building a basic home cocktail bar: a tutorial

I’m excited to present simmer down’s first guest blogger, my friend Evan Hansen of the blog UndergroundDetroit.com.  Evan is a connoisseur of classic cocktails (among other things) so I asked him to outline the basic elements of what one would need for a beginner’s home cocktail bar. Take it away, Evan!

My first “cocktail” was bright green, probably a mixture of Apple Pucker, Midori, and some sort bottled juice. That first drink was also my last for many years, with only the occasional gin and tonic passing my lips. Then a few years ago, I was handed a cocktail glass containing gin, fresh lemon juice, and maraschino liqueur.

Life changed.

Now I order boxes of spirits from across the country to make drinks with names like Lucien Gaudin, Captain Handsome, and Lion’s Tail. There must be four dozen different products in my home bar now, and I’ve traded the Chernobylesque green of Midori and Pucker for the hazy purple of Crème de Violette and fresh citrus. And at the risk of sounding completely arrogant, the resulting drinks are pretty damn awesome.

Friends will occasionally ask how to start a decent home bar without having to initiate a raid on the local party store or buying up the entire shabby chic liquor cabinet collection at the local Pottery Barn. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy.

The “Essential” Spirits

I suppose there really are no truly essential spirits, but making a few classic drinks and having flexibility to experiment a little do require that you own some basics.

Consider acquiring these eight (only 8!) to start:

Spirit Recommended Brands Notes
Dry Gin Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, Plymouth I usually keep more than one gin — something clean like Plymouth for martinis and something more robust for mixing like Beefeater. If you’re going with only one, Beefeater is great for the price.
Bourbon Buffalo Trace The best value in base spirits might be Buffalo Trace. A near unanimous winner in our blind bourbon tasting. Eventually, you may find that you’ll use more rye whiskey than bourbon, but bourbon is cheaper and easier to find in Detroit, and for starting out, it covers all your basic drinks.
Rum Mt. Gay, Appleton, Bacardi I like Mt. Gay white rum. Like Bacardi but cheaper.
Tequila El Jimador, Xalixco, Sauza Start with a blanco tequila. A lot of folks go with a reposado or anjeo (aged) tequilas because they’re smooth, but when you’re using tequila mostly for margaritas, I actually prefer a bit of an edge, and a 100% agave blanco like El Jimador is both dirt cheap and delicious.
Triple Sec Cointreau It’s pricey, but Cointreau has more orange flavor than other triple secs and the right amount of sweetness for mixing. Plus it’s easy to find. Never substitute Grand Marnier as it has a brandy base that adds way too much caramel flavor.
Maraschino Liqueur Luxardo, Maraska Maraschino is a delicious cherry liqueur used in several classic cocktails. There are only two brands readily available; both are good.
Dry Vermouth Noilly-Prat, Dolin Detroiters can’t get Dolin, but since reverting to their European recipe for sales in the US, Noilly-Prat is perfectly good.
Sweet Vermouth Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, Dolin, Boissiere If you gag when you think of sweet vermouth, you’re not alone. Martini & Rossi has killed the reputation of this absolutely necessary class of fortified wines. Antica Formula and Punt e Mes are made by the same producer but are drastically different with Antica showing an intense herbaceousness. Boissiere is a good inexpensive option.

You’ll note that there’s no vodka on my list. Vodka’s a good spirit to have, and it’s necessary for some classics like the Moscow Mule. But since vodka wasn’t popular in the United States until late 40s, there aren’t a lot of classic recipes calling for it. Besides, it’s a neutral spirit, and we’re all about flavor, so stick to the big four base spirits to start – gin, whiskey, rum, and tequila.

Additional Ingredients

Ingredient Notes
Angostura Bitters A few dashes of bitters can really change a cocktail. Angostura is the most widely used aromatic bitters product and an absolute necessity.
Orange Bitters Orange bitters add a great note to a lot of classic drinks. Brands include Angostura Orange, Regan’s, The Bitter Truth, and others.
Fresh Citrus Fresh lemons and limes are a must both for the juice and to use the peel as a garnish. Oranges and grapefruits should be added to the rotation eventually as well.
Tonic Water You really only need this for gin and tonic when starting out. After all, your guests may expect it. But tonic can be used in other clever ways with more ingredients. Try buying Q or Fever Tree tonic instead of Canada Dry or Schweppe’s.
Cola of Good Quality High fructose corn syrup dulls taste buds and tastes like crap. Buy good cola — I like Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola, but even the Mexican version of Coke which uses cane sugar is good.
Grenadine of Good Quality Grenadine is supposed to be pomegranate syrup. You’d never know it if you taste Rose’s Grenadine. Buy a better brand (there are lots, but Stirrings has become the most readily available) or learn to make your own.
Cherries of Good Quality Look for cherries without artificial coloring. Nothing natural and edible is colored like Ronald McDonald’s hair.
Egg Whites Egg whites are a “must” for a lot of classic drinks, and I like to use them in my whiskey sours. Shake them with the other ingredients but no ice to form a nice frothy emulsion and then shake with ice to finish the drink. Pour it out and drink a nice full-bodied, frothy cocktail. Egg white is the texture king!
Simple Syrup Make your own and put it in any bottle or jar you have around the house. Equal parts sugar and water, heated, cooled, and stored should do the trick. You can make sweeter syrups later by using more sugar, but this works to start.
Fresh Ice Ice can ruin your drink if it’s handled improperly. Old ice tastes of freezer funk. Ice that’s too small or too cracked can dilute your drink prematurely. Try to use ice that’s only a few days or maybe a couple weeks old at worst. I’m partial to ice made in silicone trays that create perfect cubes. Find them at Sur la Table

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With the spirits and mixers above, you will become hero – a hero in a world of restaurants and bars that serve only sugary neon drinks that end in -tini. Among the many classics you’ll be able to concoct are Aviations, Bourbon Crustas, Margaritas, Martinis, Manhattans, White Ladies, Mojitos, Daiquiris, and Martinezes. And Clover Clubs, Pegus, Ward 8s, Gimlets, and Whiskey Sours. And plenty of others.

Tools

To make decent drinks, one really only needs a shaker, a strainer, and a spoon. After all, you can stir or shake a drink with the bottom half of a shaker, and a basic strainer gets most of the undesirable bits of ice and fruit pulp out of a drink. But to make great drinks, it gets a bit more elaborate.

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Mixing glass
  • Spoon
  • Hawthorne strainer
  • Jigger / Measuring cup
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Juicer
  • Muddler

Here are some general rules for the above equipment:

  1. Measuring: No matter how good you are at eyeballing amounts of spirits, never, never, never skip a proper measurement when making a drink. It doesn’t make you look talented; it makes you look like you enjoy bad drinks. If you have a traditional jigger, the big end (actually called a jigger) should be 1.5 oz and the small end (called a pony) is 1 oz, make sure the measurements are accurate. I had a jigger that was actually 1.75 oz on one side and 1.25 on the other, which I discovered after a week of strange drinks. Measure out some water in a measuring cup and see if your jigger is accurate. Or better yet, get a tiny measuring cup like this awesome one from Oxo.
  2. Shaken vs. Stirred: James Bond couldn’t order a drink to save his life. Shaking is a faster, more efficient way of chilling a drink because of the intense contact between the ice and the drink. But it also makes your drink cloudy. So only shake drinks that are already going to be cloudy, including anything with citrus juice and egg whites. Martinis, Manhattans, and other all-spirit drinks should always be stirred – unless you’re a British spy with a license to kill. Then you apparently do whatever you want.
  3. Shaking: A lot of bartenders recommend that people buy a “three piece” shaker to start. You’ve seen them: It’s a large metal tin with a strainer that snaps on the top and a lid that covers the strainer. And if you have one, go ahead and use it. No sense spending more money on a new shaker. But the built in strainers tend to form ice dams and can make pouring the drink a pain. They also tend to be on the shorter side, which means that there’s not as much room for the ice to move around with your drink. A “Boston Shaker” (a large metal tin with a smaller metal tin or pint glass on top) or a Parisian shaker (a bullet-shaped two piece metal shaker) makes a much better drink in my opinion. Regardless, when you shake, use whole ice cubes, especially if you have a larger shaker with plenty of room for the ice to move. As the ice bounces around, it’ll chip and help dilute and chill the drink. When the shaker is frosty and really, really cold, you can strain your drink.
  4. Stirring: Because stirring whole ice cubes takes forever before achieving proper dilution (you want some water in that drink!) and proper temperature (warm martinis suck), feel free to crack your ice before adding it to your mixing glass. The added surface area will help melt the ice faster without clouding your drink like you would by shaking it. If you have a good steel bar spoon, use the back to whack a cube. If you don’t, put the ice in a clean towel and smash it.
  5. Straining: A really nice, totally optional piece of equipment to have is a small mesh strainer. Like a standard kitchen strainer but with a diameter of only 2 inches or so. That way you can strain the tiny bits of ice and fruit pulp that can still slide through a Hawthorne strainer and into your drink. But it’s a luxury rather than an essential tool, and if you have a bigger mesh kitchen strainer, you can always use that too.
  6. Garnishes: The essential oils in citrus rind will add a distinctive note to your drinks. A peeled garnish is known as a twist, and there are a lot of ways to prepare it. The easiest, though, is to use a standard swivel veggie peeler from your kitchen drawer, draw the blade across the rind hard, and create a large swath of citrusy real estate to add to your cocktail. You’ll want to twist the peel over the drink to spray some of the oils into the cocktail, and you can rub the lip of the glass as well to really get all the aromatics in the glass. Later, you can invest in a channel knife and make long, pretty, spiraling strips of peel, but for now, save the 15 bucks.
  7. Muddling: Firmly tapping or striking a citrus peel will help release some of those oils, which is a key component in a caipirinha or a mojito. Similarly, muddling mint adds a lot of flavor to a mojito or julep. When you muddle mint or other herbs, though don’t muddle it so hard as to break the leaf into lots of pieces. Doing so can make your drink bitter as the leaf releases chlorophyll, not just the oils in the herb.

Glassware

Great cocktail bars will sometimes have three or four kinds of glasses in which to serve their various drinks – cocktail glasses (or martini glasses or “coupes”) in which drinks are served “up;” rocks or old-fashioned glasses for short drinks; tall or Collins glasses for carbonated drinks, swizzles, and other long drinks; and sometimes specialty glasses for other cocktails.

So what do you need for starters? Anything that gets the booze to your lips.

Any small rocks glass can hold a drink served up and a drink served on the rocks just fine. So chances are you already have what you really need, but if you want to branch out, start with some cool cocktail glasses. They add a really nice touch to a drink and make even an ungarnished cocktail look swanky and well-executed. If you have a good antique/vintage store nearby, look for cool mismatched cocktail glasses. And as a bonus, older glasses tend to be the right size. I have some really neat looking martini glasses from Crate & Barrel, but they’re big enough that they could be mistaken for the cups at 7-11. And while I admit there’s some appeal to an alcoholic Big Gulp, I’d rather be able to taste three well-proportioned and distinctly different cocktails on my way to inebriation than have to choke down the warm remnants of an eight ounce martini.

Recipes

Some of you were undoubtedly smart, skipping all my preachy cocktail soliloquies and leaping straight down here to the good stuff. While my recipes obviously work for me, they may not be to your liking. If something is too tart, try making it differently, keeping notes on what you enjoy. Even legendary bartenders have their drink recipes altered, and you should feel confident in doing so. In addition to the specific recipes listed below, you should peruse the internet for other drinks to try making. A good place to start because I tend to agree with a lot of the proportions in his drinks is with Robert Hess’ semi-defunct DrinkBoy website. Check out the list of cocktails or search the site by spirit so you can see all the drinks he has using a particular ingredient. Some of the drinks also have corresponding instructional videos that show you how to make them.

Anyhow, here are eight great, easy cocktails using the ingredients I listed earlier. Since most people I’ve spoken with who are new to cocktails tend to view gin with a sinister glare, I’ve listed more gin drinks than anything else. Play around with them and fall in love.

Dry Martini

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1 oz dry vermouth
  • Two dashes of orange bitters
  • Stir with cracked ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish, if you’d like, with a lemon twist.

Martinis are made with gin, not vodka. The first martini was most likely made with sweet vermouth, and the dry martini is thus made with dry vermouth. Vary the proportions to your liking, but ignore the recent trend to just rinse the glass with dry vermouth and then pour in the gin. That’s a glass of gin, not a martini.

Manhattan

  • 2 oz bourbon (or rye whiskey)
  • .5 – 1 oz sweet vermouth to your taste (I prefer more vermouth than other folks, I think, especially when using a great vermouth like Carpano Antica)
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • Stir with cracked ice and strain into a chilled glass. You can serve it on the rocks with a cherry if you’d prefer, but with good ingredients, you may not want to dilute the drink by having it on ice.

White Lady

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • Optional: 1 egg white
  • Dry shake to emulsify the egg. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

Clover Club

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • .25 oz grenadine
  • .75 oz lemon juice
  • 1 egg white (definitely NOT optional)
  • Dry shake to emulsify the egg. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. I’ve seen this garnished with a raspberry floating on the egg foam when served in a champagne flute. Kind of cool, but not at all necessary.

Margarita

  • 2 oz tequila
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • .5 oz lime juice
  • Big pinch of salt
  • Shake all ingredients with ice, strain, and pour over ice into a glass. I prefer not to salt the rim, but you can if you’d like.

Cuba Libre

  • 2 oz white rum
  • .33-.5 oz lime juice to taste
  • Cola
  • Add the rum and lime juice to a glass with ice, top with cola to taste, stir to integrate the ingrediants, and garnished with a lime wheel or wedge. With good cola, you will never again in your life be able to tolerate another Bacardi and Coke.

Daiquiri

  • 2 oz white rum
  • .5 oz lime juice
  • .25 oz simple syrup
  • Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or wheel. Experiment a bit: Adding grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur makes this a Hemingway Daiquiri, which is an amazing drink.

Aviation

  • 2 oz gin
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • .25 oz maraschino
  • Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. This was first served to me with a cherry at the bottom point of the cocktail glass, which creates a really red haze at the bottom of the glass. But some folks garnish with a lemon twist floating in the drink. I greatly prefer the former. This drink is also often made with another ingredient called creme de violette. It’s not currently found in Michigan, but if you get your hands on any, it turns the drink sky blue and the name becomes much more understandable.

For me, the psychosis started with the last drink on that list, the Aviation. After trying one, I needed to learn more about cocktails, and that’s what sent me looking for obscure ingredients and recipes for my own infusions and bitters. If you’re so inclined, you can end up with 30 or 40 spirits and a nearly endless array of cocktail combinations worth exploring. But even if not, just picking up those eight basic spirits and a few accessories and mixers will go a long way toward ensuring you’re able to drink well and drink often.

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15 responses to “building a basic home cocktail bar: a tutorial

  1. Great post! I see you have St. Germain. One of my faves over the last couple of years. Champagne cocktails…. Yum!

  2. Well done, Evan! Why the Aviation isn’t offered on more bar menus in Detroit is beyond me. Speaking of which, how about a blog post: A Drinkers Guide to Detroit… I’d be more than happy to be your copilot.

    Cheers!

  3. Nice article. Goes well beyond a decent home bar.

    Your very first cocktail is a bit unusual, must be a good story 🙂

  4. Thanks Dana, Marvin. I appreciate the compliments.

    Marvin, I couldn’t agree more about the Aviation. It’s classic, easy to make, and delicious. It’s funny — even simple gastropubs and upscale beer bars in other cities can make an Aviation.

    As for the Drinkers Guide, that’s a fine idea. Maybe a yearly top five favorite places to drink list. It probably wouldn’t change much, but it’d be a great excuse to hit up a bunch of bars over a couple month period. We’ll have to start this soon. A brilliant suggestion.

    A for my very first cocktail… Yeah, in college, it was good form to mix anything sweet and anything sour and pretty much anything with alcohol with juice. I came up with some pretty abhorrent concoctions back in the day.

  5. What? No whiskey sour? I’ll have to try Buffalo Trace. I’ve been on a Maker’s Mark kick for a while. Tell your man Marvin I enjoyed his video about the chicken race!

  6. Heh… the recipe list could have gone on for pages upon pages, but since you asked, here are a few whiskey sour recipes to play with:

    From Captain McBoozy’s Blog
    http://captainmcboozy.com/2010/04/07/whiskey-sour/
    – 2 oz. Bourbon
    – .75 oz. Lemon Juice
    – 1/2 tsp. Powdered Sugar
    – Shake and serve in a chilled sour glass.

    I make this version at home. Adjust the lemon juice up and/or the syrup down if you prefer a tarter drink:
    – 2 oz bourbon
    – 1 oz simple syrup
    – .5 oz lemon juice
    – Half an egg white
    – Dry shake, shake with ice, strain into chilled glass.

    Here’s a version I learned from a bartender in Chicago:
    – 2 oz bourbon
    – .66 oz simple syrup
    – .66 oz lemon juice
    – Whole egg white
    – Shake all the ingredients with about 20-22 grams of ice (about a third of a big cube) until the ice is totally dissolved. Strain into a rocks glass over ice.

    As for Maker’s Mark, I used to use Maker’s exclusively, and then we (three of us) did a blind bourbon tasting, and it came up as the 4th favorite out of 5, with Buffalo Trace being the unanimous winner. Since its several dollars less expensive per fifth, we’ve been using Buffalo Trace almost exclusively since then.

  7. this is a great feature. do you mind if i ask evan this question:

    what would you do with gold tequila for an evening party, lite apps serve (lots of cheese), fun crowd.

    thanks!

  8. wow, fantastic post! I love a good drink (or 5), but my bar is now obviously very understocked. Brilliant intro for the cocktail newbie like myself!

  9. Noelle, great post!

    On this topic of cocktails: I’ve recently become obsessed with vinegars and would love your input here. I’ve heard rumors regarding the existence of delicious cocktails that include vinegar (ie: balsamic martinis, as one example). I’ve been asking bartenders everywhere to make me something like this, but to no avail, so far. They react to my queries as if I’m asking them to make me a drink with bat’s wing and eye of a newt in it – or something totally crazy that wouldn’t ordinarily be stocked by a bar/restaurant.

    Do you have any personal opinions – or info – for me re: vinegar in cocktails?!! Is this supposed “balsamic martini” the Loch Ness Monster of the bar world? Or does it actually exist?

  10. Thank you for such a very helpful post. I recently purchased a very cheap martini shaker set and have begun playing with simple martinis. I am definitely inspired to keep building my collection, and will definitely be looking for more posts like this!

  11. Just wanted to say thank you for this post. We first wanted to try various cocktails around November (inspired by Mad Men, it has to be said). I did a lot of research on various websites and blogs but kept coming back to this post – I’ve got it bookmarked. Now 4 months later we’ve bought a boston shaker on your advice (started off using a thermos flask!) and a hawthorn strainer, and have drunk many martinis, manhattans, daiquiris, white ladies and clover clubs in between! Might order some maraschino liqueur off the internet soon.. anyway thank you for introducing us to the world of classic cocktails, such a well written post which makes it feel quite doable.

    • That’s great! That’s exactly why I wanted to post something like this, because I was basically in the same boat as you. I will pass your feedback on to Evan. 🙂

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