Mixology Mailbag Majors in the Classics How to Stock Your First Home Bar
The challenge: Assemble a shopping list for the college student who wants to stock more than the average wet bar, cheaply, to prepare him for a variety of drinking situations in which he might find himself—drinking alone or with housemates; drinking with dates; and drinking with older visitors, like parents or girlfriend’s parents. —Tipsy in Poughkeepsie
It’s good to see that the recent upswing in cocktail culture has trickled down to our nation’s college campuses. I don’t recall too many people sharing TIP’s ambitions toward sophisticated drinking during my own college days, when my idea of sophistication was occasionally turning down a game of Quarters or Beer Pong in favor of a gin-and-tonic or a Tom Collins made from a mix sold at the local Wal-Mart. For both purposes, I kept a bottle of gin lying around, and I would occasionally liven up a party by swilling directly from it.
I wouldn’t recommend that move, TIP, but one way to approach this home bar endeavor of yours is to make friends with gin. Gordon’s is very cheap, yet perfectly versatile and tasty. If you find you like gin drinks as much as I do, you can make your friends a few fruit-forward gin cocktails to show them how much more flavor gin brings to the table than vodka (and to demonstrate the folly of squandering scarce house resources on the inferior clear booze).
Here’s a super-simple cocktail for that purpose:
1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon squeeze.
So you’ve got a bottle of gin and a bottle of Cointreau—an excellent start. Add a bottle of Angostura bitters to your collection (just a few bucks buys enough to last you well past graduation, and you can find it alongside the tonic and soda water at your local grocer), and you’ve got the tools for another simple, classic-for-a-reason gin cocktail:
Pegu Club from Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh
1 ½ oz. gin
½ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake in an iced cocktail strainer; strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Paul “The Alchemist” Harrington was the first drinks writer I consulted when I decided to put my from-the-bottle days to rest upon graduation. (Except where otherwise noted, I’ve borrowed his preferred recipes for this week’s cocktails). In the introduction to Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (tragically out of print), the Alchemist suggests that the ideal “three-bottle bar” consists of gin, Cointreau, and rum. Adding a bottle of rum to your liquor cabinet means that you can always make a quality Daiquiri. Along the way, you can help your friends shake the unfortunate association with blenders, floral short-sleeved shirts, and Jimmy Buffett that name conjures. The more you know:
1 ½ oz. light rum, or brown rum
¾ oz. lime juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.
A slightly-aged light rum, like Flor de Caña’s 4-year, makes for a truly beautiful Daiquiri, but if that’s a few dollars beyond your budget, I’d recommend Don Q Cristal or Castillo. Delilahs, Pegus, and Daiquiris are all easy, versatile drinks that are perfect for friends just learning to appreciate cocktails, but they segue nicely into date nights or visits from members of more advanced generations. For the solo drinker, they also lend a little bit more structure than your standard rum-and-Coke.
The Alchemist’s three-bottle bar also adds to your arsenal the Tom and Pedro Collins (shake 2 oz. of base spirit with ice, 1 oz. of lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon superfine sugar; strain over ice in a tall glass; fill with soda water; stay out of the Wal-Mart). You're also stocked for a Gin or Rum Bucks (a highball made from either primary spirit, plus lime juice and ginger ale) and a surprisingly feisty little cocktail called the Jack Dempsey that combines both base spirits (1 oz. gin, ½ oz. rum, ¾ oz. lemon juice, ¼ oz. simple syrup, shaken and served up).
I appreciate the Alchemist’s approach, but you might be even better off focusing on the classics. To do that, start your home bar with four bottles: gin, rye whiskey (Old Overholt does the trick at a very friendly price point, but Ritttenhouse is better. Rittenhouse 100 is better still), dry vermouth (I use Noilly Prat and it’s ridiculously cheap), and sweet vermouth (I like Cinzano, also very inexpensive). This way you’ll always have the ingredients on hand for three rock-solid pantheon cocktails: the Martini, the Manhattan, and the Old-Fashioned.
I make my Martinis stirred, with 2 ½ oz. gin and ¾ oz. dry vermouth, garnished with a lemon twist (Mrs. Mixology Mailbag prefers the customary olives), and my Manhattans with the same ratio of rye to sweet vermouth, plus two dashes of Angostura bitters, stirred and garnished with a brandied cherry. Avoid those fluorescent, artificial maraschino cherries if you can—those things are bleached with sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride, then dyed red again. Luxardo sells some terrific “gourmet” cocktail cherries, but those are clearly a luxury item. If you can’t find or afford them, I’d opt for an orange twist or no garnish.
The trend in Old-Fashioneds is away from the fruit-salad approach that characterized the drink for so long. Eschew orange wedges and the aforementioned chemically “enhanced” cherries, in favor of the, um, old-fashioned approach, and you’ll be converting skeptics into whiskey drinkers in no time:
Old-Fashioned, adapted from Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated & Irreverent Guide to Drinking by David Wondrich
Place a sugar cube into the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Add 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters and a splash of water or club soda. Crush the sugar with a wooden muddler, the back of a spoon, or whatever you have handy. Rotate the glass so that the sugar and bitters give it a lining. Add a large ice cube, and pour in 2 oz. whiskey. Squeeze a twist of lemon over the top.
Two important notes if you do decide to study the classics: Remember to keep your vermouth in the refrigerator. Like all lower-proof spirits, it will decline in quality if left at room temperature after opening. (Ignorance of this fact by bars and restaurants that don’t sell a lot of classic cocktails explains why many people turn up their noses at the idea of a Martini or a Manhattan.) And buy or make fresh ice regularly, then keep it in a sealed container in the freezer. Otherwise, it absorbs the smell of everything else in there, and nothing spoils the cocktail hour faster than a drink that tastes like week-old taquitos.
The classics-focused approach also allows you to make a couple of less famous, but still delicious, cocktails. Think of them as your secret weapons.
2 oz. bourbon or rye
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. orange juice
1 teaspoon grenadine
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel.
Ward Eights are even better if you make them with overproof whiskey (100 proof or more). The extra heat really helps the spirit stand up to the fruit juice and grenadine. And be sure to clear some room in the mini fridge for a couple of cocktail glasses before mixing these up. If you've got some pineapple juice on hand:
2 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. dry vermouth
1 oz. pineapple juice
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry, or serve without garnish.
Best of luck in your studies, TIP. Whichever path you choose, I hope you’ll continue to be a standard-bearer for the idea that cocktails in college can mean something more advanced than a fifth of flavored vodka and a two-liter bottle of club soda. Hey, at least you've mastered the first lesson of your adult drinking career. Our motto here at Mixology Mailbag: "Always use a glass."
Are you looking for a "girlie" drink you can order without shame? A scotch that will impress your father-in-law without shocking your palate? In search of a two- or three-ingredient cocktail to upgrade your solo drinking from the realm of the Solo cup? Let us know! File your drinking problems in the comments, or hit up Ken directly at email@example.com.
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop