Tips for Substituting Ingredients Behind the Bar
Whether it’s fruit that’s out of season, that bottle of super rare aperitif that you’re dying to mix up, or you’ve simply run out of one of your bar staples in the middle of a rush, it’s important to have effective substitutions ready to take center stage.
Below you’ll find some handy suggestions on substitutions that could easily bail you out the next time you’re in a pinch.
1. Substitute fresh juices
Warren Bobrow, author of “Apothecary Cocktails, Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails, Whiskey Cocktails,” and “Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics” relies on Fruitations Craft Soda and Cocktail Mixers when you need a quick — but still flavorful — stand in for fresh fruit juices.
Fruitations is currently available in three varieties — cranberry, grapefruit, and tangerine.
“It’s brilliant stuff,” Bobrow said.
2. Make your own liqueurs
Sometimes it’s harder than it should be to get your hands on a specific liqueur. Sometimes, it’s just cheaper to make them yourself.
Mike McSorley, Head Distiller and Brand Ambassador at Island Distillers, has a handful of quick fixes when behind the bar.
- 750 ml 100 proof vodka
- Zest of 2 oranges
- Steep for 24 hours
- 187 ml rich simple syrup
St. Germain substitute
- D'arbo elderflower syrup
- 100 proof vodka
- Small pinch citric acid
3. When you need to MacGyver it
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being put in a tough spot in the middle of a rushed service.
Izzy Ramos Foster, owner of Mixotica Cocktail Design, has had to make a handful of fast decisions in her time.
“For a Sidecar, using Tuaca and/or Licor 43 as a substitute when your orange liqueur unexpectedly runs out has worked every time,” Foster said. “Sometimes it works in a Margarita, depending the tequila. I’ve never had a complaint!”
Other off-the-cuff substitutions have been a bit more unique.
“I've also had to resort to using crushed Altoid breath mint powder (diluted in a bit water and strained) a couple of times when a sudden Mojito craze hit, fresh mint ran very low, but the cocktails needed to go out stat,” she said. “It’s not my proudest ‘professional bartending’ moments but it worked and the party went on!
4. All in the family
When it comes to replacing ingredients, remember that like replaces like.
For example, if you’re short on Cynar, you could easily swap out with a similar potable bitters like Campari (although it's much fruitier than Cynar), Fernet Branca or Punt è Mes — a dark, bitter Italian vermouth produced by Carpano.
Consider the balance of your drink and its key features, and you can even create some unique cocktails by switching out key ingredients. For example, if you’re short on vodka when dying for a Moscow Mule but happen to have a silver rum in the house, replacing the vodka with rum leads to the heavier, richer Jamaican Mule.
5. Knowledge is your best substitute
Finally, have a working knowledge of how flavors relate to each other — and an even better understanding of what you actually have access to behind your own individual bar.
“Knowledge is key here,” said Matthew Biancaniello, owner of Eat Your Drink, LLC.
Specifically, while behind the bar one night Biancaniello noticed he had suddenly run out of fresh lime juice. What he did have, however, was fresh passion fruit juice.
“Instead of 2 ounces of lime juice, I did 3/4 ounce of passion fruit juice,” he said. “The passion fruit became the citrus in place of the lime juice. By reducing the amount I was able to keep the citrus there without making it painfully obvious that I wasn’t using the usual ingredient.”
The key to quick substitutions behind the bar is a deep knowledge and appreciation of similar flavors, a willingness to play around with different ingredients, and the ability to think on your feet.
Substitution quick tips:
Substitute liquors and liqueurs from the same family. In a pinch, rye can stand in for bourbon.
Take the time to play around with different flavors before you really need to punt. Having a knowledge of parallel flavors will keep your flavors relatively consistent.
Don’t be afraid to play around with different flavor combinations to create something new (so long as your patron knows that you’re being creative).