We’ve almost made it. You read the first part of our bar ballad. You went and stocked up on supplies; maybe even found new disdain for your significant other after scrounging around IKEA (sorry). Now your direct deposit has hit, and you’re ready to live off Top Ramen for a week or two to get your home bar to peak potential.
Today, we’ll be going over a list of liquors, bitters, and syrups that will get you ready to make a variety of cocktails and allow for experimentation. I’ll list out several options for each section, so choose the things that sound most appealing to you and suit your tastes, or be adventurous (the only way to like something new is to try it, repeatedly). Of course, you can also enter our home bar contest to win several pre-mixed cocktails (thanks to Tipple Supply Co.) and the tools you need to tend bar like a pro.
Rye whiskey used to be incredibly popular in the United States, and is experiencing a comeback as people look for a drier whiskey compared to bourbon. In the United States, rye whiskey has to be made with at least 51 percent rye, and if it wants to be labeled “straight” whiskey, it has to be aged at least two years in charred, new oak barrels (amongst a number of other, more esoteric requirements). Rye whiskey balances cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned by backing off the sweetness that bourbon adds (even though most modern versions of this drink use bourbon, I recommend rye). I prefer Old Overholt, as it is inexpensive and easy to find, especially after its Boardwalk Empire cameo.
Bourbon is America. America is bourbon. We’re drinking so much of it that the timber industry is having issues supplying oak staves to create new barrels. Bourbon whiskey has to be made of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels (don’t think we’re cutting down trees just to get drunk; Scotch distilleries purchase the used versions and create more deliciousness inside of them), and has to be made in the United States (and that’s anywhere in the country, not just in Bourbon County, KY). Bourbon goes great in almost anything rye would, but is especially great in whiskey sours and boulevardiers. My go-to bourbon is George Dickel Number 12. Some will cry to high-heaven that it is a Tennessee Whiskey, but the only difference between them is the Lincoln County Process where the liquor is filtered through maple charcoal before being put into barrels. (Editor’s Note: If you do want ”true” bourbon, I don’t think you can go wrong with Four Roses Yellow Label.)
Gin should be the first ingredient in your martini. Full stop. Hell, sometimes it should be the only ingredient. With that said, there are a few styles to choose from for your inevitable James Bond costume party. London dry gin is the most prolific type of gin. It has a flowery aroma, dry taste (very low sugar content as required by law), and doesn’t have to be made in London (go figure). Next up is Plymouth gin, which is my personal favorite due to its more delicate flavor (less of the almost medicinal qualities of the London dry) and because only one brand on earth makes it so I can feel extra fancy. For our sweet-toothed friends, I recommend Old Tom gin, which is basically London Dry with simple syrup added to smooth it out. As an aside, the “Old Tom” was a fixture in Victorian England. Essentially the first vending machines, Old Toms were wooden plaques in the shape of a black cat that was essentially a public shot dispenser; you put your coin in the slot and the candy gin emanated from the cats paw, via a tube the bartender inside controlled. Needless to say, it sounds like you’d be hard pressed to be sober in 18th-century England. Our final true gin candidate is genever. Genever is a great place for a whiskey drinker to enter the gin world, as it’s made from malted barley, giving it a deeper and more complex flavor and color than the other gins mentioned. Typically, all of the aforementioned gins can be used interchangeably to suit your tastes (with genever the typical exemption). In terms of specific recommendations: I recommend Beefeater or Kirkland Signature (quit acting like you don’t want a handle of gin for the price of a T-shirt) for London dry, Plymouth (not much of a choice here) for Plymouth, Hayman’s for old tom, and Bols for genever.
Rum tends to come from areas of the world with high sugar production, due to it being made from sugarcane byproducts (like molasses) or sugarcane juice itself. There are too many styles of rum for me to get into deep detail as this is mostly about recommendations, but this is a nice little write-up to get started, and we have some other pieces on WOTR to learn about the ethos behind the island favorite. For your home bar, I recommend having one light “silver” rum and one dark rum. The light rums tend to be used in cocktails, such as the classic Daiquiri, while darker rums can be used as floats over drinks like the mint julep or Dark ‘N’ Stormy™. The older varieties should be had straight, like a fine whiskey. For light or silver rums I recommend Flor de Caña, Atlantico, and Shellback. All of these rums are pretty inexpensive, and go great in mixed drinks to add a subtle sweet richness over any other flavors you’ve used. In terms of dark rum, I recommend Gosling’s Black Seal, El Dorado 12 year, and Ron Zacapa 23. Gosling’s is the original ingredient in a Dark ‘N’ Stormy™, and has a molasses flavor above all; El Dorado 12 is a great rum to drink neat, and has caramel tones similar to sipping whiskeys; Ron Zacapa 23 is a beautifully crafted rum that blends several rums between 6 and 23 years old that can be enjoyed straight or in cocktails (try it in a rum Sazerac). Obviously, you don’t need all of these in your home bar, so grab one light and one dark if you’re a rum fan.
Tequila is the overarching term for spirits produced from the blue agave plant in the Jalisco state of Mexico. Tequila production is still a manual process wherein jimadores (harvesters) use a coa (a sharp, almost circular spade) to remove stalks and leave only the piña (the heart of the plant which is then distilled into a spirit) to be turned into liquid deliciousness. There are several types of tequila including blanco (aged up to two months, usually less and only to add smoothness, not color), reposado (aged for at least two months and less than one year), and añejo (aged over one year). There is also a saintly creation named mezcal, which unlike tequila can be made from many types of agave plant. Mezcal also differs from tequila in terms of the areas where it can be produced. But the largest difference is how it gets its trademark smokiness. Mezcal is basically cooked in an underground fire pit that is covered and lined with volcanic rock. If that doesn’t get you to try it, I give up. My recommendations are as follows: For blanco I recommend Milagro or Herradura, for reposado I like Siete Leguas and Tres Agaves, and for añejo I would grab a bottle of Don Julio. If you’re looking for a mezcal to try, I would look to the Del Maguey family and see which one fits your tastes (I like Vida).
Cognac and brandy are very similar, namely because they are both made from distilling wines into liquor, which is then stored in oak barrels. The difference is that cognac is a protected brand and has an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which basically means a “controlled designation of origin.” With this AOC in place, any brandy that wants to be called cognac must fit certain criteria as defined by the French government and the European Union, including being distilled twice in copper pot stills, made in the Cognac region of France, and using specific types of grapes like the ugni blanc. To put it simply, what sparkling wine is to Champagne is what brandy is to Cognac. Brandy and cognac are usually something you’d enjoy after dinner and neat, but they can be used to create well-balanced cocktails where you want darker liquor with a clean finish and lighter taste (like the delicious Japanese Cocktail). In terms of brandy I recommend St. Remy XO and for cognac I recommend Brisson.
Vodka brings out either love or hate in most people. Living in a Russian family all of my life, I’ve come to love it, as it really goes great with rich, savory, and salty foods. With that said, vodka usually tastes like nothing. That’s actually the point though, as it’s supposed to be a colorless and odorless neutral spirit. There will be slight changes in flavor depending on quality, brand, and which ingredients were used to make the batch, such as wheat or potatoes. The major point here is: In terms of cocktails, it really doesn’t matter if you’re using Smirnoff or Grey Goose (excepting maybe things like Cape Codders and Greyhounds). The vodka will take on the flavors of whatever else you add into it, so as long as it has a clean flavor and a good price, you should grab it and mix it how you like. If I just need a quick bottle at the store, I’ll grab Smirnoff No. 21, but if I want something a little nicer I’ll pick up a bottle of Reyka.
Vermouth is something you tend to hear a nice older lady order straight up before a meal, but it’s a great ingredient that adds botanical flavors to cocktails as well. Garnering its name from the German word for wormwood, “wermut,” vermouth has been around for centuries and is a staple in martinis and manhattans the world over. Vermouth is basically a fortified wine with herbs and botanicals added for bitterness and flavor; the alcohol content is usually around 17 percent (a bit higher than regular wine as it has been spiked with un-aged brandy to keep longer). I recommend grabbing a bottle each of sweet and dry to keep in your fridge. This is a pretty necessary step to keep vermouth fresh. Vermouth is wine after all, and will oxidize in less than a month. For sweet vermouth, I recommend a bottle of Carpano Antica (drink it on its own over ice or in an Americano) if you have the funds, as it is undoubtedly a tasty but pricy concoction. If you can’t find it or don’t want to splash the cash, I’d look for Dolin Rouge or Cinzano. In terms of dry vermouth, I would stick to Dolin Dry or Martini and Rossi as both are common and inexpensive. Unless you plan on making a lot of cocktails that call for vermouth, I’d recommend buying them in 375 ml format, rather than 750 ml.
Campari is the final piece of your liquor selection for your home bar. It has a wide variety of uses from drinking straight up, over ice, with soda, in cocktails, or however else you can slam it down. It is a wonderfully crafted spirit with herbal, fruity, and bitter tones. If you do not like bitter things it’s most likely not your fault; in the States we don’t have much of a palate for bitter tastes as we focus more on sweet, salty, sour, and satiating flavors. To combat this I cannot overstate how important it is to keep tasting something even if at first you hate it (I don’t recommend this for most other things in life). I didn’t like Campari when I first had it, but after listening to some advice from a bartender friend, I kept drinking it until I could taste everything. Now I love the mild sweet finish of its herbal bitterness that I otherwise would have never discovered. If it’s still too bitter, I’d try a bottle of Aperol instead, which is similar to Campari but slightly sweeter.
Bitters are basically a bartender’s salt and pepper; you wouldn’t cook a meal without them, so why would we make cocktails without a dash of bitters? The most popular and widespread bitters are these three, which you should have in your arsenal: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and orange. Angostura bitters are dark and strong, and have an alcohol content rivaling hard liquor. They are flavored with many herbs and spices, the most prevalent of which is gentian root. Use Angostura in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds for an original taste. Peychaud’s bitters were created in 1838 in by a Creole named Antoine Peychaud in his New Orleans apothecary, and have thrived ever since. Peychaud’s bitters are also gentian-based, but they have a milder, more floral taste. Use Peychaud’s in a Sazerac, Vieux Carre, or Seelbach. Orange bitters add a great compliment to struggling drinks that need something to set them off. Usually you will get a hefty scent of sweet orange peel mixed with cardamom, caraway, and other herbs and spices depending on the brand. Speaking of brands, I recommend Bitter Truth or Regans’ orange bitters — try them in a Bijou.
Syrups are necessary for a wide variety of delicious drinks from Old Fashioneds to Sazeracs to Daiquiris and beyond. The easiest syrup is aptly named simple syrup, and it is simply a combination of equal parts sugar and water (I like a ratio of 1.5:1 sugar to water for a richer taste). Use simple syrup in the above-mentioned drinks, or with juice cocktails for a tart flavor. The other most important syrup to know is grenadine. Now, you may have seen so-called grenadine in the store, usually something like Rose’s standing front and center. This is NOT grenadine; this is thicker simple syrup made from corn syrup with red dye #40 and no fruit juice. Basically, it’s garbage and people still buy it. Fear not, though — this can be easily remedied by making your own! If you cannot find pomegranate molasses, omit it and carry on with the recipe (feel free to add hibiscus for a deeper color and floral flavor). Use grenadine in any cocktail that you want to have a tart sweetness, or in a classic Jack Rose cocktail.
So here we are, friends: the end of the road. If you went out and grabbed what’s on this list you now have a beautifully stocked and crafted home bar that’s able to create tons of drinks either on your own or by following recipes in timeless bartending manuals (or, most likely, GQ or Details magazine). Obviously, to go out and purchase everything would be a big dent in your paycheck, which is why I tried my best to use inexpensive options that can go head-to-head with premium spirits. If the idea of a home bar interests you then start small. Grab a few pieces of the puzzle and use them until you feel comfortable before moving onto the next ones. Before you know it, your guests will be impressed and you’ll be saving money at the same time. Thank you for sticking with your Spirit Guide, and hopefully I’ll see you with drink in hand soon enough. 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: Matteo Paceotti