There are some interesting drinking trends being attributed to the current economic climate, and two in particular jump out at me. The first is that people are drinking out less frequently these days, but looking for better quality experiences when they do. The other is a trend for trading up to higher quality products when buying spirits to take home. It looks like consumers are trying not to compromise their drinks quality when drinking at home so we’re seeing a rise in premium spirit sales. I guess when you’re going out less often, it makes sense to have a few nice bottles of spirits at home to enjoy on a night in.
These trends, coupled in the resurgence of a cocktail culture that is reaching into the mainstream at last, mean that having a well-stocked drinks cabinet is becoming standard. So if you’re a cocktail lover, who’s willing to turn your hand to home bartending, how do you go about stocking up the home bar with everything you might need for happy hour? It can be quite daunting to try to build a good selection of spirits, vermouths, liqueurs and bitters, not to mention rather expensive, but below are a few thoughts on how to build up your home bar without breaking the bank!
If you’re lucky enough to have plenty of money in your bank account, then by all means write a shopping list and do it all in one hit, but for most people taking a gradual approach will make more sense. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to have one of everything you might need, but actually there are a couple of other approaches you could take to build a respectable home bar collection.
It can seem like a big task to start building up a good home drinks cabinet from scratch, but you needn’t do it all in one go, and you might not need to buy as many bottles as you imagine. Unless money is no object then there’s no point trying to buy one of every spirit category and liqueur, in fact you’ll probably end up with a load of bottles gathering dust and going unused if you take that approach. Instead you’re probably better off doing it one bottle at a time and adding bottles that you will actually use. The process of building up your home bar can actually be an interesting journey that will help you discover new drinks along the way.
When I ask most people what are their must have products for their drinks cabinet, it’s interesting that they almost always jump straight into a list of spirits. I know this is logical as when we think of cocktails, we tend to think of the base spirits we like, but actually it’s the supporting ingredients that make a difference between just having some nice booze at home, compared with being able to mix up a range of good cocktails. So for the sake of this article, let’s assume that the goal is to be able to make lots of good cocktail, rather than simply trying to build up a collection of good spirits.
If we also assume that you’re starting completely from scratch and don’t want to spend a fortune buying everything you need in one go, then as far as I’m concerned there are two sensible ways of proceeding. One will allow you to make the widest range of drinks right away, and the other will ensure that every bottle you buy will be a product that you’ll actually use. I’m sure there are other ways of doing it, and I’ve read articles in the past that tell you which products you should buy, but I’m less concerned about making your shopping list of brands, and more interested in making sure you don’t waste your money on bottles you don’t really need.
If you think about it logically, having a wide range of spirits and very few liqueurs, vermouths and bitters, actually leaves you with very few cocktail options. So why not start the other way around? Having a good range of modifiers (the ingredients you add to a spirit to make a cocktail) means that you have a wide range of possibilities when it comes to what style of drink you want to make. If you have plenty of modifiers then you’re only ever a bottle of spirit away from being able to whip up a variety of drinks.
As far as I’m concerned having a good solid dry and sweet vermouth and just a few types of bitters, is essential as it opens the door for plenty of stirred drinks. When it comes to vermouth I think it’s best to keep it simple and start with one reasonable bottle of each. There are plenty of amazing vermouths, but lots of them can be pretty overpowering if you’re not careful, so start out with a nice standard sweet vermouth such as Martini Rosso and a versatile dry vermouth such as Noilly Prat. Once opened, keep them in the fridge, as they will stay fresh for longer this way.
For bitters, I think it’s essential to have Angostura in stock at all times, and having a good orange bitters such as Bitter Truth or Regan’s is a must. If you want to have a wider range to play with then why not look at picking up the Bitter Truth traveller set, which has five miniature bottles of bitters for you to experiment with. Even with this simple selection of bitters and vermouth you’re already on the road to classics such as the Manhattan, Martini or Martinez. All you need is a bottle of your favourite spirit and a little imagination and you’re ready to start stirring some pretty amazing cocktails,
Next up it’s worth having a few liqueurs, and once again having just a small number of the most commonly used ones opens you up to a lot of different drinks. Maraschino is a must, and as far as I’m concerned it should be Luxardo that you invest in. A triple sec/curacao or a similar orange liqueur is also essential. Cointreau is a versatile option, but if you want something special, then why not try this one from Pierre Ferrand? Some fruit liqueurs can be a good investment too, but with these it’s worth paying a little extra and getting high quality products. Merlet offer their crèmes in small 20cl bottles, which are perfect for the home bar.
There are the more complex herbal liqueurs to consider as well, but don’t go crazy here and buy more than you need. If you know that you like a particular drink that calls for Chartreuse for example, just buy that to begin with as you can always add to this category bit-by-bit in the future.
When it comes to gomme (sugar syrup) I generally make my own by combining two parts sugar and one part water, and bringing to a gentle boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once cooled I add a little vodka to help it keep and usually find that it lasts well. Feel free to pick up a commercially made sugar syrup though as they do keep well so there’s less chance of them going off.
Even with just one of each style of vermouth, three or four liqueurs and a couple of types of bitters, you’re now ready to make all sorts of drinks, from Sidecars to Aviations, Old Fashioneds to Martinis, Margaritas to Manhattans. All you need to do is decide which spirit you want to start with and you’re good to go. Having a good selection of modifiers ensures that you’re not stuck with only one or two styles of drinks you can make, and as they say variety is the spice of life.
The other method for building up a good drinks cabinet, is to start by buying the ingredients for your favourite drink. Once you have these, you’re usually just one further ingredient away from the next drink, so by adding one bottle at a time you can build up a collection of bottles all which are ingredients in drinks that you know you like. The advantage of this is that you don’t end up with bottles you never use, which obviously would be a waste of money.
Let’s illustrate this method with some examples: In this case starting from the simplest of drinks and one ingredient at a time adding new drinks that you can make. Let’s say you like Daiquiris for example, then all you need is rum and sugar syrup and a fresh lime. Once you’ve mastered this simple drink though, maybe you fancy turning your hand to something new, so next time you’re shopping you pick up a bottle of maraschino and a pink grapefruit. Now you can make a Hemmingway Daiquiri as well as the classic. So now you have rum, sugar syrup and maraschino at home, let’s see what you might like to try next…
Perhaps a different spirit is the way forward, in which case why not add a bottle of gin to your cabinet so that with the maraschino and a little lemon juice you can shake up an Aviation. Add a bottle of crème de mure and now you can also make Brambles. Then there’s the option of buying a bottle of sweet vermouth so that you can stir a Gin and It when you fancy something a little punchier. Next you add a bottle of Campari, which offers you the options of the Negroni or Americano. If you change spirits again then why not pick up a bottle of Bourbon or Rye and some Angostura bitters, so that you can make a Boulevardier, not to mention a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned?
Taking this approach of simply adding one ingredient at a time, but with a specific drink in mind means that in just a few shopping trips you end up with a range of spirits and modifiers all of which you know how to use. Pretty soon you’ll find that when you see a recipe somewhere that takes your fancy, you will probably have most of the ingredients at home and may only need to buy one bottle to be able to add that drink to your repertoire. Once you have a compact but versatile base to work from then experimenting becomes easy and before you know it you’ll be able to whip up dozens of different cocktails at home.
I know I said I was less interested in suggesting brands, than in actually suggesting a method for building up your home drinks collection, but inevitably I’ll be asked by some of you which products I feel are must haves. This always comes down to personal preference but here are a few of the products that I ensure I never run out of:
Martin Rosso sweet vermouth
Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Luxardo maraschino liqueur
St Germain elderflower liqueur
Banks 5 Island white rum
Four Roses bourbon (the entire range in my case)
Appleton 8 year old golden rum
Ocho blanco tequila
Courvoisier Exclusif cognac
Bitter Truth orange bitters and lemon bitters
Apricot brandy (the new one from Merlet is good stuff!)
The list could go on for ever, but these are solid products at a reasonable price and are perfect for day-to-day drinking. The actual list of what we keep stocked in the b&t home bar would take up too much space to fit here (somewhere between 400 – 450 bottles at a guess), but this is a list of the stuff that gets used often and that I make sure not to run out of.
Building up a collection of cocktail ingredients should be a learning experience, and moving from one drink to the next or concentrating on the modifiers is a good way of ensuring you can make a range of drinks for those days when you don’t fancy heading out to a bar, but still want a good drink. Just be warned that when you build up too large of a collection of bottles, it can get pretty expensive… I’ve just started converting my loft into a bar as I’ve run out of other places to store bottles!