In Food + Drink

Step Up Your At-Home Cocktail Game With These Secret Ingredients

Stuck inside creating craft cocktails at home can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to bringing said beverages to a whole ‘nother level – that is, until now.

These ten Northern Hemisphere based bartenders have some pretty inventive ideas. The key? Having a ‘secret weapon’ ingredient for their cocktail recipes on the docket.

To take your at-home cocktail game to the next level, look no further than adding these under-the-radar ingredients into your at-home bar

Saline solution

In New York City, Amir Babayoff, mixologist at Ophelia recently began incorporating saline solution into his cocktail recipes to enhance the flavor profiles of the drinks.

“I use it in a little drop tincture bottle and I add as many drops as needed in almost every cocktail,” he says.

Babayoff remarks that salt enhances flavors in cocktails the same way that it does in food. “I use it in martinis, gimlets, margaritas, and almost any cocktail that does not include salt already, fruity drinks included.”

He recommends using a pipette bottle to control the level of saline solution added. 

Beekman Classic Martini

57ml Ki No Bi gin

7ml Genepy

14ml Italicus

1 tsp of Vicario Dragoncello

8 drops of sailin

1 pippet of Kaffir tincture

5 Tarragon oil dots

Instructions: Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass, add ice, stir and strain into Nick and Nora glass. Add 5 drops of tarragon oil to float on top. 

Homemade port infusion

Image: Zemi Beach House / supplied

Tiago Serrao, bar and beverage manager at Zemi Beach House, channels his Portuguese roots in his homemade ‘secret weapon’ ingredient.

For Serrao, using an infusion of port wine, orange shrub, orange bitters, and dehydrated orange is essential to livening up cocktails. “For extra flavor, I usually leave it in American oak barrels for four months,” he says.

Serrao particularly loves using his ‘secret weapon’ ingredient in his twist on the classic Old Fashioned. 

Rhum Old Fashioned

40ml of Mount Gay XO

10ml of homemade Port wine, orange shrub, orange bitters and dehydrated Orange infuser rested for 4 months in American oak barrels

1 brown sugar cube

3 dashes of angostura bitters 

A splash of club soda

Garnish: orange peel and half vanilla pod.

Instructions: Take the mixing glass and put a brown sugar cube, 3 dashes of angostura bitters and a splash of club soda that will help dissolving the sugar cube, muddle it for a bit and then add the ice, add 20ml of rum and 10ml of the homemade Port infusion and stir it for around 2min after add the other 20ml of rum and stir it for around 2 more min.

Next, take an old fashioned glass with fresh ice and pour the cocktail into that glass and garnish it with a nice orange peel and vanilla pod.

‘Szechuan buttons’ (edible flower buds)

Image: The Deer Path Inn / supplied

In Illinois, Jorge Centeno, chief spirits officer at The Deer Path Inn, uses a homemade ‘tongue-tickling electric daisy’ concoction in his signature cocktails.

Centeno added this ingredient to the bar’s repertoire with the goal of incorporating something to really stimulate the senses. “Adding these [Szechuan buttons] to a drink doesn’t just bring about a new flavor — it brings about a new feeling.”

The Lumiere

57ml of Monkey Gin 47

14ml of St Germain

14ml of Lemon Juice

7ml of Chamomile

¼ tsp Suze Saveur d’Autrefois

Szechuan buttons

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well until chilled. Add 28ml Champagne then double strain into glass. Garnish with Szechuan buttons.

Simple syrup 

Image: Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico / supplied

In Puerto Rico, Héctor Ortiz, beverage manager at Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico, finds that simple syrup unifies nearly all cocktail creations.

In my opinion, this ingredient is not just for adding sweet notes to a cocktail; it grabs and gathers all of the flavors [in a given cocktail] and makes them that much more unified,” he says.

Ortiz uses simple syrup in his signature cocktail, The Golden Legend, which combines rum, orange, cognac liqueur and lemon juice, with a final finish of Pinot Noir. “When I use simple syrup, it gathers all the flavors and makes them much more pronounced, making a great cocktail as a result.”

Watermelon Basil Cooler

2 bottles of 750ml Absolut Vodka

2l watermelon juice

950ml of basil syrup

950ml of fresh lemon juice

1kg of ginger ale

All syrups have the same base: sugar and water. It’s all about reducing them into a syrup by heating both ingredients and infusing what you want into the concoction (in this case, basil). Let the mix cool down and you have your basil syrup.


Tiffanie Barriere of Instagram account The Drinking Coach believes that bubbles, whether alcoholic or not, bring an added layer to cocktail creations.

“Everything from Champagne to soda water or even beer, in some cases, incorporate a stretch that allows a cocktail to become tall in both flavor and color,” she says. Barriere recommends serving these cocktails in tall Collins glasses or bell-shaped pint glasses to allow flavors and smells to come to life.  

Marty Lane

 1 ½ parts Maker’s Mark

½ parts crème de cassis

¼ parts fresh lemon juice

1 blackberry

Choice of sour ale beer

Instructions: Combine all ingredients except Sour Ale into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake cold. Pour shaken contents into a tall ale glass with ice and top with sour ale beer. Garnish with a blackberry.

Coconut milk

“My ‘secret weapon’ for cocktail creation is often coconut milk,” says Charlotte Mirzeoeff, head bartender of Kindredwho finds that the ingredient blends exceptionally well with most spirits.

There is a bitter, tannic side that compliments the structure of aged spirits like whiskey but also a floral, sweet note that can lay nicely with gin or tequila.” 

Mirzoeff’s preferred way to use coconut milk in cocktails is with bourbon, as she feels that the creamy spice of the milk lends itself to the vanilla, toast, and baked flavor notes in the spirit. “It is a great way to add texture to the cocktail without incorporating dairy,” she says, which is helpful in creating drinks for guests with allergies and dietary restrictions.  

Golden Milk Colada

2 parts Maker’s Mark bourbon 

1 ½ parts golden milk tea blend-infused coconut milk*

¾ parts pineapple liqueur 

1 part lime juice  

Instructions: Shake all ingredients in shaker tin with ice. Strain into rocks glass over crushed ice. Garnish with pineapple leaves and toasted coconut flakes.

To make golden milk tea blend-infused coconut milk, use ½ tablespoon of golden milk tea blend per 1 cup of coconut milk. Heat until just under boiling, consistently mixing. Strain through fine-mesh strainer, and let it come to room temperature.

If you can’t find golden milk tea blend, combine equal parts ground ginger and ground turmeric.

Yuzu juice

Image: Zuma / supplied

James Shearer, Global Beverage Director at Zuma, loves the subtle citrus flavors that yuzu juice adds to his signature cocktails, particularly the Burning History.

“The citrus flavor combats the cocktail’s smokiness,” he explains. In Washington DC, Sophie Szych of Quill at The Jefferson says her go-to ‘secret’ cocktail ingredient is also yuzu juice.

Yuzu is an Asian citrus that tastes somewhere in between a lemon, a lime, and an orange, but with a slightly floral note,” she explains, highlighting that she prefers to use yuzu juice in lieu of other citrus for the nuanced notes that it adds to cocktails. “It goes beautifully with gin and could be used instead of lime in a margarita.”

Burning History

14ml of Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey

14ml of Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch

14ml of ginger syrup

14ml of honey water (honey + water)

14ml of yuzu juice

14ml of egg white

2 dashes of plum bitters

Garnish: American white oak wood and dried orange wheel

Instructions: Mix equal parts honey and water and heat in a saucepan until honey melts into water. Combine all ingredients in a tumbler and shake well. Because of the egg white, the cocktail is dry shaken for 30 seconds and then poured in a shaker with ice to be shaken again. Burn a small fire in a wooden plank. Invert snifter and trap smoke inside. Cover snifter with napkin. Pour cocktail into snifter and garnish with orange.


Although it may sound odd, Katie Dandridge of Quill at The Jefferson loves the texture that milk clarification gives to cocktails.

I was introduced to this process while making wine after college using milk, eggs, and other products that make wine clear instead of cloudy,” she says. “For cocktails, this process works best for larger volumes, so I typically make a batch and keep it in the fridge.”

Brown Derby Cocktail

450ml of Bourbon (quality but not fancy) 

450ml of honey syrup

230ml of grapefruit juice 

230ml of whole milk

Instructions: Mix bourbon, honey syrup and grapefruit juice into a large bowl. In a saucepan, heat milk until it boils and add to the booze mixture. Let cool for an hour. Strain through 2-3 coffee filters slowly. The straining process may take up to 3 hours. Chill strained liquid and serve cocktail on a large ice cube with fresh grapefruit peel. Keep the remaining batch in the fridge.

Manzanilla sherry

Andrew Pollard, beverage director at WYNN Las Vegas, refers to Manzanilla Sherry as ‘bartender’s ketchup.’ “[Manzanilla Sherry], one of the driest, most high-acid, and complex wines in the world, is a saving grace for any cocktail looking for that extra tightening of the screw when you know you’re missing something,” he says.

Pollard finds that sherry as a whole offers the most range of application in any category of ingredients, “On a scale ranging from dry, briny, acidic, nutty, and rich, it’s like choosing your favorite child.”

12 Year Itch

28ml of WhistlePig 12 Year Bespoke Blend Rye Whiskey 

28ml of El Dorado 12 Year Rum 

14ml of Lustau PX Sherry 

1 dropper saline solution 

2-3 dashes Bitter Queen Tobacco Bitters

Garnish: Whistle Pig-Infused Chocolate Gold Bar 

Instructions: Pour all ingredients over a large cube, stir and garnish. 

(Lead images: Zemi Beach House / supplied) 

Published 27 March, 2020