sweet category, embodied by liqueurs like triple sec, Kahlúa, crème de cassis, St-Germain and so on. While each liqueur has its own flavors, the base element most share is sugar. To make a balanced cocktail when missing one of these ingredients, you can usually substitute with a similar amount of simple syrup, or a 1:1 mix of water and sugar.

You’re still losing out an element of flavor, though. A margarita made with simple syrup instead of triple sec will still be delicious, but you’ll be missing the hint of orange that’s signature to the drink (and, in effect, you’ll be making a Tequila gimlet).

You can compensate for these missing elements by adding a splash of corresponding flavors via fruit juices and other items on hand. Triple sec in a margarita can be loosely approximated with simple syrup and ¼ ounce of orange juice (in fact, even a classic margarita can often benefit from a splash of real orange juice). If you don’t have a bottle of Kahlúa or other coffee liqueur around the house, use simple syrup and add some espresso or strongly brewed coffee.

Other ingredients like grenadine or pamplemousse can be approximated on the fly by combining simple syrup with pomegranate or grapefruit juice, respectively. If you want a stronger flavor and have a bit more time, you can also sweeten these juices with sugar directly in a saucepan over low heat.

Learn more about how to make syrups and infusions here.

Bartender Basics: How to Make Infusions and Syrups

It’s OK if You’re Out of Vermouth

We’ve talked about why vermouth is such an integral part of cocktails, but in a pinch, many of these aromatized, fortified wines can be swapped with what regular wine you have on hand, possibly with a few tweaks.

Dry vermouths can be swapped with many dry white wines, though to play it safe, aim for wines that have a rounder profile, with less pronounced acidity, or those that have seen a bit of oak. Think Chardonnays from Northern California versus lean Chablis.

For blanc vermouths, which have a touch more sweetness, aim for a wine with a bit of residual sugar, like an off-dry Riesling. Fino Sherry can also make a great substitute for vermouth in cocktails.

If you’re looking to replace sweet vermouth, Port is an interesting alternative that brings new depth to your drink. Similarly, Moscatel provides a nice balance of sweetness to acidity and aromatics that play well in cocktails.

Bartender Basics: Why Is Vermouth in So Many Cocktails?

You can also sweeten leftover red wine to use as a replacement for sweet vermouth in cocktails. When doing this, it may be best to stay away from wines that have an overtly oaky profile or are overly tannic. Sweet/red vermouth traditionally starts with white wine base, and its color comes from caramelized sugars, so the end result typically isn’t too astringent.

You can sweeten your leftover red wine with sugar or simple syrup, but you might also poke around your pantry to see if you have any other sweet ingredients that could add a range of flavors. The syrup from a jar of maraschino cherries can offer extra dimension to your faux-vermouth, and a Manhattan made with a fruit-forward red wine and a ¼ ounce of ginger syrup is a delightful option.

For those who want to experiment further with housemade vermouth, see our full recipe here.

Published on December 11, 2020
Topics: Bartending Basics