Every gentleman needs a well stocked bar, especially this time of year. After dinner with your friends or before going out with the ladies it pays to be able to mix a proper drink or at least a quality offer. It doesn’t take that much to build yourself a workable bar and there are so many good bar books out there today that anyone can be a master bartender as long as they are prepared.
Now, its important to remember you don’t need to go out and splurge all at once. Buy a bottle or two at a time, start with things that you like and build from there. Maybe add something new whenever you have people over, even take suggestions. There is one more thing to remember. If you are going to be mixing there is no need to buy super high end liquor, don’t buy rot gut, but, there is no reason to break the bank. On the other hand things you will drink straight, a la whiskey or gin, are worth having a higher end bottle on hand.
When it comes down to it, the basic necessities are vodka, tequila, gin, scotch, bourban, rye, and rum, in both the dark spiced, and light varieties. So, thats where we’ll start.
Vodka - Traditionally distilled from potato or grain mash in many of the nations of northern, central, and eastern Europe for over six hundred years. Generally around 80 proof the best vodkas are, counter intuitively, the ones with the least taste or, using chemistry terms, the least impurities. This means that vodka is an amazing base for flavoring and extremely clean on its own.
Stolichnaya Vodka is a good traditional vodka at a reasonable price and is good enough to be the only vodka you need. Stoli does also make a variety of flavored vodkas but, do yourself a favor, if you are interested in any other flavor simply get another bottle and infuse it yourself. It will be exactly what you want and taste so much fresher.
Gin - Comes in a few different varieties but, for the most part, unless your are a gin aficionado, the only one you need to know about is London dry gin. Gin, much like
vodka, is distilled from grains to a neutral spirit but, unlike vodka gin goes through a second distillation with the addition of juniper berries and a mix of other proprietary botanicals before being diluted to its final bottle strength of about 80 proof. Gin is a special one because no two brands taste the same. The only way is to try a few and pick the one that suits you the best.
Personally, I think if your going to drink gin it should taste like juniper or else what’s the point. I like Tanqueray, it has a good balance with just enough juniper without being overwhelming and is reasonably priced. pictured 1964 ad for Tanqueray
Tequila - Made exclusively in the state of Jalisco from one hundred percent distilled blue agave Tequila is the official drink of Mexico. Much like whisky tequila comes in various degrees of age. Sadly, access to the best tequilas is mostly reserved to being in Mexico but, there are more and more tequila centric bars opening up across the country. So, if you have the means, a trip to Mexico is amazing and unheard of tequila will be your prize, other wise good tequila can be got on the internet just be sure to do you research first.
Tequila is one of those liquors often mixed so, if you don’t ever see yourself sipping tequila straight there is no reason to go spend a mint on a nice añejo or aged bottle but, you can still get very good blanco, white (Arette Artisanal Blanco pictured), or joven, young, tequila that is very drinkable and much more appropriate for mixing. If you are into the aged idea, get a bottle of each and you’ll be ready for any occasion. Be sure to keep in mind just like Scotch, there is a variety within the world of Tequila. Tequila from the highlands tends to be sweeter with more fruit flavors whereas that from the lowlands has more of the green earthy flavors from the growing process. Tequila has earned a bad reputation over the years mostly due to the cheap imports in the US like Jose Cuervo but, dont be fooled there is amazing tequila out there and the prices are lower then you would think.
Rum - Basically, anything distilled from sugarcane or cane products can be considered rum. Unlike whiskey and tequila rum has never been regulated. It truly is the outlaw
choice for distillers. From fermented New England molasses to distilled Nicaraguan pure cane juice, its all rum. Classifying it can prove difficult but, there are some general types to be aware of and look out for. pictured Mount Gay Sugar Cane Rum from Barbados
Its good to have both a white and a dark rum available if you are serious about a usable bar. The light rums tend to have very little flavor apart from the sugar sweetness which makes them perfect for mixing in fruit cocktails where as the dark rums which have been aged in bourbon barrels tend to have a bit more spice and depth to them which finds a great place in winter drinks. There are high end aged rums just like with tequila and whiskey which can be sipped but, for the most part, rum is drank mixed. Whether summer or winter Rum is a must have for any mans bar.
The Three Whiskeys - The big three, Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye. Yes, of course there are many others but, in my opinion to have a working bar these are not required unless you are a connoisseur of one specifically, in that case you probably already have what you like. Whiskey in general is basically a liquor distilled from grain mash then aged in generally charred white oak barrels. The type of grain, the process, and the age varies by type. Whiskey world wide is very tightly regulated so, each variety tends to have its own distinct flavor. Across the board, I think if you are going to be drinking it straight, you should be looking at single malts over 15 years old. That seems to be the sweet spot. If you are mixing younger blended whiskey is just fine. I would say have a good aged bottle squirreled away for you and special occasions and a lesser single malt out for general company and mixing.
(L-R) Lavavulin 21yr Islay Scotch, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20yr Bourbon, Templeton 5yr Prohibition Style Rye. some of the best of the best, pricey but, worth it
To start, Scotch, obviously, is native to Scottland. Generally the malts are smoked over a peat fire before distilling giving Scotch its signature smokey flavor. Scotch is usually distilled at least twice and is aged for a legal minimum of at least three years in oak barrels. Finally, Scotland has been split into four traditional distilling regions, The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown, each with its own flavor. The Lowlands tend to be regarded as the lightest bodied Scotches, Islay Scotches have been described as heavily peated and full bodied, the highland distilleries tend to produce a Scotch that is between the heavy flavor of Islay and the light body of the Lowlands, it has been described as one of the more complex Scotch regions, finally Campbeltown Scotches have been called delicate and a touch briny.
Bourbon is a distinctively American whiskey originally from Bourbon county Kentucky. There are few requirements beyond being made from at least 51% corn mash and be aged in new oak in the US of A. Bourbon is usually made, at least in part, from sour mash, which is a mix of new mash and previously made mash. It can vary greatly from brand to brand but, it is generally recognized as a sweeter whiskey with notes of caramel and spice that it picks up from the oak while aging.
Finally, Rye. Although Canadian whiskey was traditionally made with rye there are no requirements for it to be made as such so, if you are looking for a real rye get one labeled as such. American Rye is required to be made from at least 51% rye mash beyond that the requirements are more or less the same as Bourbon. The biggest difference is of course the flavor that the Rye imparts as opposed to the corn. Rye is known as a dry, spicier whiskey then bourbon with less of the sweet characteristics that bourbon is known for. This third of the whiskey brothers adds a great balance to your whiskey collection.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what other people say, it comes down to what you like. Try a bunch of different kinds and hold on to the ones you like. But remember, for a well rounded bar the three flavors should be represented.
Liqueur is any alcoholic beverage that has been flavored with fruit, herbs, nuts, spices, flowers, or cream and bottled with added sugar. The important distinction is the added sugar which is what sets them apart from flavored liquor like lemon vodka. Although many liqueurs have a lower alcohol content then liquors, liqueurs can be made well over 100 proof. Now, liqueurs aren’t strictly necessary, they are more to
your taste but, it does seem like Triple Sec is in just about everything.
Cream Liqueurs - Coffee and Irish cream are two very popular flavors of cream based liqueur and are common in many cocktails especially in the winter. Although the flavors are coffee and irish cream, they are mostly know by the brand names Kahlúa and Baileys Irish Cream respectfully. They’re good to have on hand but, be aware they will go rancid if they are left to long so, by them for the season and don’t let them sit.
Fruit and Herb Liqueurs - These are the other end of the spectrum. The fruit, nut, and herb flavored liqueurs. Curaçao or, as its better known Triple Sec, is a popular
liqueur flavored with the dried peal of the Laraha citrus fruit. The Laraha developed over the last few centuries from transplanted Valencia oranges on the island, Curaçao. Although the Laraha fruit is so bitter it is considered inedible, the flavor it imparts is a great base for many many mixed drinks.
Sloe gin is another popular liqueur based on the Sloe, or blackthorn, berry. Traditionally Sloe Gins are made by infusing the blackthorn berries in gin with some added sugar to help with extracting the juice.
Finally, Campari is an italian apéritif that has been growing in popularity among the cocktail set. It is traditionally used to make some very interesting summer cocktails. It gives the flavor of orange with a mix of propriatary herbs and spices that make for a refreshing base with soda or juice.
These days good wine is as prolific as anything and with American wine at a level where it can stand toe to toe with any European offering, and in some cases beat them, there is no reason to be spending a fortune on imported French whatever. When it comes down to it there are vineyards everywhere these days and many of them are putting out much better then decent wine. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for the high end 600 dollar a bottle of wine but, for the majority of us, it wouldn’t make any difference.
The key is to drink what you like and like what you drink. Don’t worry about the label or the name. If you like expensive wine then save up, if you find more affordable wines you like then stock up. But, know back to the topic at hand, hosting. Its good to have a few variatles always on hand to suite a variety of tastes and foods. I have asked around and come up with this short list of wines that would be good to have stashed under you bar just in case.
you don’t need a catacomb wine vault to drink good wine. a few well selected bottles is more then enough but, it does look pretty cool.
On the red end of the spectrum; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir cover a good range of tastes and are still very affordable. Plus, I would recommend trying out some of the mixed variety house wines that are popping up at grocery stories at crazy prices. They are obscenely cheap and as non-pretentious as can be plus, many of them taste great. The kind of thing you serve at a BBQ in mason jars and when some one asks you what it is you just say, “wine.”
On the white side; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling give a similar spread on the other side. The idea is to shop around, look for deals, and pick ones that you like. Also, a bottle or two of sparkling white, not necessarily champagne but, in the same vein is a good idea. Prosecco is the Italian version of champagne but, at a much better price while still holding a high level of quality so, it makes for a good buy. There are varieties of sparkling white wine from most wine making regions and some of them rival the French champagne simply without the name.
Finally, it is always a good idea, especially in the winter or when the in-laws are coming over, to have a nice bottle of Brandy around. Its kind of old fashion but, its good for cooking and mixes well plus, there are still a few people out there who love there Brandy. Better to be prepared then not.
Beer is one of those things that is special on this list because it doesn’t keep very well and it definitely doesn’t travel very well. If you are drinking a beer you want it to be brewed as close to you as possible and as recently as can be. Thats why beer on tap is so good, its really fresh. So, unlike most things on this list beer isn’t an investment, it is seasonal. Do some research and find some of your local brewers and try everything. If you live in the Northwest your lucky, its more or less heaven for beer lovers but, these days there are microbreweries in just about every city so, buy local.
In the warmer months, where you will be eating on the porch and having picnics in the park, stock up on India Pale Ales, Blondes, Ales, Lagers, Pilsners and Hefeweissen. Look for light bodied, crisp beers with fruit or hops. You could even pick up some cider for the ladies.
When it starts to cool off and the cook outs move inside, the fire place starts getting use and the pressure cooker is working double time look for Stouts, Porters, Abbeys, Stronge Ales, Barley Wine, and Browns. Basicly anything thick and full-bodied. Big, bold flavors that can stand up to the chillis, stews and roasts we all love but, be careful these dark ones tend to pack a punch. They’ll keep you warm but, they’ll also knock you over.
Some mixers are easily stored while others should be kept as fresh as possible but, the nice thing about mixers is they aren’t exclusive to cocktails. Many of them are used in cooking or just as normal drinks. Things like soda water, tonic, sodas, and sauces like tabasco and worcheshire sauce generally keep well and can be bought and stored. On the other hand fruit and vegetable juices, milk, and coffee should obviously be bought and used fresh but, for most people thats not a problem.
On the other hand, there are a few specialized mixers that have evolved from the fermented medicinal drinks of the 18th century. Things like Vermouth and Bitters are very common in traditional cocktails and are making a resurgence with the rebirth of the cocktail. Even the basics like, Martinis and Old Fashions have bitters and vermouth so, its the kind of things thats good to have around and since usually they are used in very small amounts you can buy them once and never have to think about it again.
cocktail mixer graph from valetmag.com
Vermouth comes in both Sweet and Dry varieties. Dry being infused with a variety of herbs and spices on top of the wine base and sweet, as the name suggests, has sugar syrup added to the wine before it is fortified. All though they sport the same name they each have their own distinctive flavor.
Bitters are not as straight forward. They come in as many varieties as there are manufacturers and it seems that every country has there own type of bitters, made from local herbs and spices. The important thing to know about are the two big ones; Angostura Bitters and Orange Bitters. Angostura Bitters were originally made to mask the flavor of quinine tonic while traveling in the jungle. The quinine being the only way to prevent malaria. But, over the last hundred years or so, Angostura has brought its distinctive spice to many classic cocktails. Orange Bitters don’t have as heroic a story but, are just as rooted in cocktail lore. Its worth having both around, especially at three bucks a bottle.
Now you have your bar set up but, how do you mix a drink? Got you covered on that front too. There are literally hundreds of books out there on mixing cocktails with thousands of recipes to pick from but, American Bar by Charles Schumann is a good choice. Well organized, beautifully illustrated, with heaps of information and over 500 recipes for any occasion this book should have a long and happy life on your bar top.