Yesterday we talked about the basic equipment you’ll need for mixing drinks at home. Today we’ll talk about getting started with your liquor supplies.
Stocking a home bar can be intimidating if you go into it thinking you need a selection of all the basic spirits. The expensive thing to do is go to a liquor store and buy a bottle of each of bourbon, Scotch, tequila, vodka, gin, rum, brandy, triple sec, and whatever else seems important. If you’re getting decent bottles, you’re already out over 200 bucks, yet you haven’t selected things that mix together very well. You can make a killer Long Island Iced Tea, or a variety of sours (spirit + triple sec + citrus, i.e. a Margarita or Kamikaze), but beyond that you’re fairly limited. Are you going to mix Scotch and tequila? Gin and brandy? Let me know how that works out for you. (That’s not to say you can’t, but it isn’t easy.)
A better way is to start with a spirit or cocktail that you really like. Are you a bourbon drinker? Start with that. Buy a mid-priced bourbon and some bitters to make yourself an Old-Fashioned cocktail (bourbon + bitters + sugar). Later pick up some sweet vermouth and make a Manhattan (bourbon + sweet vermouth + bitters). Or buy or make some grenadine to try a Ward Eight (bourbon + lemon and orange juice + grenadine). Branch out to the exotic with some allspice liqueur and you can mix a Lion’s Tail (bourbon + allspice liqueur + lime juice + simple syrup + Angostura bitters). The possibilities are limitless.
As you start fleshing out your bar, you’ll find that some of these ingredients form a bridge to other spirits. Let’s say you bought sweet vermouth for a Manhattan. The next time you visit the liquor store you can pick up gin and maraschino liqueur to make its lesser known relative, the Martinez (gin + sweet vermouth + maraschino + orange bitters). Then you’re off and running with gin drinks. Add that maraschino to some rum and you can mix up a delicious version of the El Floridita Daiquiri (light rum + lime juice + simple syrup + maraschino).
It doesn’t really matter what spirit you start with. Bourbon and gin are particularly versatile, but you can begin anywhere and gradually build out. Or you can build in. Buy several different brands of bourbon and a bottle of rye whiskey and make identical cocktails with those. You’ll do more to develop your palate by tasting three different versions of the Old-Fashioned than by tasting three completely unrelated drinks. Acquiring new bottles gradually and sampling each ingredient on its own will allow you to develop a greater appreciation for the spirits. Even if you’re buying something new only once every few weeks, your bar will grow surprisingly quickly.
I’m not going to go into individual liquor recommendations here. There are better sites for that and, anyway, exploration is half the fun. But there are a few key ingredients that pop up over and over again, so let’s talk about those.
Bitters — Bitters are generally used just a few dashes at a time, so you might be tempted to skip them. Don’t! They’re vital for adding depth and complexity to your cocktails. They’re inexpensive and will last a very long time since they’re used in such small quantities. There’s no excuse for not including them in your home bar setup.
Angostura is by far the most popular brand. An aromatic blend of gentian and other herb extracts, it pairs especially well with whiskey. Orange bitters are also making a comeback. If you’re mixing primarily with gin, you might want to start with those; the new Angostura orange bitters are outstanding and Regans’ are another excellent choice. The other major bitter is Peychaud’s, essential in classic New Orleans cocktails like the Sazerac and Vieux Carré.
Bitters are en vogue right now and there are many obscure ones like celery and rhubarb appearing on the market, but the three listed above are the ones that appear in recipes most often.
Orange liqueur — Orange liqueur works its way into countless cocktails. The cheapest versions are generic bottles of triple sec. These are indeed orangey, but they’re often sweet and one-dimensional. Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Citronge, and others make up the higher end of orange liqueurs. They’re more expensive, but you’ll generally be using just an ounce or less per drink and the difference in quality is significant. Cointreau’s my personal standby. Whatever you use, take its relative sweetness into account and adjust recipes accordingly.
Vermouth — The United States went through a craze for vermouth cocktails beginning in the 1880s. The fortified, aromatized wine was often served in mixed drinks in twice the quantity of the base spirit. Today it’s hardly noticed, with just a few drops added to a dry gin Martini or none at all to one with vodka. That’s too bad, because it’s really wonderful stuff and absolutely essential to vintage cocktails.
The two main varieties are sweet (“Italian,” red) and dry (“French,” white). Carpano Antica Formula is an amazing sweet vermouth, though expensive and hard to find in some states. Of what’s broadly available, Noilly Prat is what I generally go for. As with any ingredient, explore and let taste be your guide.
Like any wine, vermouth will oxidize once its opened. Buy small bottles, store in the refrigerator, and seal with a vacuum stopper to maximize its shelf life; see Paul Clarke’s recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle for in-depth information.
That covers the essentials of preparing a home bar setup. With some basic equipment, your favorite basic spirits, and the ingredients listed above, you’re well on your way to mixing a host of classic cocktails for you and your guests.