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Apr 29, 2011 04:16 PM

Building the Basic Home Bar

This question gets asked a lot on the spirits forum, so I thought I'd give my two cents. Even though I'm more of a straight spirits drinker than a cocktail maven, I make my share of cocktails, and I especially like a cool cocktail as the mercury starts to rise and the heat sets in. There are lots of lists on-line lists of the basic home bar, and it gets asked a lot here on Chowhound, so I thought I'd take a crack at it. This is intended as the basic spirits and bitters you need to make standard mixed drinks. It's not intended to enable you to make every strange cocktail out there or to provide a selection of premium sipping spirits.

The Basic Bar

Bourbon or Rye (these are pretty much interchangeable in most drinks)
Liqueurs (It's always handy to have one or two of Amaretto, Kahlua, Bailey's, etc.)
Orange Liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointreau, etc.)
Scotch (a standard blended - Famous Grouse or Johnnie Walker - will do for mixed drinks)
Tequila (100% agave)
Vodka (don't spend too much, it's just vodka)
Vermouth (a dry and a sweet...beware, unlike spirits, once opened these will not keep indefinitely)
Angostura Bitters

This allows you to make a wide range of basic drinks: Martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, Margaritas, Old Fashioneds, and such, but if you want to venture into more complicated territory, you'll need...

The Intermediate Bar (include all of the above plus)

Absinthe or Pastis
Bourbon AND Rye
Irish Whiskey
Maraschino Liqueur
Rum (a dark and a light)
Orange Bitters
Peychaud's Bitters

After this it becomes more specific to the type of drinks you prefer. If you love Aviations, you're going to need creme de violette. Depending on what you like, you may need Benedictine, Drambuie or Chartreuse, but I wouldn't spend money on any of these unless they are ingredients in a particular cocktail you want to make. Maraschino Liqueur may be in that category as well, but it appears in enough recipes that I think it's worth having a bottle around. The good thing about these is that a little goes a long way. I have a bottle of Benedictine that's lasted me for years.

A few more basic bar commandments:

1. Use fresh juice whenever possible
2. Never buy simple syrup (it's sugar and water, for God's sake; it takes all of three minutes to make in a microwave)
3. If you want an easy way to experiment, there are lots of great bitters around these days; you can always throw some new fangled pear-artichoke bitters into your Manhattan and see what happens
4. There is no need to spend a lot on cocktail ware: a shaker, a strainer, a measuring cup and a muddler should be all you need
5. Don't wear one of those bartender vests. Just don't.
6. The people who spend a lot of time lecturing you about shaking versus stirring are the same ones who will lecture you about whether or not to put an "e" in the word "whiskey". That being said, the basic rule is shake any drink that includes egg, juice, milk or cream and stir drinks that are only spirits.

Thoughts? Changes? Corrections?

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  1. What kind of interesting things can I do with the Xocolatl Mole bitters I got the other day? (Other than sub it for Angostura).

    I have most basic bar ingredients, but the recipes I have found call for exotic stuff I don't have like smoked demarara. kirschwasser, arrack and the like.

    9 Replies
    1. re: ncyankee101

      I haven't had them, but my tendency would be to throw them into anything with mezcal or tequila, but I would also wonder how they would go with a creamy/chocolaty drink, like say a Brandy Alexander.

      1. re: ncyankee101

        For Bittermen's Xocolatl Mole bitters ideas, I'd start with the Fumidus, which won the 2011 Anvil Bar and Refuge "Bar Regulars Competition":

        by Zachary Pearson

        1 oz Scotch, Compass Box Peat Monster
        1 oz Cynar
        1/2 oz Sweet vermouth, Punt e Mes
        1/2 oz Lemon juice
        2 ds Xocolatl Mole bitters, Bittermens

        Shake, strain, float bitters on top of drink, flame orange peel over top.

        I like these bitters very much. They are potent -- start out with a small amount and go from there.

        This is but one of 14 different cocktails on Kindred Cocktails that use these bitters.

        -- | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

        1. re: EvergreenDan

          Looks interesting but I need to get some Cynar and/or Campari, a lot of recipes I see call for them.

          1. re: EvergreenDan

            ncyankee101 -- if you open to bitter flavors, but new to them, I suggest you try some of the Aperol recipes first. It is an easier stepping stone. The Intro to Aperol is a good place to start. Or jump right in with Campari and Cynar. :)

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            1. re: EvergreenDan

              Aperol isn't available in NC - but I am about to order online from Merwin's and may get some.

              Is jagermeister similar enough to any of the others to be subbed into a recipe?

          2. re: ncyankee101

            Those bitters are one of my most favorite "extras" on the home bar (Bittermens Tiki also rising on my popularity list this summer for jazzing up many (tiki) drinks...) - favorite cocktails with the Mole include:

            1794: equal parts rye (Rittenhouse), sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica), and Campari with 2-4 dashes of the mole bitters - stir and serve as you would a negroni (rocks or straight up) with a lemon twist or flamed orange peel.

            Oaxacan Old-Fashioned: 1/4 to 1/2 oz good mezcal (del Maguey anything - I like La Minero), 2 oz good resposada tequila (El Mayor), and 1/2 oz simple syrup with 2-3 dashes Mole bitters stirred and on the rocks with no garnish (or a very slight sprinkle of smoked sea salt should you have it) - amazing!

            1919 - delicious Manhattan variant I order at Drink in Boston and don't have recipe for ...yet

            1. re: rlh

              rlh - You're just not looking in the right place;)

              by Ben @ Drink

              3/4 oz Rum, Old Monk
              3/4 oz Rye, Rittenhouse 100
              1/2 oz Bénédictine
              1 oz Sweet vermouth, Punt e Mes
              2 ds Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters, Fee Brothers (Or Bittermen's Xocolati Mole Bitters)

              Stir over ice, strain, garnish w/ orange oil. Variation suggestion: substitute one dash Bittermen's Xocolati Mole Bitters.

     | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

              1. re: EvergreenDan

                Thanks! I'd forgotten the Old Monk part especially - and it's critical.

                1. re: EvergreenDan

                  I was told that Old Monk was discontinued last time I chatted about it in the liquor store. I'm not sure whether this was a Massachusetts thing, a US thing, or even just that store. I think you could sub any molasses-heavy rum that is also dry.

            2. I would put brandy ahead of Scotch and definitely would not consider Scotch a basic cocktail necessity. I consider brandy pretty fundamental but Scotch doesn't show up that much. I also wouldn't bother with random liqueurs as a building block unless you know you like that kind of thing. For classic cocktails apricot liqueur comes up a lot more than the amaretto, irish cream, coffee which aren't really used.

              Irish whiskey is another one that I don't think comes up that much even for an intermediate bar, and my personal preference would be to get other things like more rum or amari (Cynar, Aperol, etc) or possibly Pisco first.

              4 Replies
              1. re: nickls

                Good suggestions. As a whiskey drinker, I'm probably biased toward Scotch and tend to use it a lot, but you are probably right that brandy figures into more classic cocktails.

                I feel like an Irish Coffee is such a fundamental and popular drink that you'd want to be able to make it. The random liqueurs were more for the drop in friend. People love white russians and such.

                1. re: nickls

                  I disagree.
                  I'd definitely put Scotch before brandy. True, Brandy might show up in more cocktails, but more people will have a scotch on the rocks than say a sidecar. Scotch drinkers will want Scotch, i've found and there is no close substitute.

                  1. re: TroyTempest

                    It said in the original post that the list was intended as the necessities to make standard mixed drinks, not for sipping spirits. I agree that more people drink Scotch (neat, rocks, or with water) than brandy-based cocktails these days.

                2. 2. It takes 3 minutes to make simple syrup on the stove top. No need to microwave.
                  5. I like vests. : (

                  1. Thanks so much for this post! I'm just starting to feel organized enough to set up a bar and didn't know where to start - other than mojito and margarita ingredients, my summer favorites. It will be nice to have a basic selection so I can move on from there.

                    One question - how nice (expensive) should the spirits be for mixed drinks? Is it worth the extra $ for more expensive spirits, or are the cheaper ones ok? Can you taste the difference? When is it worth it to splurge?

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: SAHCook

                      If you are looking for sipping spirits, then then extra $$$ can be worth it. Sometimes cocktails made with these sipping spirits can seem flat (the booze is too polished and the subtleties that made it beautiful are lost in the mix) and sometimes they can sing in mixed drinks (some of the aged whiskeys in the Handy collection or Zacapa Rum, for example).

                      If you are mixing with it, there is plenty in the $15-25 range that works great (more for some liqueurs though). Some great spirits can be had for even less than that like El Dorado 3 Year Rum ($13), Aalborg Aquavit ($14), Old Overholt Rye ($11) as a few sub-$15 examples.


                      1. re: SAHCook

                        It also depends whether you are space limited or budget limited. For example, I sometimes splurge for a better bottle because it serves double duty for sipping and mixing. Things that I use more of, like bourbon, might merit the shelf space for "special occasion" bottles and "every day" mixing bottles.

                        If you are budget limited, there are lots of economical options that are plenty good enough to sip, although some categories are harder (scotch, tequila) than others (rum, bourbon, rye).

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                        1. re: SAHCook

                          Another point to keep in mind is that liquor is one of the foremost cases where more money does not equal better. Setting the price is more a matter of strategy than the cost of what goes in the bottle--Exhibit A Grey Goose and every other expensive vodka, Exhibit B Plymouth Gin which suddenly decided to change the price from about $17 to $27 per 750ml to "go after the premium market".

                          Liquor prices can also vary a lot from state to state and even store to store for the same bottle.

                          You really have to taste-test bottles yourself to see what you like, but there are a number of widely acknowledged good deals at different price points like Rittenhouse Rye 100, Barbancourt 8 Year Rum, etc. See here for more discussion of bargain bottles:

                          A couple rules of thumb: if there is a huge marketing campaign for the brand, be skeptical. Liqueurs in general tend to be expensive if you want something good (e.g. Cointreau).

                          1. re: nickls

                            Thanks for the info, nickls, yarm and Evergreen Dan! I have very limited space - and with four little kids I tend to store alcohol in the garage when the weather isn't extreme. Except the vodka, which goes in the garage freezer. (It got frosted in because we don't use either very often ... but I have a feeling I could get a better bottle anyway) I'm thinking of converting my computer armoir to a bar so I have a place to keep it all in a secure, more climate-controlled place. But for now ... I do want to start a decent bar. I'll check out that thread to get an idea of decent bottles to start with as I replace the bottles I use now, and probably add as I add drinks. I do like martinis ... and I'd like to get a nice sipping tequilla, too, so that's what I'll look for next.


                        2. Use wood? Sorry couldn't resist, I'll go back to my corner now.