Essentials for 'How to Make Your Home Bar'

Originally published in Focus on the Coast, March 2014


When, in 1806 a newspaper editor in Hudson, New York was asked the question, “What is a cocktail?” He responded with: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
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It starts with just a couple of bottles, or maybe an old shaker––better yet, a suitcase-set with a few cocktailmaking tools and tumblers, and slowly, over time, you begin to collect the beginnings of a home bar. A couple of cool glasses follow, then some coasters, maybe even a tiki umbrella or two. Cocktail ephemera are magnetic and tend to accumulate. Before long, you’ve had enough visitors to your home who have seen your collection that you have no choice but to host the cocktail party you’ve been secretly planning in your subconscious for months. Don’t worry; you don’t need to wear a smoking jacket in order to mix up a round of Old Fashioneds.
Playing Hugh Hefner is actually much easier than you might think. After sixteen years tending bar, I still feel like the hardest part of making drinks is not the actual mechanical process, but rather the stress of having to do so quickly, often with a backlog of faces straining for your attention. With that in mind, there’s no need to panic if you keep your numbers reasonable. And, in most cases, most people can tend to themselves with a few basic mixers set out for them. If you are the least bit wary someone might open up the old Mr. Boston or Playboy cocktail guides, then you’ll need to make sure you pick up a few key auxiliary things––like bitters and vermouth––for them to try their hand at many of the recipes inside. So, plan ahead, because many of the items require special ordering. Starting out, I would begin by searching online for Fee Bros. Old Fashioned bitters, Gary Regan’s Orange bitters, and a small bottle of Luxardo cherries. Add anything else that seems interesting to which your budget allows, as bitters never spoil and many have medicinal qualities. You’ll also need to make a trip to a local supermarket for small bottles of both sweet and dry vermouth, queen olives (stuffed with whatever’s your pleasure), an array of citrus (lemons, limes, grapefruits, and oranges) and Angostura bitters. Oh, and don’t forget some extra ice.
zDSC_2063 copy copyIngredients aside, let’s talk tools. Apart from a shaker, the second most important tool is a jigger. Even though I’ve made countless Manhattans, I still measure each one. While a jigger may sound sexy, it’s really just a small silver measuring cup, however, any old shot glass will do in a pinch. The jigger is essential because a well-made cocktail depends on a precarious balance of elements. When all of the different elements hit the taste buds in all the right places at just the right time, a cocktail rises above the sum of its parts, but in order to benefit from the mixological refinements of the past century, you have to use a jigger.
Other required tools are a citrus press––any small, hand squeezer will do–as well as a long slender spoon, ice scoop, and bucket. Speed pourers are also a good idea, along with beverage napkins, swizzle sticks, and garnish skewers. Oh, and don’t forget a muddler. Then, of course, there’s the booze. My advice to the lonely traveler among the liquor aisle: Keep it simple. All the flavored spirits out there, like the pear vodkas and maple syrup bourbons, I’d leave them alone for the time being and start with mid-level basics: vodka, gin, rum, whiskey.
Essential cordials should come next, like Cointreau, St. Germaine, and Chambord. Start with a few favorite cocktails in mind, make a list, and buy accordingly. As for price, concocting a good mixed drink depends on quality, but that doesn’t mean the most expensive. A person who orders a Bay Breeze made with Grey Goose could easily save $10- 20 with either Tito’s or Sobieski, respectively, and I’d challenge them to tell the difference after adding cranberry and pineapple juice. Then again, a clean vodka martini is a totally different story, and Grey Goose may be the way to go. In the end, trust your instincts, and if you’re not sure, ask your bartender to let you sample a few of their favorites, like my favorite drink of the moment, The Staff Pick from manna. Prefer to make a large batch of something delicious in advance? Try a Cherry Moonshine Punch.
2 oz. Templeton Rye
1 oz. Carpona Antica
Dash of Old Fashioned bitters
Stir the above together over ice for
20-30 seconds. Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a marasca cherry.
1 bottle Jr. Johnson’s Cherry Moonshine
1 can frozen lemonade
2 liter bottle of club soda
2 bottles of sparkling apple cider
2 lemons
3 oranges
Thinly slice fresh lemons and oranges
and place in a large punch bowl. Pour
in cherry moonshine (including the
cherries from the bottle) and the thawed
lemonade. Gently stir in the club soda
and the sparkling apple cider. Add sugar
to taste if necessary. Finish with ice.