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Simple suggestions for a great home bar
There are few sounds as beautiful as the clink of ice into a clean Zwiesel glass or the rhythmic whirl of a cocktail being shaken. Too often, the subtle joys of a finely mixed cocktail are drowned out by the aural assault that comes from the bar's aggressively awful house music or by a gaggle of “bro's” rejoicing in their ability to throw shots of Jager down their gullets fast enough to bypass tastebuds and self respect. To avoid the unpleasantries of the local watering hole and relish the satisfaction of entertaining at home, or to simply enjoy your favorite cocktail ensconced in the soothing cocoon of your own castle, a well-stocked home bar is a must.
A well-mixed drink can lubricate a business deal, romance a date, and impress your cocktail-impaired friends. Personally, when I'm mixing drinks at home for friends and family it makes me feel like Dean Martin pouring cocktails in his den after a bawdy roast of Phyllis Diller (hopefully I don't actually look like Glen Quagmire-giggidy).
Setting up your own home bar may seem daunting, but with a bit of thought and planning it can be simple, reasonably affordable and a great investment in your social future.
Start small. Unless you are independently wealthy or are trying to replicate the bar you saw in Vegas last year, start small and grow gradually. Think of stocking a home bar as a marathon rather than a sprint. Start out simple, with just the ingredients you need to make cocktails you enjoy and know how to make well. Is a dry martini your go-to drink? Pick up some gin and vermouth. Like Manhattans too? Add some whiskey and bitters to your list.
Once you start to feel more comfortable mixing drinks, expand your menu to include other favorites. When I entertain at my palatial East Ridge penthouse, I find out in advance what my guests’ favorite cocktails are, pick up the needed ingredients and practice during the week. It's difficult R&D but someone has to do it.
It's important to keep in mind that although you’ll use your home bar for entertaining, this bar’s primary customer—its “Norm,” so to speak—is you. When you mix yourself a drink to elegantly sip as you lounge on your rooftop deck and mindlessly stroke your white Persian cat, you want to enjoy it. Henrietta Pussycat could not care less what brand your favorite whiskey is or if you like to have a Midori Sour when no one is looking. Be sure to stock your bar for its main customer first and foremost.
Gin. You can't do a decent James Bond impression or make a true dry martini without it, so definitely keep plenty on hand. There are four varieties of gin: London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom and Genever. I suggest starting with a London Dry gin, then maybe add a Plymouth gin to the mix as the need or desire arises.
Vodka. Since vodka doesn’t have a strong color, taste, or aroma, it makes a perfect mixing liquor and is the preferred drink for doing shots with singing babushkas. The main difference between vodka brands is in what they’re distilled from (potatoes, grains, sugar cane) and their mouthfeel. Some have a smooth, almost silky texture (such as Absolut), while others have a thinner, slightly medicinal finish (like Stolichnaya). Grey Goose is a nice, clean, can't-go-wrong vodka that mixes nicely with just about anything.
I recommend staying away from flavored vodkas. The internet is overflowing with instructions on how to make any herb- or fruit-infused vodka that you need, because let's face it, cotton candy- or salted caramel-flavored vodka are an affront to all that is good in the world.
Bourbon whiskey. Every Southern gentleman must have this classic American whiskey in his home bar. It's a must for sipping and for classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned. For the beginner, I recommend starting with Jim Beam and Wild Turkey for their affordability and because Nicholson drank it in “Easy Rider.” What other endorsement would you need?.
Scotch whisky. Humphrey Bogart once said, “I should have never switched from scotch to martinis,” which is certainly sage advice. I suggest having both a blended and a single-malt scotch in your home bar in case Bogey or Ron Burgundy shows up.
Tequila. Every home bar should have some tequila tucked away for those special moments when only a trip to Margaritaville will soothe what ails you. Gold tequila is typically less expensive and is good for using in mixed drinks. If it's been that sort of a day and you need your tequila straight up, a silver tequila is highly recommended. In spite of my deep-seated hatred of Van Hagar, Cabo Wabo is an excellent silver tequila, although it's hard to go wrong with Patron on your shelves either.
Rum. This very popular liquor originated in the Caribbean and is responsible for almost as many bad late-night choices as tequila. Light rum is not as sweet as dark rum and is used in mixed drinks such as mojitos. Dark rum is thicker, sweeter and used in some classic drinks such as the Cuba Libre; which is a simple mix of rum, Coke and a splash of lime that sounds very classy when called Cuba Libre with a slight roll of the “r.”
Other. If you're having a party or enjoy the occasional malt beverage or glass of vino, you may consider adding a bottle of wine and some craft beers to your bar stock. I’ve also been known to pick up a few craft sodas for any designated drivers or teetotalers in the bunch.
What mixers you decide on will depend upon the cocktails you will be mixing. Here are some basics to get you started:
Sprite or 7-up
Angostura bitters (Technically, bitters aren't a mixer but are supposed to be used in splashes to add a bit of flavor to the drink)
Garnishes can add a decorative flair to your cocktail and give you something to nibble on while you sip it. Tequila-based cocktails will often use citrus, such as a lime or lemon. Gin-based tonics are classically garnished with olives and pickled cocktail onions. Never, ever add garnish to a scotch. Ever. Seriously.
Here's a basic garnish shopping list:
Glassware, Tools and Other Assorted Accouterments
You’ll need the proper tools to create and serve your rejuvenating elixirs. Glassware can get very specific, from highball glasses to martini glasses—and even glasses especially designed for serving Old Fashioneds. If you drink those cocktails frequently, by all means get those glasses, but you can use basic glassware for many purposes without offending the sensibilities of most guests. Here are the basics:
Red and white wine glasses
Highball glasses or tall glasses
Beer mugs and pint glasses
Martini shaker and strainer
Toothpicks for the olives and onions
A collection of cocktail sipping music. There's something that just feels right about sipping a classic cocktail while Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra croons away in the background, but a selection of lounge and exotica music is good to have in the mix as well.
At this point you’re probably wondering where you can possibly store all of this in your loft/small house/apartment. I understand that everyone doesn't have Don Draper's mirrored wall unit in their den ready to accept this long list of items—so remember, start small. If you don’t have a lot of room, pick two or three different drinks, get what you need for those and enjoy yourself.
You could also consider getting a cocktail cabinet or mini-bar. They’re compact pieces of furniture that can usually be put against a wall and can work wonders without having a huge bar installed in your home.
The most important thing is to drink what you like, have fun, be responsible and remember—never add garnish to a scotch. Seriously. Never.