Your Essential Home Bar: Getting Started
With the recent popularity of television shows such as Mad Men, and an upswing in the creation of some cocktail lounges that really know their stuff, many of you are becoming much more interested in creating some of those cocktails at home.
People are once again talking about, and drinking cocktails such as the Manhattan, the Gimlet, the Old Fashioned and the Gibson while out. There is, however, also a growing trend towards entertaining at home, and many of you are interested in creating these kinds of cocktails for your friends.
This series of blog posts, “the Essential Home Bar”, is intended to get you started building your home bar (modestly to start of course!), and provide you with some basic recipes and tips for creating some “oldies but goodies”. In future blog posts, we’ll introduce new ingredients to add to your Essential Home Bar, talk about their characteristics, and introduce you to a couple of new/classic cocktails that your new acquisitions will allow you to make.
Starting a home bar can be a little daunting at first, particularly if you’ve never gone out and bought more than one bottle at a time. Just like buying a bottle of wine, finding a good basic spirit really helps to make your drinks delicious, BUT it doesn’t have to be daunting (even though there are so many more brands on the shelf now) AND, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
The initial outlay to set up your Essential Home Bar will be approximately $200 (yes Virginia, that is in Canadian $$ AND retail prices!!!). With a few extras such as simple syrup, and fresh squeezed juices, you will be able to make nearly 2 dozen cocktails right out of the starting gate!
So let’s get started! This post will cover the 9-10 basic spirits you will need to get going, and in the next post we’ll cover the basic equipment you’ll need to get shaking, stirring and straining, as well as mixes and syrups. From there, we’ll get started on a couple of cocktail recipes!
Below I’ve listed a few basic spirits and liqueurs you’ll need, with a short description of how the spirit is made, and some suggestions for entry-level spirits that are good quality for mixing a range of cocktails. No doubt, some of you have gone to the liquor store and stood before a dizzying array of bottles wondering what to buy. I’ve had the advantage of tasting most of the brands available in B.C. and have chosen some specific ones based on price and flavour profile. In coming blog posts I’ll also talk about some of the same spirits in the mid and premium price ranges if you decide you want to upgrade.
I’ve also included a pdf version of the shopping list of spirits in case you want to print it off and take it with you to the liquor store. All of these spirits are available at any BC Liquor Store or private liquor store, with the exception of Plymouth Gin (available only through Liquor Plus, or ordered by the case through BCLDB)
Whisk(e)y is the base for many classic cocktails, such as the Whisky Sour, the Manhattan and the classic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. It is a spirit made from grain, and (usually) aged in barrels before it is bottled up. There are a few different whiskeys, including Scotch Whisky which is barley-based, and dried over peat fires, American Whiskey such as Bourbon, which is corn-based, and Canadian Whisky which is usually made with wheat and rye.
For your first time whisky purchase, we’re going to go with a Rye Whisky. Made from 100% rye grain, this particular whisky is smooth, but still has a little bit of spice and backbone when used in a cocktail such as the Manhattan.
- Alberta Premium Rye Whisky ($23.75)
Gin is a misunderstood and under appreciated spirit by many people today. Gin is made in the same fashion as vodka, sometimes from grain, and sometimes from a grape base – distilled with botanicals and sometimes with more botanicals left to infuse after distillation. While by definition, the base flavour in a gin is juniper, they have many other botanicals, with some gins being assertive, and some being much softer. If you haven’t used a lot of gin before, try a few different cocktails and you’ll find its very flavourful and versatile with a wide range of ingredients.
For a good basic gin, I’m suggesting 2 different ones to choose from which are reasonably priced and make an excellent all-round base for your Martinis or Aviations. Pick one to start, and as you get more cocktails under your belt and feel like experimenting, you can pick up another brand or style to try out.
- Plymouth Gin OR Gordon’s London Dry Gin ($23.75)
Tequila is another misunderstood spirit – its not just for parties and drinks made with blenders! Real tequila is made from a small region in Mexico from 100% Blue Agave, and has a delicious vegetal yet earthy flavour going on. It comes in unaged form (Tequila Blanco), slightly aged (Tequila Reposado), and if you’re really going all out, you can try out the aged forms (Tequila Anejo) which are delicious sipped on their own like a Single Malt Scotch!
To get you started, I’d suggest going with a Reposado Blanco – the brand suggested has a pretty good flavour profile while still being quite accessible.
- El Jimador Silver ($33.99) OR El Jimador Reposado ($33.99)
Vodka is the most commonly purchased spirit today, but is usually used as a highball mixed with soda or orange juice. It is distilled from a number of things including potatoes, rye, wheat and even grapes, but the one characteristic of vodka is the process of distilling to 90 proof and then diluted with water to bring down the concentration of alcohol. Vodka is typically thought of as being flavourless, but the best vodkas (usually made with rye and wheat), have some soft spice and toffee notes while having a creamy mouthfeel & smooth finish.
- Wyborowa Vodka ($23.75)
Rum is one of the most versatile spirits for mixing. It is made from a base of molasses, giving it an inherent sweetness moderated by the spice. White rums are either unaged, or aged and then filtered, whereas darker rums are aged in barrels, giving them their characteristic colour. For a starter rum, I’ve suggested two very pleasant rums for mixing, both of which are on the dryer side and being more suitable for cocktails than sipping straight.
- Flor de Cana Extra-Dry 4 year old ($24.99) OR Brugal Anejo ($27.99)
Brandy might make you think of your grandfather and cigars, but it actually one of the oldest spirits used as a cocktail base. Brandy is the result of distilling any fermented fruit wine, but most brandy is made from grapes. Brandy can be unaged (and a little more fiery!) like grappa, or aged in oak barrels like Cognac. Good brandy should have a pleasant nose, butterscotch and toasty flavours from the aging process, and be somewhat smooth going down.
- Marquis de Villard ($23.75)
Triple Sec is an orange flavoured liqueur made from bitter orange peels. While it is sweet, it is intensely orange flavoured, and adds a definite bright note to many cocktails. Some older recipes call for Orange Curacao, which can be replaced as you start, with Triple Sec.
- Cointreau 350 ml ($18.49)
Vermouth is our final component for your Essential Home Bar. Of all the ingredients here, vermouth is perhaps the most misunderstood and feared. Fear not, however! Many people’s experiences of vermouth are based on dusty old bottles that haven’t been out of the liquor cabinet for years.
For that reason, I recommend you buy smaller bottles. It won’t get you the premium brands, BUT, you will be much more likely to have tasty vermouth. As an added measure, if you keep your vermouth in the fridge, it will last longer! (After all, it is really just fortified wine)
For your basic bar, you will need to get both sweet vermouth (red) AND dry vermouth (white). They are NOT interchangeable, and as I talk a bit more about specific cocktails, we’ll talk about what each one brings to the table.
- Martini and Rossi Extra Dry 500 ml ($7.99) AND Martini and Rossi Rosso 500 ml ($7.99)
Now I know this looks like a lot of spirits, but don’t forget that many of the cocktails will be mixed with juices, liqueurs, vermouths and mixers, using approximately 1 ½ ounces per cocktail – so a 750 ml bottle will yield you 16 -17 cocktails.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll go through the basic bar equipment to look for to get started shaking and stirring, and we’ll share a cocktail recipe!