The Spirit Guide: Here’s to the Home Bar, Part One
You’ve heard all of the clichés before: “Anything worth doing is worth doing right;” “nothing good in life comes easy;” “never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” Unless you’re a beautiful celebrity or have a trust fund, these will probably ring true. That’s why we here at Molotov Cocktail want to set you up for success on your quest for fine cocktails without ever leaving your house. Realizing on our previous Spirit Guide journey that I used a lot of bar tools, I felt it would be a good idea to explain how to stock your home bar. Obviously, when you stock anything there’s an initial investment of time and money, but in the end I assure you it’ll save you more than you’ve spent. It will also have the added benefit of letting you experiment with new flavors yourself, and the immediate ability to showcase your skills to loved ones and ones you’d like to love.
This will be a two-part article, with the first part about the tools and instruments you need, and the second part about liquor, bitters, and syrups. Some of these appeared in the first Spirit Guide article, but are recapped here for a more complete list. As always, any products I link to specifically are personal preferences of mine and we have no relation to any of these companies; please purchase, borrow, or make your own from wherever you desire.
There are few things more eye catching than walking into someone’s home or office and seeing a well-stocked bar cart with bottles and supplies elegantly arrayed for your hands to grab a glass and start the day off right. They come in all shapes and sizes (and prices), but it’s up to your personality to decide: do I want to be a British general in Inglourious Basterds, or do I just want something that can hold booze? I went with the latter due to its practicality, even though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a globe for boozy show and tell.
Unless you’re bartending at a nightclub where you’re pouring Red Bull and vodkas into plastic cups all night, I highly recommend you use a jigger to make your cocktails. A Jigger will keep your drinks tasting the same each time you make them, and will keep you from under or over pouring so you know whose keys to take at the end of the night. During my time bartending, and at home as well, I used this OXO jigger because it was easy to grip and had markings for most pours I would make during a shift (with the added benefit of only having to hold one instead of two in my hand). It takes a bit of practice to get the pours right while using a jigger. Using the aforementioned jigger as an example, if you’re pouring to the one-ounce mark, you want the liquid to create a meniscus above the line without spilling over for an accurate pour.
This is where you’ll be mixing your stirred drinks that do not use fruit juice, eggs, or dairy (except in rare cases). I prefer to use a pint glass for mixing, which is essentially the glass portion of a Boston Shaker. If you want a fancier option you can go for the more elegant (and more expensive) antique style mixing glasses, which serve the same purpose and look much nicer.
If you want to look like you’re really doing something behind the bar, shaking a cocktail is a definite necessity. Shaker tins are used whenever you’re making a drink that contains juice, egg, or dairy (with exceptions, like the White Russian). If you purchase a Boston Shaker, then you get both the shaking and stirring portions with one purchase, but some prefer to keep them separate since the Boston shaker can be a bit large for single drinks. To clarify, the above example is useful for individual portion cocktails. You’d build the drink in the smaller tin, then seal it with the large tin. If you want to do double batches, a Boston Shaker is the way to go. If you want to make drinks for the entire party, you can buy one of these, which is nicknamed a “Kennedy Shaker,” because it’s the only size cocktail shaker that could slake the thirst of the Kennedy clan.
For stirring drinks like Martinis, Manhattans, and anything else built in a mixing glass, you need a good quality barspoon. I prefer barspoons with no ridges, as those tend to dig into your fingers after a long night of bartending. Barspoons are a versatile tool that can be used to crack ice, layer liquor, and even find out how cold your drink is before tossing out your ice.
A muddler is a great tool for expressing the flavors out of fruits and herbs. In general, I prefer the use of non-lacquered wooden muddlers while working professionally, as I feel they lend you the most control. However, in terms of home use, a rubber-footed muddler is an easy to clean alternative that does the same job.
There are few things that will dramatically enhance the flavor of your cocktails more than fresh squeezed fruit juice. Using pasteurized juices or sour mix anywhere beyond a university sports bar should be punishable by catapult. One well-crafted juicer will last you an eternity and will always add a breath of fresh air to your future libations.
Patented in 1892 by William Wright, this strainer named after the bar in which it originated is still ubiquitous around the world today. The rule of thumb for a Hawthorne strainer is to use it any time after shaking a cocktail to prevent larger chunks of ice from getting into your drinks.
Not around quite as long as its Hawthorne relative, the julep strainer was patented in 1907 by Thomas Lashar. A julep strainer is used to pour mixed drinks that do not contain juice, egg, or dairy. To be fair, you could use a Hawthorne strainer and ditch the julep strainer entirely, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make you look debonair using one to pour an ice-cold martini.
This is probably the most overlooked item in any bar’s arsenal. I can’t begin to explain how many times I’ve ordered a drink in a bar, fancy or otherwise, only to see the bartender shake the hell out of my drink and then pour it into an awaiting glass with only a Hawthorne strainer (or, if they really hate their customers, no strainer at all). The issue here lies with dilution; ice chips will get into your drink if you do not use a mesh strainer and also add more water than required to your cocktail. In my experience, a cone shaped mesh strainer holds the most liquid and passes the mixed drink through the quickest, ensuring the drink gets in your gullet post-haste.
The following supplies are things that will make your life easier without being prohibitively expensive.
Churchkey – Time to stop using your eyeballs to pop the tops off your beers.
Corkscrew – Yes, I know you can open a bottle of wine with your shoe, but does anyone really care?
Channel knife / zester – A great tool for creating garnishes, especially twists of citrus fruits.
Pour spouts – For accurate pouring and speedier mixing, these will fit into (almost) any bottle.
With these tools in your arsenal, you will conquer any cocktail recipe that shows up on your doorstep. Whether you’re hosting a diplomat or The Diplomats, everyone will walk away with an ear-to-ear smile after sampling your libations in your own comfortable environment.
Let me end on this note: all of these utensils will be an order of magnitude more powerful if you have a guide. While I love being that guide, I am no match for a book on the bar cart with recipes and knowledge you can open at any opportunity. There are plenty of choices to select from: whether it’s the 19th, 20th, or 21st century option, each will provide a spot-on reference guide with stories and history to boot.
Join me next time when I teach you how to drain your savings at the liquor store to stock your newly furnished home bar. Until then, as always, cheers.
Andre Gziryan is a Soviet-born American who prefers G.I. Joe to Uncle Joe. He is a former barman who currently works as an international trade analyst at the Department of Commerce. What he lacks in military knowledge he makes up for with a love of all things creative and spirituous.
Photo credit: Steve Corey