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 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):
Rye or bourbon $16
Sweet Vermouth $14
Dry Vermouth $14
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.