You should think of your liquor cabinet in the same way you think of your pantry. If you have a well stocked selection of spices, grains, and alliums, you can bring home a simple piece of chicken and transform it into myriad different types of cuisine. One night that chicken could be the centerpiece of a Thai curry, the next a filling for Mexican tacos. The chicken is the same, only the spices changed.
You don't buy cumin because you love to eat it by the spoonful as a snack. Instead, you buy it to provide a welcome additional flavor to a favorite staple protein or sauce.
It's time to start shopping for booze like you shop for cumin.
If you come up blank when it's time to find something to mix with your favorite spirit, or if you always reach for the same orange, grapefruit, cran, coke, and/or soda, then this post is for you. If you can make a Beam and Coke, you can make a great Manhattan, you simply need to fill out your spice cabinet a bit. It's a lot easier than you think.
The goal of this post is two fold:
- I'd like to convince you that making genuinely delicious, professional quality drinks at your home is something that you both can and should do.
- I will help you stock your bar at home, starting with the most important bottles and working out from there. In as little as five bottles you will have the foundation laid for some of history's best drinks, and with every bottle after that the options will expand exponentially.
But first, is it even possible for the average person to make great drinks at home?
Good question. I'm going to let you in on a, if not secret, then at least not often publicized fact about cocktails:
Making professional quality cocktails is incredibly easy.
Notice I didn't say that bartending was easy. Because it's not. Bartending is a physically and mentally demanding job conducted in a fast pace, high stress environment, and always under the watchful eye of the customer. A bartender must be a cook, conductor, comedian, and confidant, all at various points in the evening, often simultaneously. Coming up with original drinks often requires a nuanced understanding of cocktail history and the working knowledge of the flavor profiles of hundreds of often purposefully mysterious liquors and liqueurs. It is truly difficult to do well, and I marvel at great bartenders.
But as an isolated act, making a classic cocktail from an established recipe is a breeze.
To prove my point, lets compare making a Manhattan with something we've all done, frying a sunny side up egg.
For a Manhattan you pour two ounces of whiskey and one ounce sweet vermouth into a glass. Then you shake in a few drops of Angostura bitters, add ice, and stir. If you plan on drinking your cocktail on the rocks, simply stop stirring after about ten seconds and enjoy it as it continues to dilute. If you like Manhattans served up, stir for 30 seconds, then strain the drink into a chilled glass. Add a cherry if you have one. There, you're done. You have a Manhattan.
Now lets fry an egg. First get out your pan and place it on your stove. Turn the stove to the correct temperature according to exactly how you'd like your egg to come out and let the pan get warm. The temperature of your stove and the amount of time it takes your pan to get hot will vary drastically, so do this repeatedly, failing often, until you can dial in the right setting on your stove and intuit when the pan is the perfect temperature. Once the pan is the perfect temperature, add some butter, let it melt and stop foaming but don't let it burn. Then add a cracked egg and watch it closely. The way the egg will cook is determined by your stove, the pan, and the freshness of the egg itself. Adjust the temperature and the cooking time based on what you can understand from watching the egg cook. Turn the stove off and slide the egg from the pan at once it hits that perfect window where the top of the white is fully set, the bottom not overcooked, and the yolk is warmed but still entirely runny. If at any point during the cooking process you misjudged the heat from your stove or the pan it was cooked on, you will have absolutely no chance of cooking the egg properly.
Point being, if you've ever attempted to cook an egg, even if you failed miserably, you're more than qualified to make yourself a really delicious drink.
Ok, So it's possible to make drinks, but WHY HAVE A BAR AT HOME?
There are endless good answers to this question. Here are five.
- You'll save a ton of money: A quality cocktail in a bar typically costs, depending on ingredients and where you live, somewhere in the $8-15 range. In most cases, it's a fair price. Running a restaurant or bar is not cheap, and keeping the lights on and a staff paid more than justifies the $11 price tag of that Manhattan you're enjoying. That said, the cost of the actual bulk ingredients used to make your favorite cocktail probably doesn't exceed $3. Sure, nice gin and some Green Chartreuse may bump the cost of your homemade Last Word up to about $4.50, but still, that's far from the $15 you'll likely shell out in a bar. After you factor in tipping (which you absolutely should do, and generously to boot), home-made cocktails are typically about 75% cheaper than those you'd otherwise consume at a bar. This lower cost of entry frees you up to experiment more so that you can, without breaking the bank, move beyond your strictly whiskey or vodka preferences and learn just how exceptional gin drinks can be, that tequila doesn't actually make you crazy, and that there may be nothing better in this world than a simple, well-made daiquiri.
- You'll learn more and you'll learn it more quickly: There's no faster way to get knowledge stuck up in your brain than by actively doing something that uses said knowledge. Going to cocktail bars and engaging with good bartenders is a great way to understand what's going into your drink, but it doesn't hold a candle to actually making drinks yourself. If you instead learn the basics by experimenting at home, you'll likely find that the next time you go out you'll get way more enjoyment from both the cocktail you choose and the conversation you have about it. Insight often elevates experience.
- You'll be a better host: I seriously think there's almost nothing cooler you can do for a guest than to make that person his or her favorite drink. You can't ask a stranger what his or her favorite food is and then make it in two minutes, but you can do that with a drink. Making a a guest's preferred cocktail is the quickest way to making you look good, and your guest feel welcome, valued, and slightly inebriated (which so happens to be the second quickest way of making a person feel welcome and valued).
- When you do go out, you'll enjoy it more: This works in a few ways.
- First, simply knowing that you can go home and whip up your favorite cocktail takes the pressure off of where specifically you'll go. If you love a Negroni but your friends want to meet up at a sports bar, you can relax, split a pitcher of crappy beer, and enjoy being out and in good company. If you still want that Negroni later, you can take care of it yourself.
- Second, having experience with actually preparing cocktails helps immensely when it comes to ordering what you want. You are better equipped to read and understand cocktail menus and better equipped to choose something you'll enjoy. If you need a drink not featured on the list, your knowledge will help you successfully describe what you'd like.
- Lastly, making cocktails at home allows you to taste each component by itself and see how they all work in conjunction with each other. When you go out to a quality cocktail bar, this experience will help you better appreciate just what it is about the drink in front of you that makes it so exceptional.
- Because you can have your favorite cocktail whenever you want it: Goes without saying. Said anyway.
A quick tangent about tools
It's entirely possible to make a drink without buying any bar tools at all. I'm sure there are all sorts of blog posts and Pinterest pages out there about DIY shakers or whatever. I'm not even going to bother Googling and linking to those because my opinion is that you really should go out and buy some basic bar tools. DIY bar tools are more effort than they're worth and often result in a lower quality drink. Avoid them.
Besides, you only need five things, two of which are optional:
- Set of shaker tins: Get something make of metal. They're way easier to separate (just squeeze) than the metal/glass combo. You'll need a large and small one. Don't buy a cobbler shaker. Those are garbage.
- Hawthorne strainer
- Tea strainer (optional): These are great if you want to double strain to get every little bit of ice out of your drink, which I definitely prefer.
- Jiggers or a small measuring cup: Tall skinny Japanese jiggers are the best, most accurate way to measure your drink (you'll need to by two different sizes). I use a two ounce measuring cup I bought at the super market because I'm a lazy person and it's sufficient.
- Bar Spoon (optional): Buy this and learn the proper way to stir a drink. It's great especially if you're mixing drinks for guests and trying to keep up the illusion of being classy. If you're alone you can always swirl a chopstick around in the cocktail for a while and that will work just fine.
As for when to stir and when to shake, that's easy. Stir drinks that contain only booze. Shake drinks that have juices, dairy, and/or egg whites.
Now let's move on to what matters: Booze
As for the bottles suggested here, I tried to keep them classic and inexpensive. Is there better bourbon than Old Grand Dad? Oh good god yes! There are legion, and they're glorious! But for $20, it's hard to argue with OGD as a high rye, full bodied, hundred proof mixing bourbon. It makes a great Old Fashioned and doesn't break the bank. I think it's really important to keep the cost of entry relatively low here.
The brands here represent my personal preference and the scope of my experience. If I didn't list your favorite brand, it's either because I don't think it works as a foundational representative of its category, or maybe I simply haven't had the chance to try it. These bottles are all a jumping off point to help you understand what's out there and what you can do with them. When you're 3/4 through with one, buy a different bottle and make a few drinks with each to see what you like better. When you settle into a favorite brand at home, take the opportunity to order something else when out at a bar. The fun part here is that your palate and preferences are never truly static, and to keep up with them you always get to be trying new things.
With that said, here are the five, ten, and fifteen bottles you should buy to stock your home bar.
The First Five
I get it, that's more than five bottles. But the first two on the left are bourbon and rye and are an example of two you could choose from in the greater American whiskey category (or buy both...just buy both). The three little guys on the right are bitters and I've decided that all together they equal one whole bottle. If I was intent on cheating I would have grouped dry and sweet vermouth together. But I didn't. Because I play fair. Ok, click on this highlighted part for the list.
Bottles 6-10: the essential not as essentials!
How can you double the amount of booze at your house and make it seem like you're a classy adult and not someone with a drinking problem? Click on the picture to find out!
Bottles 11-15: how to win friends and influence people
You've never been so close to being a complete and fulfilled person. Don't stop now. Click on the picture or right here and finally have everything you need to sleep better, feel better, and/or just make a Vieux Carré.