Stocking your home bar, part 2

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 CarrĂ©.

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.

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Stocking your home bar, part 1

Last spring I quit my professional bartending gig, making my home bar the only place to channel my mixological urges. Many successful cocktail nights later I’ve had a few requests for a post on how to stock a home bar. With Christmas almost here, it’s time I got to it. If you’re looking to make great drinks at home or buy equipment for a drink lover, these next two posts are for you.

Today we’ll look at basic bar equipment. There are lots of gimmicky, expensive products on the market, but you really just need a few simple workhorses. Only the first several items are essentials. The rest are optional but might be nice to have.

Cocktail shaker — Forget the fancy shakers. For my money nothing beats the basic Boston shaker. The bottom half is a metal tumbler, the top a straight-sided pint glass. To make a drink, pour the ingredients into the glass, seal the tumbler on top, flip it over and shake. Then set the metal end down, remove the glass, and strain out the cocktail. I’ve ranted before about the uselessness and terrible design of more complicated shakers. The Boston is easy, cheap, and dependable. It’s the style most professional bartenders use, and with good reason. Unfortunately, many home stores only carry lame shakers designed by people who don’t have a clue about mixing drinks, so you might have to go online or to a restaurant supply store to find one.

Hawthorne strainer — After shaking or stirring a drink you’ll strain it into a glass. The Hawthorne strainer is the most common tool for this. It fits over the mouth of the shaker or glass and has a metal spring wrapped around it to catch ice and other solids. If you’re making drinks with muddled herbs or fruits, you might also want to pour through a standard kitchen strainer to catch pieces that slip through the coil, but for most cocktails the Hawthorne is all you’ll need. A kitchen strainer is also useful for keeping ice shards out of shaken drinks.

Jigger — The jigger is the double-ended metal cone that measures liquid ingredients. Jiggers are often 1.5 or 2 ounces on the jigger end, .5 or 1 on the pony end. For home use I personally prefer the mini angled measuring cups from OXO (available in steel too). With measurements ranging from 1/4 to 2 ounces and additional markings for cups, tablespoons, and milliliters, they offer an added level of flexibility and precision.

Cocktail glasses — I’m a little obsessed with glassware, as evidenced by my overflowing cabinets that have no room left for food. At the very least you’ll want a few rocks and highball glasses for drinks served on ice. There’s no way to go wrong here, just buy what you like. The classic Martini glass is the other essential. Again, use your taste, just know that most of the ones you see in stores are absurdly oversized and will make your classically-inspired cocktails look tiny in comparison. Avoid the 9 and 10 ounce monsters and aim for 5-6. If storage space is a concern, consider the Dizzy glass from Crate and Barrel. It’s durable, looks sharp, and can be stacked in pairs thanks to its short, sturdy base. It’s a little larger than I’d like, but at only $2 a piece it’s easy to stock up on enough for a small party.

Juicer — Get a juicer and squeeze your own damn citrus fruits. Yes, it’s costlier and takes more work than using pre-bottled stuff from concentrate, but it’s not that hard. Two-handled juicers like this one do the job quickly and thoroughly for limes and lemons, the fruits that show up most often in cocktails.

Muddler — The muddler is the tool used to mash ingredients in the bottom of the mixing glass, unlocking the flavor of herbs or releasing the juices of fruits. Odds are you don’t really need a dedicated muddler; a wooden spoon, an ice cream scoop, or any other blunt object you find in the kitchen will work in a pinch. Cheap muddlers can be had for just a few bucks. If you’re muddling frequently and want one that looks great and feels good in the hand, I recommend Paul Gallagher’s hand-crafted PUG! muddlers; I love the way their angled grip fits comfortably against my palm.

Channel knife — A freshly cut piece of citrus zest makes a lovely garnish for many cocktails. Some channel knives are hard to use, but the Zyliss makes it easy to get a long, continuous strip of zest. Of course, you can just use a sharp knife too.

Bar spoon — You own a spoon, right? I’m sure you can use it to stir perfectly good cocktails. That said, a long bar spoon with a spiral handle is a pleasure to use and makes the job easier.

Knife — I bet you own a knife, too! If not, the Kuhn-Rikon paring knife is an inexpensive, sharp, workable knife for cutting up citrus fruits and comes with a plastic sheath for easy portability.

Corkscrew — The waiter-style corkscrew can be intimidating if you’re not used to it, but once you become adept you’ll appreciate its engineering. The biggest flaw with many of them is a dull knife blade; make sure you get one sharp enough to actually cut through the foil on a wine bottle. The Pulltaps model features a sharp, serrated blade, along with several other design tweaks.

Ice molds — Ice is a tricky subject. The most important thing is to be aware of how quickly the ice you’re using melts and dilutes a drink. If you need ice molds, I’ve heard very good things about these large cube molds from Tovolo.

Bottles with pourers — It’s certainly not essential, but it is nice to have at least one small bottle on hand for simple syrup. If you’re making drinks for a group you might want a couple for your juices as well. Later you can experiment with making spiced syrups, tonic water, and other homemade ingredients, but one to three bottles are plenty for starting out.

Small grater — Useful if you’re making drinks that call for freshly grated spices.

Cocktail book — Countless books of cocktail recipes have been published. Make sure you buy one written by an author who knows what he’s talking about. If it looks like the publisher asked an intern to copy 1,000 recipes from the internet and compile them into a book, leave it on the shelf. A guide that devotes a few chapters to history and technique will be far more useful than one that expects you to blindly follow recipes. Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology is the book I started with and I gladly recommend it to others. In addition to a thorough list of recipes, Regan explains the hows, whys, and histories behind techniques and recipes, teaching not just how to make a bunch of random drinks, but how to become a bartender.

That covers basic bar equipment but doesn’t do you the least bit of good without any spirits to pour. Come back in a day or so for part two of stocking your home bar, when we’ll talk about what to pick up on your first trips to the liquor store.

Update: Part 2 is now up.

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