We Wish You a Merry Home Bar
A proper drink at the right time—one mixed with care and skill and served in a true spirit of hospitality—is better than any other made thing at giving us the illusion, at least, that we’re getting what we want from life. A cat can gaze upon a king, as the proverb goes, and after a dry martini or a Sazerac cocktail or two, we’re all cats. — David Wondrich
One of the best things to cross my shelf this Fall was Imbibe! by David Wondrich, an arrestingly-titled book with an equally arresting subtitle: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.
It’s a marvelous and informative read—part biography of a little-known figure in American bartending, part recipe guide, part mixological history lesson—laced with wry anecdotes and a winning sense of humor. Thanks to Mr. Wondrich, I’ll never forget this hilariously splenetic excerpt from the Minneapolis Tribune in 1885:
The Japanese cocktail is [a] liquid attack of spinal meningitis. It is loaded with knock-kneed mental ceramics, and is apt to make a man throw stones at his grandfather.
Verily, verily, the Tribune ain’t what it used to be.
As one drink after another was lovingly described, it became clear that just listening to a book on mixology was never going to cut it: I had to try it for myself. I consulted my liquor-savvy friends (being Presbyterian, I have a few of those), made a list based on their recommendations and my own reading, and took a Saturday afternoon to acquire some home bar basics.
AoM’s “How to Stock Art a Home Bar” is a good overview with two very important rules. First, get alcohol you actually enjoy drinking: common sense, perhaps, but given the neophyte tendency to get overwhelmed, a welcome reminder. Second, start small. Don’t try to buy everything at once.
This article on the best value in each of the six base spirits is also handy. Everyone’s list will be different, but it’s nice to have a starting point. I second the recommendation of Four Roses and New Amsterdam. They’re both fantastic.
I picked up a Boston shaker, a jigger, a Hawthorne strainer, and a pair of Coupe glasses (sturdier and prettier—in my opinion—than their v-shaped counterparts); limes, simple syrup, and Angostura Bitters (of both the orange and Aromatic varieties); and last but not least, a bottle of Flor de Cana 5 Year.
My first attempt was a basic daiquiri, which turned out tolerably well. Encouraged, I went looking for something more autumnal, but still rum-based. Enter the Autumn Smash: crisp, with a rich caramel finish. I’ve made this one half a dozen times now, and the result never fails to please.
In the weeks since that first attempt, I’ve added more glassware, a couple new liquors, and - my personal favorite - a sphere ice mold, which takes “on the rocks” to new levels of excellence. The whiskey sour, the old-fashioned, the martini (stirred, not shaken), and the margarita have all made well-received appearances in my kitchen. I’ve even tampered with our hot chocolate by adding triple sec and Bailey’s salted caramel. Thus far the only dud has been the Manhattan. On a scale of disappointment ranging from partially-frosted mini-wheat to public toilets in India, the Manhattan is somewhere in the middle: mostly because sweet vermouth tastes like betrayal.
An added benefit of the home bar is that ordering cocktails when eating out now counts as research. (My wife smiles knowingly whenever I say this, which proves I married well.) You can get carried away, of course, but another excuse to try that smoke-infused butter pecan old fashioned should not be despised.
In conclusion, and because I’m still relatively new to the scene, I’ve asked some friends to each share a paragraph or five about their favorite mixed drink. Enjoy.
Drew Mills on the margarita:
There are many reasons I feel bad for people born outside of Texas. A lack of state pride, subpar football, and thinking pork is barbecue are among them, but the #1 reason may well be that they’ve likely never had a proper margarita.
The beauty of the margarita is in it’s simplicity. You don’t need to toast fresh bay leaves dipped in fresh unicorn’s blood to impress. 2oz tequila, 1 oz lime juice, and 1oz of triple sec, Cointreau, or Gran Marnier (my personal go-to.)
The steps are as simple as the ingredients. Simple squeeze fresh limes until you have enough juice for the number of margaritas you plan on making. (It’s usually a good idea to have more limes on hand for when you decide to have another.) Pour the lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur into a shaker, and shake with ice. Salt the rim of your glass, pour your drink, and enjoy.
Now its simplicity often means that people believe that they can cut corners. I’ve witnessed misguided individuals use orange juice instead of orange flavored liqueur. Life tip: Never do this. Anyone who’s ever had a margarita will be justified in ceasing association with you.
Paul Derham on the martini:
A martini is a magical drink. One summer New England years ago a friend of mine handed me a mug as we sat down to dinner. It held a clear liquid and a twisted lemon peel. I had never had a martini before, nor that I recall had I ever even drunk gin. The beverage fascinated me. Immediately, I noticed that this martini made no pretenses about its alcoholic content. Not like something a fratboy would drink to get drunk while avoiding the taste of alcohol. A martini is, without a shadow of a doubt, a drink.
Later in the evening, I meandered to the kitchen where my friend was preparing himself another. He arranged a 4:1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth, stirred not shaken, and a lemon twist (a thin slice of the peel) rubbed around the rim and used as a garnish. Traditionally it is not served in a mug. I may be wrong, but I believe it is supposed to be served in a martini glass.
I've heard some prefer olives as a garnish, but they displace the gin in the glass and leave a weird taste which I hear is meant to dilute the taste of alcohol. The same goes for the dirty martini, made by pouring some of the brine from a jar of olives into the drink. Additionally, some prefer to shake a martini, not stir it (mostly humans who have never had one but have seen Sean Connery order one in some old movie). Shaking, however, melts the ice and gives the drink a foggy color. And some even prefer to have more than two martinis, which is an insult to the drink. By then, please understand, one could not even appreciate the taste.
To conclude, I have often found the martini and knowledge of the martini sets you apart from others. When at a restaurant with friends, a date, or business associates, succinctly ordering a martini precisely the way you like it served says that you're a person who knows what he wants. A person with taste and class, determined to drink something tasteful and classy.
Joshua Jennings on the Negroni:
The Negroni is the perfect introduction to cocktails: en vogue, classic, visually appealing, easy to make with easily found ingredients, not expensive, and most importantly, delicious.
The bitter notes of Campari and the sweet notes of vermouth are grounded by the strong, herbaceous notes of gin. The citrus twist, so much more than mere garnish, serves to highlight the chinotto in the Campari. All come together to yield an incredibly balanced cocktail.
It would not be an exaggeration to say the Negroni is at the heart of the cocktail revival. Every bar has her own variation, heavily advertised on social media during Negroni Week in June. Campari has begun selling bottled Negronis but you could just as easily make your own. In fact, I would recommend it.