Yesterday we discussed beer, wine, and straight liquor. Today I will focus on the tools of the mixologist, both liquid and stainless steel.
Liquor for mixing
Obviously, the choice of spirit will depend on the drink. Like, I make a drink that calls for Hendrick's gin, and I do think that is clearly the best gin for the job. However, if you stock any gin, you can make any gin based drink. For me, the two key spirits for a home bar are gin and rye. They are the heart of many classic cocktails. I don't stock vodka, though I know some bartenders like it as a blank canvas to highlight other ingredients. For me, the spirit should always be the star of the show. And vodka is too boring for me.
My favorite all around gin is Bluecoat ($25). It's made in Philly, it's really smooth, and goes well in any number of gin cocktails. The cheapest gin I can tolerate is New Amsterdam ($15). It's good for practicing a drink you've never made, or saving a few bucks if you are throwing a party. There are a bunch of good gins out there, like Plymouth, Bombay, Tanqueray, etc. I've heard Anchor's Genever is very nice. They also make a Holland gin or genevieve, very earthy and too me not pleasant, or maybe it's an acquired taste.
The best all around rye for cocktails has got to be Rittenhouse 100 proof bonded. It's under $20 a bottle, thought it's a bit hard to come by these days. I don't love it straight, but it's just at the perfect level for mixing nicely in a Manhattan or other rye based drinks. I enjoy other ryes, but if I enjoy them enough I'd prefer sipping them straight. I won't go into a treatise on rye here. A few quick notes though-I don't like Jim Beam rye, Old Overholt is not great but serviceable (and Don Draper drinks it), Sazerac is good for mixing, Russell's Reserve Rye is almost too good for mixing, Michter's is probably too good to mix. There are ryes above that but obviously they aren't made for mixed drinks.
Bourbon cheap enough to mix is generally not assertive enough to hold up in some cocktails, but I use it whenever I run out of rye. I have tried Canadian Club as a mixing whisky because it has a high rye content but I don't care for it and would rather use a cheap bourbon. Keeping a blended whisky on hand is probably a good idea, too. Famous Grouse is called for in one of my favorite drinks, the Penicillin, though I've yet to make it at home. Time was I would drink the grouse on it's own, it's not bad.
I've sipped at a number of different tequilas and mezcals, but right now have a bottle of El Jimador ($20) on hand for when we are in the mood for margaritas, and it works just fine.
I always have a sweet and a dry vermouth on hand. Dolin is a great brand and price point for both of these types of fortified wine ($15), though I have to special order it. Martini and Rossi is okay. Noilly Prat recently changed their export to the dismay of many martini lovers, but Noilly is fine, too, both sweet and dry. I really think the extra couple of bucks makes a big difference with vermouth, though. I keep it in the fridge and it lasts me months and months before spoiling. Carpano Antiqua Formula is the best sweet vermouth I've ever had (though it's not called a vermouth), but it's a bit pricey at over $30 for a liter. I've read about other vermouths being decent; it all depends how much you want to experiment.
Angostura are the most common, you can find them in the grocery store and in most dive liquor stores. If you only buy one bitters get these. But as with anything, there are tons of bitters out there. Second on my list is Peychauds, the bitters called for in the classic New Orleans drink the Sazerac. I also have some orange bitters on hand (some folks like them in a martini with a twist) and plan to get some whisky barrel aged bitters. I've heard celery bitters are good in a bloody mary. But start with the Angostura. Fee Brothers makes a bitters using angostura bark, as well, but I find it a bit too strong and can ruin a drink if you accidentally add an extra dash.
You can buy this, but why spend money on sugar water? Just boil some water, and add an equal part of sugar, stirring until it dissolves. Rich syrup is a 2:1 but I find that simple syrup is very versatile. Honey syrup can be made in the same way. Stirring honey into the boiling water makes a liquid that is much more easily mixed.
Vermouth and bitters are essential. These others fall into a broader category that will build as you learn to make different drinks. Don't stress about these; the only one below that is close to essential for me is the absinthe, as we quite enjoy making the rye-based Sazerac.
Absinthe-If you don't want to shell out 50 bucks for absinthe get some Pernod. I have Philadelphia Distilling Co.'s Vieux Carre absinthe, and didn't mind paying for it as I only use a drop for each Sazerac that I make.
Pimm's No. 1-Pimm's is a gin based liquer infused with herbs and great in a drink called The Porch Swing. It's cheap enough to grab a bottle to play with
Green Chartreuse-I got a bottle of this herbal liqueur made by French monks with a secret recipe but I haven't cracked it yet. The recipe I am trying to use it for is The Last Word, a classic cocktail with equal parts gin, lime juice, green chartreuse, and...
Maraschino-This is why I haven't cracked the Chartreuse. I special ordered some Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur and I'm still waiting on it. A number of cocktails call for this.
Creme Yvette or Creme de Violet is hard to come by, it's used in the gin based cocktail Aviation. I may have to order some.
Sloe Gin-Gin infused with British sloe berries, used in the refreshing drink sloe gin fizz. Plymouth, makers of the original martini gin, make a sloe gin. Don't bother with the cheap sloe gin liqueurs you can find with other mixers, they add the berry flavor in rather than infusing the gin.
Cointreau-for margaritas and sidecars.
I always stock lemons and limes. Also Goya queen stuffed olives (cheap and perfect for martinis). My wife likes garlic stuffed olives on occasion. I brandy my own cherries for use in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, but recently ordered some Italian cherries that are supposed to be like maraschino cherries before prohibition. I also have some rose water and orange flower water. They can brighten up a drink and are fun to experiment with.
The key tool is the Boston shaker. A stainless steel cup that is just larger than a pint glass, when used together you have a shaker. A strainer to fit the shaker. A long handled barspoon. A muddler. A lime juicer, or just a citrus reamer (which is what I use, though even a fork will do). A Lewis bag for crushing ice. (a Lewis bag is a canvas bag that you fill with ice and then beat with a mallot or muddler). Speaking of ice, I like perfect square ice cube trays, I got mine at Sur La Table. If you want to get hardcore get a special freezer and order giant ice blocks to chip from, like the speakasies do. That's a bit overboard though... A cutting board and sharp knife. Several different sized jiggers, or one that looks like a miniature measuring cup with multiple fill lines. A small fine strainer if you don't like pulp in drinks that have citrus. Some of these tools quality matters more than with others. I definitely want to upgrade my shaker, as the stainless steel one I have is proving to not be so stainless, and the strainer is bent out of shape. But it's fine for now and I've gained a lot of practice on it.
My plan for this post was to simplify the home bar, but I feel that it came across as a complex endeavor. Just know that a few key ingredients can go a long way. If you have this short list:
rye, gin, absinthe, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, bitters, cherries, olives, oranges, lemons, limes, simple syrup, tonic, honey
You can make at least these cocktails:
Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Martini, Gin and Tonic, Honeysuckle, Gimlet
Then with each ingredient you add to the list, the more drinks you can make. Tequila and Cointreau-Margaritas. Now add brandy, you can make a sidecar. Pick up some Pimms and a cucumber, you can make a Porch Swing.