Dating Mixology: Building the Home Bar
Why Have a Home Bar?
Have you ever wanted to build your own home bar? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to seem like a magician to your friends, family, and significant other? Blackberry champagne cocktails on a Sunday morning, spicy, buttery old fashioneds on a Thursday night. Pomegranate Mojitos on a warm summer evening. Imagine you meet someone, you find out what s(he) likes, what flavors, what desserts, what drinks, and then you make, just for him (her), one spectacular drink after another. And you’ll have the time of your life doing it.
Because…Let’s face it: Good cooks abound, a decent collection of Scotches is nice, and Wine is a necessity for many. But a serviceable home bar, that can truly make world class drinks. Now…THAT is rare. It’s not about the apparatus. A spectacular home bar can exist in a studio apartment. It’s about the right ingredients, and knowing how to use them.
I know building a home bar seems expensive, and that’s why most people don’t do it. But for every dollar you spend on these ingredients, you will save at least five that you would spend on ordering drinks at a bar, and you’ll be making higher quality cocktails, because you won’t pay the exorbitant markup fees that restaurants charge on these drinks. It’s an open secret that bars make the most money off of you in the form of cocktails. More than beer, wine, and certainly more than food. Save your money, and curl up watching Netflix while eating Thai takeout and sipping a Sidecar.
This is an investment man. Not convinced? Here’s a clip of Ryan Gosling making an Old Fashioned:
Ok, so maybe you’re entertaining the idea, but you don’t know what to buy, what to do with it once you buy it, and how to set everything up. Well, our first stop will be the liquor store. Let’s go shopping:
Building the Home Bar Part 1: The 15 Spirits You MUST Buy
When you’re done reading this post you will know this:
How to build a home bar as cheaply as possible. You’ll be able to make virtually any drink you read about, and you’ll have a solid base to improvise from. You will knowledgeable and empowered, not overwhelmed and unsure.
The Goldilocks Effect
When buying spirits, you will hit diminishing returns fast. As in, you’re buying these spirits primarily to be consumed in cocktails. Too expensive and the subtle interplay of flavor is lost, too cheap and the cocktail is diminished, wobbling on the shaky spine of cheap booze. In this series we’re going to show you which brands offer the best value.
As far as what spirits to purchase, the absolute best book on this subject is “Cocktails Made Easy” by Simon Difford. I’m going to vary my recommendations a little, based on what’s readily available in the United States, my own personal preferences, and some choices you can make based on your own preferences.
- Ketel One Vodka or Tito’s Homemade Vodka– My favorite mixing vodkas are always pot distilled so they display a bit more character and flavor than other brands. Ketel One is a traditional Dutch wheat based Vodka, and Tito’s is a relatively new American Potato Vodka, but they’re both made in similar ways. The choice really comes down to if you like your vodka more smooth and rounded, as I do, in which case Tito’s is the clear choice, due to it’s use of Potato (The larger the grain, the smoother the Vodka, generally speaking). Difford’s prefers the equally excellent Ketel One, but I find it’s a little coarse for my tastes.
- Tanqueray Gin or Plymouth Gin– Difford’s recommends Tanqueray, and it certainly is an exemplar of the London Dry Style, and would be an excellent choice here, right alongside Beefeater or Bombay Sapphire. Plymouth Gin is both its own category and it’s own brand, legally protected and only made in Plymouth, England. It has an earthy softness to contrast the juniper that I find myself going back to again and again, particularly for winter Martinis and fall Negronis, so it is my spirit of choice for the home bar.
- Bacardi White Rum or Flor de Cana White– White Rum is essential for Mojitos, Caipirinhas, even Rum and Cokes, but after years of drinking Bacardi, I discovered Flor de Cana, the only white rum that’s been aged for four years, and I fell in love with the unexpected nuances this created in a category of spirit I thought I knew well. If you like sleek, congener light flavor (i.e. Rum produced in similar fashion to Vodka), Bacardi is unassailable, but if you want a little more complexity and dryness, opt for the Flor de Cana. It’s a little more expensive, but you’ll be spending the least money on Rum anyway. Your dollar will always go further with Rum, even in cocktail renaissance, Rum always seems to be dateless to the prom.
- Don Julio Blanco Tequila or Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila– Diffords recommends the exceptional (though a bit pricey) Don Julio Blanco Tequila, and my personal favorite tequila is the Philly commissioned Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila with notes of cucumber, lime and flowers, which I recommend if you can get it.
- Johnnie Walker Black or Famous Grouse– Scotch, surprisingly necessary for a number of great cocktails, shouldn’t be too distinctive. My personal tastes lie with the ubiquitous (and cheaper) Famous Grouse, but Johnnie Walker Black is better neat. If you have your own cachet of Single Malts, or you don’t like to sip Scotch straight, I would go with the Grouse, otherwise, go with Diffords and get JWB. I’m very tempted to write Yamazaki or Sheep Dip here, but I won’t because their value for me is tied to specific drinks (Mizuwari, and Blood and Sand).
- Courvoisier Cognac or Comandon Cognac– Courvoisier, as Diffords recommends is the everyday Cognac for…The world. But I happened on Comandon a year ago, and I was hooked, I’m a sucker for understated Vanilla in dark spirits, since I’m constantly getting hit over the head with it when I drink California Chards, and the French understand understated balance. It is my go to Cognac. Honorable mention goes to Calvados and Applejack, but we don’t have time for apple liqueurs right now, we have a bar to build.
- Bulleit Bourbon or Maker’s Mark– I’m extremely happy that my favorite Bourbon dovetails with Diffords recommendation here. I was tempted to put the legendary Rittenhouse Rye, so lovingly embraced by Mixologists over the last five years, but I ultimately decided against it. Having one Bourbon at your bar comes first. With a higher percentage of Rye on the Mashbill (30%), it has a spicy element while having a buttery sweetness that is irresistible in an Old Fashioned. If you absolutely abhor the spiciness of Rye, go for Maker’s Mark instead, with it’s light vanilla and wheat flavors.
- Cointreau– Spoiler Alert- Cointreau IS Triple Sec. The French version of this classic orange liqueur was dubbed too sweet by the British market, so they took out some of the sugar and changed the name to “Triple Sec” or three times dry. When a lot of cheap triple secs glutted the market, they changed the name back to Cointreau. This is the original orange liqueur, that Humphrey Bogart drank straight (yes, it’s good on it’s own after dinner), in Casablanca, and no home bar is complete without it.
- White Creme de Cacao– Tastes like chocolate, the Creme here doesn’t mean there’s cream in it, but it refers to the low viscosity caused by the high sugar content. The backbone of practically every cream drink. Your matinee mudslides will thank me.
- White Creme de Menthe– Mint is essential for Stingers, and I do use it in Punches quite often. I also use it to coat a glass for a Sazerac in lieu of Absinthe, which I’m not a huge fan of.
- Kahlua or Starbucks Coffee Liqueur– I have a confession: I prefer Starbucks to Kahlua. I’m from Philly, and I grew up on Hershey’s and Starbucks, and will find excuses to covertly flavor cocktails with them.
- Chambord (and) St. Germain– If you love black raspberry as I do, this is a clear choice as Diffords recommends. If you can spring it, the sheer versatility and popularity of St. Germain, particularly in Champagne cocktails, and especially with women, makes it a worthy purchase. After all, it was invented by the son of Chambord’s marketer in the United States.
- Noilly Prat Blanc AND
- Martini Rosso Sweet– French Vermouths are traditionally white, while Italian Vermouths are sweet. I tend to like Noilly Prat’s sweet vermouth as well, but I agree with both recommendations. Whichever you buy, keep them in the fridge (or save them at the very least when not in use.
- Sofia Coppola Blanc de Blanc– Almost all Wine Cocktails, are made with Champagne, but a few are made with white wine, there are virtually none that effectively make use of Red (Sangrias, Mulled Wines, and horrible coolers notwithstanding). So my favorite mixing champagnes are Blanc de Blancs, or made with only white grapes. I don’t often feel like making massive quantities of Mimosas, Bellinis and the like. Less is more on Sunday morning. The solution is Sofia Coppola Blanc de Blanc, which comes in single use cans, and is made with a combination of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat, and has peach, pear, citrus and honeysuckle notes that I love and is both cheap and markedly different from French Blanc de Blanc, made with Chardonnay. Think of it as the apology for the end of Godfather III that keeps on giving.
In Part II We’re going to talk about how to stock your fridge and pantry. What you need to make (almost nothing), and what you need to buy (less than you think). Ready to attack that supermarket!?