Start Your Home Bar for Under $200

Here's one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

Here’s one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

When it was first suggested that I write something on “building your home bar” for this blog, I balked; this is New England Rambler, not New England Drinker. But it was then pointed out to me that in March in the Northeast, there’s very little rambling and a whole lot more drinking. This logic being unassailable, I had no choice but to accede.

You can quickly begin to build a home bar with a minimal outlay of cash by focusing on the basics.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Every home bar should contain a bottle of gin and a bottle of whisky. A 1.75 liter bottle of Beefeater was selling for $27 at the New Hampshire state liquor store this weekend (aha! there WILL be travel in this post after all!). While fancy gins have become “a thing,” I find Beefeater is perfectly acceptable for most purposes. If you want to go higher end (but not too far into cucumbers or botanicals) Bombay Sapphire is a smooth, versatile option. If you deeply love gin, Cold River Gin (from Maine — more traveling!) is excellent, although you’d probably never want to adulterate it with anything more exciting than a little dry vermouth.

As for the whisky, I think it’s perfectly fine to start with either a bourbon or a rye. If you like beverages slightly sweeter, pick up an affordable bourbon like Four Roses. If you like a dryer, more mineral taste, go for a perfectly serviceable rye like Old Overholt. Both are usually priced between $15 and $20. On the higher end, the ryes by Knob Creek and Bulleit are both excellent, and the Woodford Reserve bourbon always gets high marks.

Vermouth, whether sweet (red) or dry (white) is wine-based, so even the “dry” stuff is still sweetish. You need a good bottle of both. It doesn’t pay to splurge on your gin and then desecrate it with Martini and Rossi. I like Dolin for sweet vermouth and Noilly Prat for dry. A small bottle of either will set you back maybe $12-$15. Unless you’re planning on developing a drinking habit (or hosting a large party) I do think it makes sense to stick to the smaller sizes, since as a wine-based beverage, the flavor of the vermouth will start to degrade after you open it. I thought I hated martinis for a good eight years after I made my first at my parents’ house with a bottle of vermouth that turned out to be older than I was.

Another useful sweet option to keep around the house: Cointreau. While pricey, it’s an essential ingredient in a sidecar (which I tend to make with rye) and in a lot of other classic cocktails. A mid-sized bottle will last you months.

A quick word on simple syrup: you can make an easy, no-heat version by taking equal parts superfine sugar and water and combining in a jar, shaking it until the sugar has dissolved. I always use less than the recipe calls for; a little goes a long way.

Herbaceous amari add a layer of complexity and depth to cocktails. Angostura bitters are essential for most classic whisky cocktails. I don’t think you’ll need to diversify into any of the Fee Brothers flavors or even into Peychaud’s unless you really get bitten by the mixology bug.

Campari, on the other hand, is quite useful in a number of drinks, from the Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari in equal parts) to the Boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari). It’s also delicious when combined with a bit of prosecco as part of a Venetian Spritz.

Always keep a few lemons on hand; you’ll need the juice to make Sidecars and French 75s, wedges to make whiskey smashes, and the peel to liven up your martini. An orange can also be useful (the peel is delicious in anything with Campari, and in a lot of wintry whisky cocktails). Limes probably aren’t necessary, unless you’re going to expand into rum, in which case they’re essential.

Small glass bottles of Schweppes tonic or mini-cans of Polar club soda will keep forever in your cupboard. Feeling fancy? I love Q Tonic (which also comes in mini-bottles).

A stainless steel cocktail set on Amazon — yes, evil Amazon — goes for about $15 and includes a shaker, bar spoon, strainer, and jigger, as well as a pair of tongs you’ll probably never use.

For two bucks, buy yourself a decent mixology app that will let you figure out just how many things you can make with what you’ve got.

Let’s tally up our costs so far (prices are all estimates):
Gin $27
Rye or bourbon $16
Sweet Vermouth $14
Dry Vermouth $14
Cointreau $27
Angostura $10
Campari $27
Tonic $5
Lemons $3 for 5
Cocktail set $15

Total: $160 — or the equivalent of an ambitious evening’s cocktails for two at Drink. If you’d like to add a few other items to round out this list of basics, consider:

Brandy (useful for classic cocktails, and cheapo versions like E&J VSOP are fine. Note that cognac is really just a tastier, more expensive version of brandy — both, like vermouth, are grape-based.)
Rum (Gosling’s black if you like dark and stormies; Meyer’s for the option that best combines versatility with deliciousness; or Sailor Jerry’s for hot rum drinks, like my favorite super-simple toddy: two ounces of rum in a mug, topped with hot water, finished with a squeeze of lime wedge.)
Maraschino liqueur (This clear liquid isn’t sweet, like cherries; it’s a little musky and mysterious-tasting. Combine an ounce of it with an ounce of lemon juice and two ounces of gin for the classic Aviation cocktail.)
Aperol (Like a lighter, sweeter Campari. It also makes a good spritz and shows up in a number of Italianate cocktails.)
Cocchi Americano (A white wine-based aperitivo, it’s like Lillet only better. Combine 1.5 ounces of it with 1.5 ounces of gin, a dash of Maraschino, and a teaspoon of Aperol for a Pretty Old Thing.)

And that’s it! You can do a lot with just these ingredients and simple ratios (the 2:1:1 — 2 oz strong, 1 oz sweet, 1 oz sour — is very forgiving). Yes, there’s an endless array of liquors to buy. But while my bar runneth over with these and more, I think you can get pretty far with these. Or at least, to April.

New England’s Perfect Inn?

The Rabbit Hill Inn; there's been lodging in this location since the 1800s, when the junction was a key way-station between Boston and Montreal, and Montreal and Portland.

The Rabbit Hill Inn; there’s been lodging in this location since the 1800s, when the junction was a key way-station between Boston and Montreal, and Montreal and Portland.

I’ve always been a hoarder. Easter candy was saved until Halloween; Halloween candy preserved until Easter. So when my parents gave us a gift certificate for the Rabbit Hill Inn for my 30th birthday, of course I saved it until my 31st. But it was worth the wait; it made the perfect getaway for an lazy long weekend away from Boston, and an ideal way to spend a low-key birthday.

An easy cruise about two and a half hours up 93, the inn is one of the uniformly white clapboard houses in quiet Lower Waterford, Vermont, at the gateway to the Northeast Kingdom. The service was without parallel; every whim (bucket of ice and two champagne flutes? coming right up!) was catered to. In fact, the staff’s attitude was so friendly and welcoming, it took us a while to get used to it; no one is this nice anymore. Except maybe the people who answer the phone at Zappos.

Admittedly, we came to this weekend with wildly different expectations: I was expecting to sit by the fire, read books, solve crosswords, and maybe, if I felt like exerting myself, play a game or two of Scrabble. And indeed, we did all those things. But Ben’s plan was more ambitious: Antiquing! Exploring! Music! Food! We did some of those things. But even though the scenic drive around Lake Willoughby was striking — it’s more like a Norwegian fjord or a Scottish loch than something you’re used to seeing in New England — if I had it to do over again, I’d just stick close to home.

The exotic Lake Willoughby.

The exotic Lake Willoughby.

If you must leave the inn, the quaint towns of St. Johnsbury, VT and Littleton, NH are both nearby. And while we were there in the quiet shoulder season — something I definitely recommend — in summer and winter you’re not far from some serious mountains, whether hiking or skiing is your preference. Once you’ve spent a day or two lazing around doing jigsaw puzzles in the living room, drinking Talisker at the inn’s Snooty Fox Pub, and stuffing yourself full of delicious country breakfasts and big-city caliber gourmet dinners, you might think an invigorating climb up all 5,249 feet of Mt. Lafayette (30 minutes south) sounds pretty good. And if for some reason you get tired of breakfast at the inn, the awesome Polly’s Pancake Parlor is just 20 minutes away. (A tip: call ahead to put your names on the list in advance. There’s nearly always a wait.)

A quick word about the inn’s restaurant: it’s not the usual heavy, overpriced, salty old-person fare you get at most inns. They do tend to push early dinners (and the Snooty Fox shuts down around 9 pm), but the idea is that you eat well, eat early, and go to bed. The food, though, is fantastic — well-executed modern dishes with portions that will leave you satisfied, but not stuffed.

Of course, it’s not cheap; but you get what you pay for. (Or in our case, what my parents paid for. Thanks Mom and Dad!) While some (ahem, Ben) may ask why you’d want to pay a bunch of money to go somewhere and do nothing, my attitude was a little more OMG I GET TO SIT AROUND AND DO NOTHING. No computer, no cooking, no dishes, no cleaning, no having to even boil your own water for tea — yeah, I’d pay for that.

Best Books About Hiking New England

When unable to actually hike, either due to injury or inclement weather, I comfort myself by reading about hiking. Some of my recent favorites have also helped prepare me for future hikes by increasing my knowledge of local trails or potential hazards. What follows are some of my favorite books about hiking New England.

Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range
by Nicholas Howe
A fascinating history of some of the worst accidents in the Whites, and some of the most interesting characters. Meet Dr. Ball, who survived three days on Washington, in a blizzard, with only an umbrella for shelter. And Jessie Whitehead, a pioneering female climber, who fell 800 feet down Huntington Ravine — and lived. Sadly, you’ll also meet quite a few less lucky people. But anyone who has hiked 4,000-footers using Goretex boots, gaitors, tech-wick shirts, fleece, zip-off pants, and CamelBaks will wonder how Victorians did it in bowler hats and corsets.

Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure
by Patricia Ellis Herr
A quick, thought-provoking read from a Somerville grad-student-turned-homeschooling-mom who bags all 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers with her five-year-old daughter. Along the way, they encounter amazing views, sudden hailstorms, and not a few people who think the trail is no place for a girl. The book is both an entertaining hiking travelogue and a meditation on what it means to raise daughters in this post-feminist, but not post-asshole, age.

A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
I suppose this is actually about the whole Appalachian Trail, not just New England — and Bryson and his hilarious sidekick spend quite a bit of time toiling away in Georgia before realizing they’ll never actually thru-hike the AT. (They eventually start day-hiking different bits.) But it’s every bit as delightful as you’ve heard it is and well-worth a read (or a re-read).

The AMC’s White Mountain Guide
by Steven D. Smith and Mike Dickerman
Yes, sometimes I while away the winter hours by just reading the trail descriptions, peering at the map, and planning for spring. You could do worse!

Among the Clouds: Work, Wit & Wild Weather at the Mount Washington Observatory
by Eric Pinder
An account of living in the world’s worst weather (Mt. Washington’s Observatory recorded the strongest gust of wind anywhere on the Earth’s surface: 231 mph in 1934). Every New Englander loves to complain about the weather, but that would really give us something to bitch about.