Spice Up Your At-Home Cocktail Hour with Pantry Ingredients

Well, the world is quite a different place these days, eh?

Instead of going out to bars and restaurants, we are all practicing social distancing and bringing the cocktail hour home, to our own living rooms.

Vertical image of a tequila cocktail in a lowball glass, with a salt and chili pepper rim and garnished with a slice of lime, on a gray and white striped cloth with scattered fresh herbs, with jars and glasses of flavor-infused liquor in soft focus in the background, printed with red-orange and white text in the top third and at the bottom of the frame.

If you are anything like me, you already stocked up your pantry and your refrigerator with condiments and necessities (and snacks!) to avoid going to the store too many times.

You might think you’ve become a bit limited in your options for making cocktails as a result. But the truth is, there are so many new and exciting avenues available to you to incorporate flavor.

Vertical oblique overhead image of one bourbon and one tequila cocktail with garnishes, on a white and gray striped cloth topped with citrus, rimming salt, herbs, and whole spices, with jars of flavor-infused liquor, on a gray surface.

From adding items easily found in your pantry to making homemade simple syrups and infusions, I’m here to tell you how to make the most of your at-home cocktail hour.

It’s time to channel those creative juices, friends. This is your time to shine as a mixologist.

First, Raid Your Pantry

Even the simplest ingredients can transform a basic cocktail into something new and exciting.

Vertical oblique overhead image of small round and square glass bowls of various spices, sugar, salt, and citrus zest, on a gray surface.

You can do something as easy as adding grapefruit juice to a gin and tonic, or combine tropical juices with vodka to create a cocktail that’ll make you feel like you are on a beach somewhere.

Vertical image of five glass jars filled with off-white, orange, and pale brown liquids.

Here’s a sampling of flavorful items that you most likely already have at your fingertips to use:

  • Citrus – Lemon, lime, and orange juice are staples in many cocktails. Juice, wedges, and zest also brighten up traditional cocktails that might not call for citrus, with a refreshing twist.
  • Fruit Juice – Cranberry, grapefruit, pineapple, and other fruit juices (like tomato juice, technically a fruit, after all) make fantastic additions to most cocktails. Not to mention, shelf-stable bottled juices are typically easier to get your hands if you can’t get fresh fruit to make your own juice.
  • Bitters – I love having a variety of bitters on hand because you can change the whole flavor profile of a cocktail with just a few dashes. Our home bar is stocked with everything from traditional Angostura bitters to more unusual flavored options like smoked orange and chili lime. Adding just a splash is a killer way to change up a Manhattan or old fashioned.

Overhead closely cropped image of sliced and whole orange, limes, and lemons, on a gray surface.

  • Simple Syrup – Another staple ingredient that you probably have lurking in your pantry. But if you don’t, you can easily make your own. I’ll provide more details on that below.
  • Coffee and Tea – Who doesn’t love warming up with a hot cocktail? Coffee and tea can be used to make cocktails, either freshly brewed or chilled, and also to infuse liquor (more on that later).
  • Soda – Club soda, tonic water, ginger ale, ginger beer. All of your favorite sodas make a bubbly splash when added to many traditional and sophisticated recipes.
  • Spices and Herbs – Whether you have whole or ground spices in your spice rack, you can do everything from making simple syrups and infusing liquor to making flavored salts and sugars. And that’s in addition to putting them in the cocktails straight up! Fresh herbs add delicious flavor as well.

Make Flavored Salts and Sugars

Flavored salts and sugars can make all the difference when you’re looking to add some pizzazz to your favorite cocktail, like a martini or a margarita.

All you need to make a flavored rimming salt or sugar is coarse salt or sugar (of course!) and your favorite spices.

Horizontal overhead image of sliced blood orange, lemons, oranges, and limes, with scattered cinnamon sticks and herbs, bowls of sugar and water, and a green jalapeno, on a slate surface.

Generally, the ratio I use is 1/4 cup salt or sugar to about 2 to 4 teaspoons of your favorite ground flavorings, adjusted to taste. You can mix and match to create your own unique flavor blends like cinnamon orange, or chili lime.

Overhead horizontal image of a blue bowl of spiced sugar with glasses and jars containing various cocktails and flavored liquours, on a gray and white striped cloth with fringe, on a gray surface.

If your spices are whole, get out your mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, and get to grinding!

Whole spices provide the freshest flavor, and you might find you need a little less than you would if you started with a powdered spice that has been sitting in the cabinet for awhile.

Horizontal image of a hand with red manicured nails dipping the rim of a glass into a shallow plate of flavored salt, with small dishes of various spices in soft focus in the background, on a gray surface.

Here are a few of my favorite combinations to try out at home:

  • Tex-Mex Chili Salt – 3 teaspoons chili powder spice blend + 1/4 cup salt
  • Spicy Salt – 1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper + 1/4 cup salt
  • Cinnamon Sugar – 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon + 1/4 cup sugar
  • Lavender Sugar – 3 teaspoons dried lavender buds + 1/4 cup sugar
  • Citrus Sugar – 3 teaspoons citrus zest or one teaspoon dehydrated citrus powder + 1/4 cup sugar

Try Infused Simple Syrups

Simple syrup is something that I stopped buying ages ago. There’s just no need to when you can make it quickly at home with two ingredients, you know?

When you make a simple syrup, use a 1:1 ratio. This means 1 cup of water to 1 cup of granulated sugar.

Overhead horizontal image of small glass bowls of salt and water, scattered cinnamon sticks and herbs, sliced citrus fruit, and green jalapenos, on a gray surface.

If you are making more, keep the same ratio and multiply – 2 cups water with 2 cups sugar, and so on.

Horizontal overhead image of whole cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, star anise, coriander, and peppercorns, on a gray stone surface.

Bring the two ingredients to a boil in a saucepan along with your desired flavorings.

As soon as the sugar is completely dissolved, remove the from the heat, cover, and set aside to steep for at least 15 minutes before draining.

Don’t leave the mixture on the heat too long, or it will begin to caramelize.

Horizontal overhead image of a small nonstick saucepan filled with simple syrup, with several sprigs of fresh thyme, on a gray surface streaked with white.

Simple syrup should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator once it’s come to room temperature. It will keep for 3 to 4 weeks.

For inspiration, here are a few of my current favorite flavoring options for you to choose from:

  • Fresh or Dried Herbs – mint, thyme, rosemary, basil, and more will bring herbaceous notes to any cocktail.
  • Fresh or Dried Fruit – raspberries, strawberries, apple, pineapple, and any other fruit you can think of applies here.
  • Whole Spices – cinnamon sticks, anise seed, allspice berries, cloves, and black peppercorns give extra depth to cocktails.
  • Vanilla Beans – halve a vanilla bean before adding it to your syrup mixture to add a sweet and creamy vanilla flavor.

Next Up: Infusing Liquor

In as little as two days, or up to a couple of weeks, you can make your very own infused liquors.

You can infuse a whole bottle, or measure out a couple of cups into a mason jar to infuse a smaller amount. I like to do the latter, especially when I am experimenting with new flavors.

Vertical image of a glass jar with a metal lid on top, filled with bourbon and orange slices, with several more jars filled with flavor-infused liquor in the background in soft focus, on a gray surface against a gray background.

To infuse liquor, start by choosing your alcohol. Any type of liquor can be used here.

Choose your desired flavor combination (like chili lime or chai cinnamon), and add fresh or dried herbs, fruits, and whole spices.

HOrizontal image of four glass jars of various sizes, filled with liquor being infused with vanilla, citrus, or fresh herbs, with metal lids on top, on a gray surface against a gray background.
A selection of flavor-infused simple syrups and liquors.

Here are some suggested combinations for you to try at home:

  • Chili Lime Vodka for Bloody Marys – fresh chilies and lime wedges, or preserved peppers and limes
  • Chai Bourbon for Old Fashioned and Manhattans – chai tea bags
  • Lemongrass-Ginger Tequila for Margaritas – fresh or dried lemongrass stalks and sliced fresh or candied ginger

Don’t know how long to infuse your liquor for? I’ve got a quick guide to help you with that:

  • Fresh Chili Peppers – 1 to 2 hours
  • Dried Herbs – 1 to 2 days
  • Fresh Herbs and Citrus – 2 to 4 days
  • Vanilla Bean – 2 to 4 days
  • Fresh Garlic – 2 to 4 days
  • Dried Spices and Fruit – 3 to 5 days
  • Fresh Fruit – 1 to 2 weeks
  • Fresh Lemongrass, Ginger, or Lavender – 1 to 2 weeks

Check frequently for shorter infusion periods, occasionally for longer ones, and strain when you’re happy with the flavor.

Let’s Get Mixing

Now you have all the options you could ever need for turning your home into your most favorite bar in the world. Are you as excited as I am?

To start trying all of the new options that are available to you, I have a few extra tips:

Overhead horizontal image of a blue bowl of spiced sugar with glasses and jars containing various cocktails and flavored liquours, on a gray and white striped cloth with fringe, on a gray surface.

Margaritas are a fantastic starting point for experimenting with new and exciting rimming salts, or infused tequila. And flavored rimming salt makes a tasty addition to a bloody mary as well.

Try a mint and lime infusion or a simple vanilla bean in whatever neutral spirit you have on the shelf (think vodka). Add it to your favorite lemonade or fruity soft drinks to make something tasty.

Horizontal image of a cocktail in a lowball glass in the foreground, garnished with a wedge of lime and a spiced salt rim, on a gray surface topped with a gray and white striped cloth with fringe,

It’s okay to branch out. You probably don’t have every ingredient in stock to make some of the classic adult beverages that you know and love, and that’s exactly what these suggestions are for!

Pull out that weird old liqueur that’s been gathering dust on the shelf, gather the dregs that you still have in various bottles left over from last Christmas’s holiday punch, and get creative.

And make sure you have all the home bar essential utensils you’ll need to expertly shake, stir, and serve your amazing drinks!

What will you enjoy at home the next time happy hour rolls around? Let us know in the comments below!

And if you’re eager to experiment with homemade cocktails, these Foodal favorites are a great place to get started:

Photos by Meghan Yager, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.

About Meghan Yager

Meghan Yager is a food addict turned food and travel writer with a love for creating uncomplicated, gourmet recipes and devouring anything the world serves up. As the author of the food and travel blog Cake 'n Knife, Meghan focuses on unique foodie experiences from around the world to right at home in your own kitchen.

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