As we continue our exploration of cocktails, we are often asked “how do you get started at home and what should we buy”? We certainly have our opinions and we will share them, but there are no perfect answers (opinions, comments, disagreements and even outrage are welcome, feel free to share your thoughts!). But here is how we would get started:
Here is the “short and sweet” version: Get a bottle of dry gin, a bottle of light rum and a bottle of whiskey (we like rye, but bourbon or Canadian whiskey are good). Get some Angostura and Regan’s Orange bitters, sweet and dry vermouth (nothing fancy) and fresh citrus. Make a few basic syrups with sugar and honey. Get that old cocktail shaker off the shelf (we bet you have one somewhere) and start making drinks. And what can you make? Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sours and Daiquiris along with dozens of other “classic” cocktails. Go to Cocktail DB to get more ideas based on ingredients in your fridge. You are off and running for about $100 bucks, and if you assume you will get at least 50 cocktails from these three bottles, the average cost per drink is about $2. Not too shabby (to borrow from Adam Sandler).
But what if you want to take it up a notch? For about $250 you can stock a home bar that allows you to build literally hundreds of cocktails and with “professional” results. A few more spirits and bitters, a liqueur or two and a bit of extra gear and you have a “pro” bar at home. So here is the breakdown, with a focus on readily (and nationally) available ingredients:
- Dry Gin: All sorts of good options here, but stalwarts like Tanqueray, Brokers, Gordon’s and Beefeater are all under $20. If you are a gin fan, there are dozens of good artisan gins to try, usually around $30. And if you just can’t stand juniper, “new world” gins like Hendrick’s (cucumber) and Nolet (floral) focus on other flavors and are good options. Martinis, Rickeys, Gimlets, Sours and Collins’ are all based on gin. Try classics like the Pegu Club or Aviation.
- Whiskey: We like rye whiskey and suggest Rittenhouse 80 proof for about $20. If you like bourbon, Bulleit at $25 is a good choice, but there are good options around $15. Good for Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Sours. Try the Daisy Black for a twist on a Whiskey Sour.
- Light Rum: We suggest El Dorado Light Demerara rum at $15. Great rum at a good price (their Gold rum is also excellent). Bacardi and Brugal are also solid choices. Good for classics like Daiquiris and Cuba Libre, also a component of many tiki drinks.
- Aged / Dark Rum: We suggest Barbancourt 4 or 8-year-old and/or Appleton aged rums, about $25 – $30. While very different, both offer the deep, funky sugar and vanilla flavors that make tiki / tropical drinks sing. Great for tiki drinks and for deeper versions of Daiquiris.
- Tequila: Plenty of good blanco tequilas under $20, just be sure it is 100% agave. We like to use richer-flavored reposado tequila in most drinks and prefer Cazadores, it works in just about everything and is about $25. For most, tequila is still all about Margaritas, but let’s face it, Margaritas still rock. If you are looking to branch-out, try the Ernesto or Chica Facil.
- Brandy: This is a tough one. Good brandy isn’t cheap and some brands are not widely available. You will need help at your liquor store. VS Cognac is ok, but XO or VSOP will be better but cost over $30. We like Armagnac, and you can get a very good bottle for $30- $35. National brands like Hennessy have VS Cognacs for under $30, domestic brandies will often be less expensive. If you want to make a good Sidecar, you need good brandy. Also, a key ingredient in classic punches, like Chatham Artillery Punch.
- Vodka: While not a favorite of many cocktail enthusiasts, a lot of people like vodka, and you probably have a bottle somewhere in the house already. Plenty of good options under $20. Cosmopolitans and Lemondrops are good reasons to have some vodka in your bar.
- Extras: If you want to add-on, blended Scotch, Irish whiskey, Genever (gin in a richer, maltier style), Laird’s Bonded Applejack (apple brandy), Cachaca (Brazilian sugar cane spirit) and Rhum Agricole are all worthy additions to your bar.
- Vermouth: Sweet vermouth from Martini and Rossi and Dry vermouth from Noilly-Prat are under $10 and work well for Martinis and Manhattans. For enthusiasts of vermouth-driven cocktails, Dolin sweet and dry vermouths are excellent but $15 – $20. Carpano Antica is great sweet vermouth but almost $30. As vermouth is wine-based, it must be kept in the fridge or will go bad over time. Buy vermouth in the smallest bottles you can. Fresh, cheap vermouth is still better than old, oxidized, expensive vermouth.
- Liqueurs: We can say with some confidence that orange liqueur (Curaçao and/or triple sec) is the one liqueur you need for a good home bar. You can’t have a real Sidecar or Margarita without orange liqueur. Cointreau is the standard, and it isn’t cheap. But it is good stuff and goes a long way. $25 for a medium bottle, $40 for a large bottle. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao is another good option at $30. Maraschino Liqueur (Luxardo) and Campari are other liqueurs for such classics as the Aviation and the Negroni. Both are about $30. Benedictine is a good match with whiskey and citrus-based cocktails but is expensive at over $30. Absinthe and Green Chartreuse are both good options to explore, but tend to be acquired tastes and can be pricey, at over $40. We suggest Cointreau and perhaps the Maraschino liqueur to start.
- Bitters: A classic cocktail isn’t really a “cocktail” without bitters. Bitters add a touch of magic and real depth of flavor to most drinks. They are inexpensive and last forever. Angostura Bitters, about $10, is the standard and a must-have. Angostura is available in most supermarkets and liquor stores. Regan’s #6 Orange bitters is a great touch in many classic cocktails and costs about $15. Other bitters are a matter of taste, but Peychaud’s, Fee’s Old Fashioned and Fee’s West Indian Orange bitters are all about $10 and good choices. Bittermens Tiki and Mole bitters are pricey (over $15) but very good in tiki and classic drinks. Hundreds of custom bitters are now available, most about $10, so this is a great area to play around.
- Fresh Citrus: Lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit are all good options. But the lemons and limes are the most popular ingredients. And while technically not citrus, pineapple juice is a popular ingredient for many classics and tiki drinks.
- Syrups: Simple syrup (1:1 water to sugar), rich simple syrup (2:1 water to sugar) and honey syrup (1:1 water to honey) are the best ways to sweeten drinks. Simply bring sugar or honey and water to a light boil and stir until combined. Cool and use. You can add herbs and spices to any syrup for extra flavor. Homemade grenadine is easy to make and a very tasty addition to many cocktails, it adds a nice red color, too. If you like Tiki drinks, Orgeat (almond flavor) and Falernum (lime and spice) are good syrups to buy at about $10.
- Cocktail Shaker / Strainer: While most “pros” go with a Boston Shaker (a metal cup and a glass that you seal together) and a strainer, these take some time to learn how to use. Unless you (and your guests) know what you are doing and/or don’t mind cleaning cocktails off your walls, we suggest a cobbler-style shaker. The cobbler shaker has a metal cup with a lid that has a strainer. While it takes a bit more time to strain some drinks, we prefer the cobbler shaker for home use. Both styles of shaker will cost about $10 ( julep or Hawthorne strainers both cost about $5, if you go with a Boston shaker), but before you buy anything look around the house. Cocktail shakers are a popular gift, you (or your friends / relatives) may have one lying around. And as long as it keeps a seal, it’s a good shaker.
- Mixing Glass: You can simply use a solid pint glass, but a wider mixing glass makes it easier to stir drinks with ice. A basic mixing glass will be $5 – $10, but you can go crazy here and get upwards of $50. Again, you or a friend may have one lying around. Use that or start with a less-expensive option.
- Jigger Measure: You do need a good jigger measure. Good cocktails require exact measurements. Most jiggers have a 1 and 1/2 oz. side (a jigger) and a 1 oz. (pony) side. Good jiggers show measurements down to the 1/4 oz., these are preferred. Oxo is a good supplier. Expect to pay $5 – $10.
- Fine Mesh Strainer: For straining little bits of mint, citrus pulp or muddled fruit from drinks. You probably have a small one in your kitchen, and that will work. Otherwise, the cost will be about $5 at a kitchen store.
- Citrus Squeezer: Another good buy. You can find these in specialty stores or Latin markets. They save a lot of time and (some) mess. Cost is anywhere from $2 – $10. Get a solid squeezer, it will get a lot of use.
- Barspoon: You can use any long spoon, but a barspoon is helpful for mixing and controlled pouring of ingredients. And it only costs about $2.
So now that you have a well-stocked bar, how do you know what to make? While there are many great cocktail books, we suggest you start with the internet. Here are a few good sites to start with (but there are plenty more, go explore):
- Cocktail DB: A very thorough database of classic and current cocktails. Sort by name or ingredient.
VirginSlut: One of the best blogs to see what new spirits and creations are out there.
- Serious Eats Drinks: Good cocktail recipes from bars, restaurants and food / spirit writers. In-depth features on spirits and liqueurs.
- Mixology Monday: A monthly themed “online cocktail party”. Good drinks, but also links to other cocktail sites and blogs.
- Liquid Culture Project: A deep exploration of both new and old cocktails.
- Measure and Stir: Cocktail experiments and opinions.
- Cold Glass: Well researched articles and recipes of classic cocktails. Great photos.
- Cocktail Chronicles: Mostly inactive, but one of the bellweather cocktail blogs. Great cocktail recipes and detailed recipes for making syrups at home.
- Boozed + Infused: If you want to make your own boozy infusions or cocktails, Alicia’s excellent site is the place to visit.
- Alcademics: Camper English’s booze blog and links to his cocktail writing. Good stuff.
- The Boo Lion: Classic and contemporary cocktails all the way from Taiwan.
And if you read and experiment enough, your bar might fill up a bit…have fun!
- Weekly Cocktail #34: The Sawyer (putneyfarm.com)
- Holiday Cocktails: Flowers For Sonja (and the Calla Lily) (putneyfarm.com)
- Weekly Cocktail #30: The Derby (putneyfarm.com)
- Is the Manhattan too sweet for you? Try the Lafayette Cocktail (cold-glass.com)