Ashley Rose Conway was destined to become the queen of cocktails.
Her journey to the cocktail throne started at her dad’s bar, where she watched him tinker with cocktails. “I grew up with him mixing drinks, testing recipes, and working with spirits brands,” says Ashley. “So once I turned 21, I was like, ‘I’m going to start tinkering like my dad.’ I picked up bottles here and there, gathered my spirits collection, and did a lot of reading and studying.”
She started out as a teacher, and her days in the classroom piqued her interest in the science behind her favorite cocktails. A career change, a cross-country move, and the creation of her now famous Instagram account @craftandcocktails led her to start crafting cocktail content for the lifestyle world. Now she’s the author of The Art of the Bar Cart, a guide to stocking your home bar and stirring up cocktails like a pro.
No surprise: Ashley is a fountain of knowledge on everything drinks-related. We chatted with our favorite cocktail guru about San Francisco cocktail bars, under-the-radar spirits, and the one cocktail you need to make this summer.
Tip 1: Take a deep breath
In the world of highly Instagrammable craft cocktails, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed when you’re ready to experiment with making your own. “What I would love people to know is that you don’t have to be a quote-unquote ‘mixologist’ to make a great drink at home,” says Ashley. “You can have just a few great ingredients and make a great cocktail.”
Don’t feel bad: Even the pros can get rattled by cocktail perfectionism. “A lot of times — and myself included — we see these beautiful cocktails with fusions and tinctures and people get intimidated,” says Ashley. “But listen: It doesn’t have to be intimidating.” Just take your time and enjoy the process of playing with new ingredients, combinations, and spirits.
Tip 2: Think outside the box with your spirits selections
There’s a whole wide world of spirits out there beyond the classics. “I’m using Aquavit a lot lately, which is a little unknown. It’s a caraway-based spirit that’s produced a lot like gin with a lot of botanicals,” says Ashley. She substitutes gin with Aquavit in classic cocktails, and makes a mean Aquavit martini from two-and-a-half ounces of Aquavit and two-and-a-half ounces of vermouth.
“I recently did a rhubarb-infused Aquavit and just did the same proportions and garnished it with a rhubarb ribbon,” says Ashley. “Use infusions and garnishes to give your martini some seasonal oomph. I posted it on my Instagram and it was so delicious.”
Pro tip: Ashley’s go-to vermouth is Noilly Prat.
Tip 3: Stock your bar like a pro
Setting up your first bar cart? Step 1: Pick up Ashley’s book, The Art of the Bar Cart. Step 2: Use Ashley’s list of must-haves to get started.
- Gin: “There’s a local spirit here called St. George Botanivore, which is from St. George distillery in Alameda. It’s definitely approachable, citrus-forward, [and] more of a new world kind of gin instead of a London-style gin.”
- Vermouth: “Pick up a dry vermouth and a sweet vermouth.”
- Bourbon: “Or any whiskey, honestly. And if you have a little wiggle room, get a rye, too.”
- Rum: “One nice aged rum can get you pretty far.”
Invest in all of the above, or start small and work your way up. Pick up a bottle of your favorite liquor and spend some time mastering all of the cocktail combos it has to offer.
Tip 4: Get inspired
Looking for cocktail inspiration? Head over to a few of Ashley’s favorite cocktail bars to find out where she goes to spark her creativity.
- Pacific Cocktail Haven: “People refer to it as PCH. The cocktails are always fantastic and the hospitality is truly awesome.”
- True Laurel: “The cocktails are very well-thought-out and [include] things that I’ve never seen done before, like a lot of fermentations and local foraging.”
- ABV: “I love this for more of a hangout and for their bar food — something you unfortunately don’t always find here in the city. They’ve got really good, easy to eat, filling bar snacks and incredible cocktails.”
- Trick Dog: “They’ve won a lot of awards in the bar industry. They’re phenomenal and they give back to the community.”
When Ashley hits up a new cocktail bar, she starts the night off with a lighter cocktail, preferably a house cocktail. “I want to generally get an idea for what program they have going on there while my palate is fresh. After having a few drinks, it changes. I generally start with a lighter drink, something more citrus-forward, and from there I’ll go to darker, heavier stirred drinks.” Her go-to low-alcohol cocktails are the Bamboo and the Sherry Cobbler (scroll down for her recipe!).
Tip 5: Prebatch for better parties
So you’re using all these tips and you’ve become the star bartender in your friend group. Amazing! But make sure you’re not stuck behind the bar for the whole party every time you get together.
“When you’re entertaining, you definitely want to enjoy the party as well, so I like to prebatch,” says Ashley. “Make a pitcher drink and set out glasses for your guests, and maybe a little garnish bar where they can do it themselves. That way you’re free to mix and mingle with your guests. Enjoy that sunshine!”
Tip 6: Make yourself a sherry cobbler
One cocktail kept coming up during our talk: the sherry cobbler.
“Sherry cobblers are great because you can switch out ingredients seasonally, so you can use the base recipe and swap out the fruits that are in it. Sherry cobbler is in high rotation in my house,” says Ashley.
This low-alcohol cocktail is a perfect addition to your summer drinks lineup. “These are great to drink for brunch or if you’re planning to have a few drinks. If you’re hosting the party and making these for your guests, they’re not going to leave your house stumbling after they’ve been there for a while.”
Here’s what she uses:
- Four ounces of dry sherry: “You can always experiment with different sherries because they range from sweeter to really dry.”
- Citrus and seasonal fruit: “I’ll add an orange wheel and a lemon wheel, and then for spring and summer, berries are in season, so I’ll use a few berries. I usually do about three small berries, and with strawberries, I just do one or two.”
- A half-ounce of simple syrup: “This is just equal parts sugar and water, creating a syrup which is easier to incorporate into your cocktail [than] raw sugar, which can kind of get stuck and not give you the sweetness incorporated throughout the cocktail.”
- Garnish: “On top of the citrus wheels and berries, I add mint and a little grate of nutmeg, and that kind of brings out the nutty notes from the sherry.”
Visit Crafts & Cocktails to find out how to combine these ingredients into a dreamy summer cocktail. You can even pair it with a little trivia.
“This is a very classic cocktail, and it was the cocktail that actually made the straw popular,” says Ashley. “Because of all the crushed ice and the fruit garnish and mint on top, they added the straw in so people could get around everything … and enjoy it.”
Tip 7: Take a cocktail class
Grown-up summer school is less about retaking geometry and more about remixing your favorite classic cocktails. Take your bartending skills to the next level by signing up for a class this summer. With Ashley’s tips, a copy of Art of the Bar Cart, and a fun class on your schedule, you’ll be ready for any mixed drink emergency.
Check out these upcoming cocktail classes:
- Hands-On Farmers Market Cocktail Class With El Tesoro Tequila
- Agave Spirits: Exploration of Tequila, Mezcal and More
- Molecular Mixology: Spherification, Foams and Infusions
- Summer With a Twist: Mastering the Art of Seasonal Cocktails
- Introduction to Mixology