The mustachioed barkeep pushed his Lewis bag and mallet aside, wiping down the countertop directly in front of me as I bellied up to his dimly lit bar. He slid a crumpled paper menu in front of me, its cocktails separated by the headings “Pre-Prohibition” and “Post-Prohibition.”
Behind him, bottles were stacked four gleaming glass shelves high: 10 bottles of rum to the left, 15 different vodkas on the right. Blended scotch towered over bourbons and whiskeys, interspersed with liqueurs and cordials.
Sure, I was intimidated. But bar mania isn’t just happening inside bars. Magazines tout recipes for homemade bitters, cocktail onions, and grenadine, while blogs curate seemingly endless lists of home bar essentials.
None of which necessarily tells you exactly how to figure out what the essentials should be in your own home bar.
“There are a lot of people who will say if you’re going to have six bottles, have these bottles, and if you’re going to have more, have these,” says Kyle Linden Webster, the owner of Portland’s Expatriate. “But I think the more important thing is just having fruit and a juicer.”
Sure, Webster’s bar is of the dimly lit variety, but he’s got sound advice when it comes to the essentials for his home bar versus the bar at Expatriate.
His take on the latest DIY craze of making your own aromatic bitters? “I don’t even make bitters, and I own a bar,” he says. “The best bitters have been around for hundreds of years, and I don’t see people improving on them.”
Indeed, Webster notes he often gets gifts of bitters, which he promptly puts in a box and out of sight. “We use Angostura, Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6, and Peychaud's,” he says. “When people ask me what bitters I have, I say all three. These are the only three bitters you need.”
When dreaming up a list for a home bar, Webster says it’s important to keep classic preparations in mind.
“I would say the most important element is doing something intentionally and with care. You can have 20 bottles in your home bar, but if you walk up to them without a notion of what you’re trying to do or you just start tossing things together, it doesn’t matter how many great bottles you have,” he says. “Simple is best.”
First, start with selecting a favorite bottle each of gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and tequila. Next, supplement with juice, bitters, vermouth, and a sweetener.
Gin plus freshly squeezed lime juice and simple syrup equals a gimlet. Substitute whiskey for gin, and you’ve got a whiskey sour. Rum gives you a classic daiquiri. If you’re a fan of margaritas, consider adding a bottle of Cointreau or triple sec to your arsenal.
“All of the best, oldest, most accepted drinks are rather basic, and they’re all related,” says Webster. “So it’s simply a matter of choosing a few bottles carefully, choosing the fruit, and if you have some simple syrup around, that definitely helps.”
A bartender with sweetener sensibilities is Brandon Lockman, the bar manager of Portland’s Red Star Tavern. “What I have a lot of fun with and we do at Red Star are a bunch of different kinds of syrups,” he says. “You get lemon or lime juice and a fun, funky sweetener; it gives the cocktail a special twist.”
A basic sweetener recipe for the home bar is simple syrup: equal parts sugar and water, heated until the sugar dissolves, then cooled before using. Lockman suggests experimenting with other sweet ingredients to create the syrup. “Some people like something lower on the glycemic level, like demarara or other kinds of cane syrups; maple syrup, agave, palm sugar, or honey,” he says.
Lockman also recommends steeping aromatics like cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, or even hot peppers in simple syrup to infuse different flavors.
It’s good to keep a range of bar supplies on hand, but unless you’re planning a party, your home bar won’t see as much use as the neighborhood watering hole. So don’t overdo it. It’s fine to keep fruit on hand at all times, for example, but squeeze citrus and juices to order, as they will only keep for a few days.
Adding a splash of vodka to a jar of cooled simple syrup, then stashing the jar in the fridge, will stabilize the simple syrup for a few weeks. But it’s still smart to start out small — perhaps one cup of finished syrup at a time.
And don’t forget that, while the taste of vodka or other hard liquors won’t alter much over time, sweet or dry vermouth is fortified wine and will oxidize once opened, changing its flavor.
“Carpano Antica is a sweet vermouth that a lot of people are getting excited about,” says Webster. “The trouble is it comes in a liter bottle, so unless you’re planning on making a whole slew of Manhattans for a party or something, it’s going to go bad.”
Instead, he recommends buying French-made Dolin rouge or dry vermouths, as they come in 12.7-ounce bottles, a size he says is “much more appropriate for the home bar.”
Finally, if you don’t already have favorite bar basics, take advantage of those airline-size bottles for sampling. Find your go-tos, grab some citrus, and whip up a simple syrup. Then kick back, and ponder whether you really want one of those ice-crushing Lewis bags.
Jackie Varriano is an Oregon writer who loves tackling kitchen projects big and small. Keep up with her at SeeJackWrite.
Related recipe: Expatriate Daiquiri
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