One question we get asked a lot is how to substitute things in cocktails. Which makes sense, because, at the moment, you probably don’t have access to every single ingredient in our Guide To Making Better Cocktails At Home. So we figured it was time to teach you how to MacGyver an alcoholic beverage. Think of this as a 101 class, but with drinking and a professor who cares.
If there’s one key piece of cocktail wisdom you should take away from this, it’s the fact that almost every single cocktail can be broken down into three parts that balance each other out: a sweet component, a sour or bitter component, and the base spirit.
Let’s take a look at a Margarita. Your standard Margarita has a sour component in lime juice, a sweet component in triple sec, and the base spirit tequila. But what do you do if you don’t have triple sec? Well, you can actually just use agave. Simple syrup also works fine (don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t), and you can sub in anything from St. Germain to Maraschino as well.
What about a Negroni? Well, it has Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. So, same deal. If you don’t have Campari, you can substitute any bitter amaro, and, as for the sweet vermouth, you can use a sweeter amaro or something like Strega or Yellow Chartreuse. Just be aware that Strega and Yellow Chartreuse are about three times stronger than sweet vermouth.
The goal with any substitution is to make your drink as strong as the original. And, of course, to make it taste good. Account for the sweet/bitter balance as well as the ultimate ABV, and you’ll be fine. Also, have fun. Worst case scenario, you invent a vile drink that you can pretend to like in order to gain clout amongst your peers.
Here’s a cheat sheet to help you avoid that scenario:
The next time you’re missing a cocktail ingredient, consult this table, find the right category, and make a substitution. It’s that easy. Yes, you can make an Aperol Margarita, and, yes, you can make an Old Fashioned with sweet vermouth instead of sugar. It’s called a Manhattan. Oh, and if you just noticed that there aren’t that many sour ingredients to choose from, congratulations - you’ve just unlocked the secret of why lemons and limes are so important.