Issue 26

Build a Better Bar

Vodka, gin, bourbon, rye, Irish, scotch, brandy, tequila, rum, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, olives, cherries, Collins glasses, ice trays, coke and beer. That’s just to name a few of the items we need in our home bars to say we have a complete one. If it’s a bar to make the kind of cocktails we enjoy at bars like The Other Room and Berry & Rye, well, it’s only the surface we’ve just scratched there. Now we talk about mixing glasses, strainers, shakers, bar spoons, siphons, juicers and ice. However, we won’t get into hardware this article, let’s focus on the software.

In starting your home bar there are two fundamental questions that first get asked (and usually in this order): (1) what liquors do you need; and (2) what drinks can I make? I would make an argument that these questions are asked in the wrong order, rather first ask yourself what drink you would like, and then ask yourself what ingredients you need in order to make that drink.

Why do it this way? Why build it drink by drink rather than just to make any kind of drink? One of the things a craft bartender develops as he or she practices the craft is a taste for the nuances of different spirits within the same family. For example, we talk about whether or not a Scotch is an Islay, a Speyside, a Highland, or a Lowland because each of them has their own distinct characteristics that impart different flavors to the palate. The same is true for vodka: I’ve tasted some vodkas which use snow melt for the water where you can taste evergreen and granite from the Rockies, and then other vodkas where you can taste the limestone from the aquifer where they got the water. We’ve all heard mention of the glycerin tones of Grey Goose; The juniper power of a Tanqueray versus the cucumber of Hendricks or the lime of Rangpur. In other words, what spirits we choose will shape what drinks we make.

So, how about a practical example of how this works. We want to make a Manhattan. To make a Manhattan we want two parts American whiskey, one part Italian vermouth and aromatic bitters. That’s the software: the hardware is a mixing glass, bar spoon and ice (but we’ll figure that stuff out in another article). So we go out and get a whiskey, let’s say Maker’s Mark, we grab some vermouth like Martini & Rossi, and a bottle of Angostura bitters. We mix it up: 60 mL whiskey, 30 mL vermouth and two dashes angostura. We taste it… and it is just not the same as what we had at the bar last Thursday. So next Thursday we go back to the bar, order our Manhattan and it’s terrific, but we notice the bartender uses a different whiskey: (s)he uses a rye rather than the bourbon we grabbed, and the bartender doesn’t use Martini & Rossi, but a different vermouth. We take a note of that and we go out and grab those bottles from the liquor store, we mix it up, and voila! We have our Manhattan.

So how does this build our bar at home? Let’s ignore the Martini & Rossi vermouth and just look at what we have now: we have two bottles of whiskey, a bottle of vermouth, and a bottle of bitters in our bar. Here’s the takeaway, though: you’ve got two decent bottles of whiskey, and a very good bottle of vermouth (I’m assuming you grabbed a bottle of Carpano Antica or Cocchi Torino). Each of these whiskeys will add different nuances to different drinks: but from this Manhattan we can also make an old fashioned cocktail. Let’s say the next drink we go for is a martini.

From just these two drinks we can easily build a collection in excess of ten bottles, and from these myriad ingredients there are a plethora of different drinks we can create. In the process of doing this, we try not just each ingredient on its own, picking up on the nuances each one has, but we also pick up on how they mix with other ingredients – those interactions and cross-interactions that introduce unique subtleties to our drinks. As we move through different drinks we continue to expand our selection – some spirits we purchase to consume on their own, others we acquire to make a cocktail. However, by building our bar drink by drink we not only add only those bottles we know we will use and enjoy, but we learn and build up our own repertoire, leading us down the road that is called the craft of bartending.


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