The “Set the Bar” series is meant to give anyone the tools to have the best home bar for their budget. This is for that person that occasionally scrounges up a bottle of schnapps from the freezer, and for the person that keeps more than 3 gins stocked at home while also keeping a close eye on rare bottles of bourbon. From beginner to pro, this series will be a fun guide to setting up the right at-home bar for all budgets and tastes. No frills, no ego, just good stuff.
This is your second installment of the three part series. The first article gave tips for those that wanted a very simple bar. Some would say too simple, but as a person that appreciates high end whiskey, I’m no stranger to a shot of well. There weren’t any extensive recipes or fancy tools in the first one, we wanted to save that for later. In this segment, we’ll be covering a lot of ground, dipping our toes into a few higher end bottles, and linking to a few cocktails along the way. First though, some suggestions on tools that will make cocktail creation easier.
In the first of this series I suggested basic tools that any home bar should have. For an intermediate bar though, more tools can be added to this toolbox.
Cocktail spoon – This spoon can sometimes be used to measure syrup and spirits, but it’s primarily used to stir spirit based cocktails (no juice/citrus). I prefer Cocktail Kingdom’s 40cm Teardrop Barspoon. You can buy cheaper ones, and I have… but after extended use, you’ll find yourself preferring the more expensive version.
Muddler – These guys are great for making mojitos, or for muddling herbs/fruit/etc into cocktails. A muddler is a GREAT way to make cocktails on the fly for friends. Grab an apple, peach, mint leaf or whatever and you’ll be able to trick your friends into thinking you’re a master. I don’t have a strong preference on a muddler, but my friend Chris is a fan of this one.
Peeler – When you’re using peels for Old Fashioned’s, Negroni’s, or any other drink that calls for a wide peel, I would suggest using only one kind of peeler – the “Y” or “Swiss Peeler”. Trying to do a peel with the right amount of pith using a potato peeler is asking for trouble. A peel used for garnish in a cocktail is rarely used for the sole purpose of beauty, but rather the “expression” or “kiss” of citrus oil onto the surface of the cocktail. For this technique, you will want to cut a peel with just a little pith, then hold it peel side down, squeezing the edges in order to release the citrus oil onto the cocktail. This can completely change and make a cocktail.
Julep Strainer – When straining cocktails that have citrus or egg, you will want to use a combination of the Hawthorne the tea strainer. For spirit forward drinks, you will use the julep strainer after stirring. (For more information on how to strain a cocktail, I found this article very straight-forward.)
Exotic Bitters – Now is the time that I’d suggest buying a few more bitters. Orange & Peychaud’s are must-haves, but get creative! There are a lot of neat companies out there that have made some really fun stuff. Bitters is one category that I suggest getting crazy on. They are fairly inexpensive and last a long time. They are especially fun for those that want to create new cocktails. Go nuts, folks.
If you are interested in hosting and providing cocktails for your guests (or just your own damn self), it may be a good idea to invest in some glassware. (For the record, I have been known to drink a cocktail out of a coffee mug.) These glassware suggestions are purely for those that are interested in the aesthetics of presentation and adding more to their bar cabinet.
Single Old Fashioned – For boozy drinks served neat like a Sazerac.
Collins – This glass will suit you well for citrusy/bubbly cocktails like a mojito.
Coupe/Nick & Nora – For libations served “up” like a Manhattan or Daiquiri.
Double Old Fashioned – For boozy drinks served over ice or one big block. This is the glass with the widest range of use.
Now to the booze. I’m giving you a lot of options here, but none of these bottles would be out of place in a home bar.
London Drys – These are my favorite. They are light and crisp, great in citrusy cocktails and easy sippers with soda or over ice. My picks in this group are Bombay Dry & Tanqueray.
Herbal & Light: Plymouth & St. George – Plymouth Gin is smooth and creamy, not too perfumey with the right amount of juniper. St. George (they make 3 different gins) are all delicious in their own manor. All herbal and light – very vegetal.
The Oddballs: Genever & Old Tom – What delicious weirdos. Genever is like a cousin of gin, that we all love meeting. Old Tom is another oddball, mainly for its viscosity and malty flavor.
Belvedere – Great for martinis, has a good body and smooth texture.
Tito’s – Very popular in cocktails such as a Moscow Mule. Tito’s is an easy drink, incredibly palatable and versatile.
Ketel One – Another that’s great for martinis, but also great in citrus cocktails.
Koenig – This is a shameless plug for a local brand. It is delicious, and has an incredible mouth-feel. This company also makes delicious eau de vie fruit brandies.
Old Fashioned/Manhattan Whiskeys – For these cocktails my favorites are Old Weller 107 (bourbon) , Willett Rye, and Colonel E.H. Taylor (bourbon).
Sipping Whiskeys – If you’d rather sip some whiskey over ice or neat, I love Old Grand-Dad (thanks again, Chris) , Elijah Craig, or Bulleit Rye.
Citrus Cocktail Whiskeys – For citrus cocktails, I go to Buffalo Trace. Another favorite is High West. They produce a few different whiskeys that are all good, but my personal favorite is the Rendezvous Rye.
Other Favorites – Four Roses, Old Forester, Bib & Tucker, Bakers.
Don Julio – I love all of their products. My favorite is the reposado though.
Chamucos Blanco – Hands down, this is my favorite blanco.
Lunazul Blanco – Another great blanco, this time for cocktails.
Hussongs Reposado – Being on the light and almost caramel side of reposados, Hussongs is one of my absolute favorites.
Fortaleza – Another favorite brand. Their tequila is incredible, their design is on point, and I want it in my mouth at all times.
For some information on mezcal, see this post.
Appleton Estate – This rum is smooth, easy to drink, and easy on the wallet. It’s awesome in citrus cocktails too.
Smith & Cross – I guess I have a thing for weirdos, because this guy is really strange. Smith & Cross is “Navy Proof”, and is extremely delicious on it’s own, but also makes a great cocktail.
Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Rum – Great for a rum Old Fashioned, and also for pouring into a glass neat.
Goslings Black Rum – A reasonably cheap option for Dark & Stormy’s.
Kirk & Sweeney 23yr Dominican Rum – This one is a little pricier, but completely worth it. If you have anyone in your life that loves rum, you need to get them this.
Laphroaig 10 – This is one of my favorite scotches to drink, but mainly to use in cocktails. Even a tiny amount can add a smokey and delicious depth to a cocktail.
Aberlour – I’ll admit it, I’m not a huge fan of most peaty scotches. This was my first introduction to scotch, suggested by the man who taught me everything. It’s a very accessible option for those that feel iffy about drinking scotch.
Highland Park 12 – Silky & smooth, this guy is a great addition to your bar, but also a fantastic gift. (Seriously, if you give this as a gift, you deserve a medal… or high-five at least.)
If you’re going to make a Martini or Manhattan, vermouth is crucial. Here are my favorites.
Dolin Dry Vermouth – Because it’s the best.
Carpano Antica Vermouth – You really don’t want to use the crap sold right next to the weird cherries in your liquor store. This vermouth is so good that you can and should drink it straight. It makes a wonderful Manhattan, and is a great tool to have in your bar for your own cocktail creations!
Absinthe – My favorites are Lucid and St. George.
Aperol – This is a tasty addition, similar to Campari but not as bitter.
Amaro Nonino – An amaro that is incredible in cocktails. It’s lighter than most amaros that I’ve encountered, maybe a nice introduction.
Averna – Delicious in spirit forward whiskey cocktails
Campari – Known for being a main component in Negroni’s, but also tasty when served alone or with soda water.
Chartreuse Green/Yellow – Made by monks, and enjoyed by many, this spirit is made from over 30 herbs. It’s a life-changing addition to cocktails and pleasant after a meal alone. (I don’t know if it’s alone, or you are… either way, it’s good.)
Cointreau – Instead of using Tripel Sec, use Cointreau in margaritas for a less syrupy sweetness.
Fernet – Of course, I had to include Fernet. It’s flavor isn’t for everyone, but it’s a wonderfully balanced Italian bitter. Sweet licorice, herbs, and mint combine to make a spirit that is good on it’s own, in cocktails, or sipped after a big meal.
Gran Classico – I may be adding this for the sole reason that if I didn’t, I’d fear being struck down by the cocktail goddesses & gods. It’s probably one of my favorite spirits, and something that I love using in cocktails.
Maraschino – This is not the bright red cherry thing that you’re thinking of. Rather, an incredible gift from heaven that makes cocktails insanely good. I love Luxardo Maraschino. (They also make ridiculously good cherries for cocktails too.)
Pimm’s – A Pimm’s Cup is a very easy and delicious cocktail to make for summer. It’s a fairly cheap bottle, and only requires a few ingredients for the cocktail.
About the Author: Ashley R. is Bartender in Boise, Idaho. She’s known for challenging traditional expectations regarding what a cocktail should be, and having an intuitive understanding of the way flavors interact.