Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fall Menu Frenzy

The recent dearth of recipes is mostly because I haven't really been experimenting lately.  This summer has been an oppressively hot one, making simple long drinks the go-to choice.  I've also been expanding my beer and wine horizons (including some very fine sangria) but proper cocktails have been limited in number and held to old favorites.  Ah well.

That's probably due to change, though; the end of the summer is in sight, and a new cocktail menu is around the corner at the restaurant.  I'd like to have at least a half-dozen strong submissions this time around, so trial runs are likely to abound for the next month or two.  I'll try to be better about recording them here.

Home Bar Basics

After work last weekend I hopped down to a nearby watering hole for a quick burger and beer.  Mid-meal a couple of ladies planted themselves a short distance down and begged the bartender's opinion on the best way to get started on a simple home bar.  That caught my attention, as did the bartender's answer: start with five or so base spirits (whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, and tequila) and buy gradually more expensive items as they need replacement.  I couldn't help but pipe in at this point, with a strongly worded suggestion that liqueurs, vermouth, and bitters be included too.

The conversation continued after I settled up and left, and it held my interest on the drive home.  It's a damned good question: what do you really need in a home bar?  We all have to start somewhere, and we definitely can't all stock up right away.  Tools are pretty basic, honestly.  You can get by and make most drinks with no more than a couple of items:
  1. a shaker you like (assuming it's the easy-to-find 3-piece "cobbler" style, you can stir and strain using this too)
  2. something to stir with (a bar spoon is the classic tool, but a plastic reusable chopstick works just fine too)
  3. a muddler (wood or metal is best, plastic not so much)
  4. a small knife for garnishes (you probably already have something suitable
  5. a measuring device (something in increments of 1/4 oz or smaller; you could even use a set of measuring spoons, since 1 tablespoon = 1/2 liquid oz)
Really, that's about it.  Obviously you can deck yourself out with Boston shakers, julep strainers, jiggers, pour spouts, and anything else, but the five above are the true minimum for 99% of cocktail recipes.  As you can see, you've probably already got many items that will do simply by having access to a basic kitchen.  To be fair, you'll need something to drink out of too, but glassware is largely up to you.  I'd go with martini glasses for drinks served up, standard water glasses for highballs, and rocks/juice glasses for stuff in between.  You could add champagne flutes too for bubbly stuff, or just all-purpose small wine glasses.  Beyond that it's whatever you like and can afford.

Ingredients are the complicated part, but for a flexible yet basic home bar, there are some ground rules.  Base spirits are the obvious part.  You'll want a selection of at least three, out of the list of available options:
  • Vodka, which I don't regard as all that essential
  • Gin, a key part of so many classic cocktails
  • Tequila, 100% agave or don't bother
  • Rum, aged or not
  • Whiskey, anything from bourbon to rye to scotch
  • Brandy, including varieties such as cognac and pisco
Regarding price point, I'm really not convinced that top-shelf ingredients are essential to crafting excellent cocktails.  Lower-end spirits have their place too, particularly if you're using a mixer; the finest rum available is overkill if you're pouring it over ice with Coke.  That said, try to stay away from the very bottom shelf.  Most of the stuff down there is cheap grain alcohol, diluted with water and flavored with artificial agents; it's poor imitation of the real deal at best.  The top shelf is all well and good, but if you're setting up a basic home bar for the first time, why spend an arm and a leg on ingredients that you haven't even played around with yet?  Aim for the middle; there are very fine deals here.  In generally I usually find that top-shelf spirits cost roughly five times more than their bottom-shelf counterparts (great bourbon costs $50, cheap whiskey costs $10).  Search out the stuff that's half as expensive as the best bottle, but twice as expensive as the cheapest ($20-25 in our example above).  You're bound to find a wide variety to choose from, and you can always upgrade later if you find a spirit you particularly enjoy.

Base spirits alone, though, do not make for anything close to a well-rounded bar.  For every liquor in your cabinet, there's a mandatory bottle of accent.  After all, it's the possibility of endless combination that differentiates cocktails from wine and beer - not that there's anything wrong with those, and in fairness they need fewer tools to enjoy.  But cocktails should be exciting, creative, and spontaneous, and you'll never get that from just pouring whiskey on the rocks.

First of all, there are sweetening agents.  I think you can reasonably get by with two: an orange liqueur, and something else.  The orange liqueur can be either triple sec (drier) or curacao (sweeter).  On balance I prefer triple sec, specifically Cointreau.  This ingredient is central to many popular classics, from the Margarita to the Sidecar and the Cosmopolitan, and it plays very well with a wide range of ingredients.  The other sweetener is your choice, depending on what you like and what's seasonal.  There are plenty of possibilities: Chambord, St. Germain, Beneditctine, maraschino (Luxardo the clear preference), Drambuie, Chartreuse... Marie Brizard and Rothman & Winter both make some very fine lines as well.  Should you find a couple of these that you really like, you could justifiably replace that orange liqueur too, but I'd prefer to supplement rather than replace.  Remember that you can afford to spend a little more on ingredients in this category, because you'll use them in lower quantity than your base spirits.  Try and avoid bottom-shelf liqueurs; they're more artificial, more cloyingly sweet, and much less complex in flavor than the good stuff.  Spring for a couple of decent bottles that will last a while.

Second, vermouth is an absolutely critical accent.  Vermouth makes a Dry Martini or Manhattan what they are, and I wouldn't want to have a bar that couldn't produce them.  Moreover, vermouth can add sweetness, bitterness, and herbal complexity to a drink all at the same time, making it a great ingredient for experimentation.  You're best off having both the dry/white/French and sweet/red/Italian varieties; other "rose" and "blanc" styles also exist, and have some interesting uses, but they're less common in drink recipes.  Plenty of major brands (Noilly Prat and the iconic Martini among my favorites) come in half-bottle sizes, which is usually what I buy.  Being based on wine, vermouth can oxidize, losing its pleasant flavor in the process and replacing it with an acrid twang.  I sincerely believe that there's a special corner of hell reserved for those bartenders who store their vermouth with a speed pourer on the bar rail.  Always, always, keep your vermouth in the fridge. It will last longer and taste far better.  Buying half-bottles ensures that you replace them more frequently, keeping your supply fresh.

Third, there are bitters, an ingredient central to the original definition of the word "cocktail".  These are extremely potent infusions of flavorful herbs and spices, and serve as the spice rack in mixology; a little dash can add a ton of flavor and transform a drink into something else entirely.  There are two major types of bitters: "potable" versions, often from Italy and mostly based on wine (like vermouth), and classical bitters, based on spirits and meant to be used in very small quantities.  Potable bitters, called amaros in Italy, can be used all on their own, and are typified by the well-known Campari.  I highly suggest keeping a bottle around (if not Campari, then its close cousin Aperol, or others such as Averna and Cynar) but wouldn't call them absolutely essential to a basic bar.  Make them one of your first expansions, though.  They are brilliantly flexible and can be used in whatever quantity you want, from small dashes to add a little bite and complexity, all the way up to the spirit in a light highball (Campari & soda, anyone?)  

Classic bitters are an entirely different animal, and are typified by the ubiquitous Angostura.  Used in small dashes, they primarily add depth and spice to cocktails.  They're readily available and almost never have to be replaced, so it just doesn't make sense to omit them from your basic setup.  Angostura and other "aromatic" bitters can be found just about everywhere, and just about any will serve.  If possible, look for a bottle of orange bitters as well.  These are typically lighter and fresher, and have seen a huge resurgence within the last five years; many decent liquor stores will carry them, and dozens of varieties can be found online.  Bitters can transform a drink from okay to outstanding, and since they're used in such small quantity they take a very small part of your total investment.

I won't go beyond mentioning basic elements like fresh juices and syrups; these are a minor part of your investment and should be added as needed for whatever strikes your fancy.  If you're making Sidecars, pick up a couple of lemons; if you're making Mojitos, grab limes and mint and whip up some simple syrup.  Mixers such as tonic, soda, and ginger ale are good to keep around, particularly in the summer when long drinks are the name of the game.  You can produce these yourself, of course; I've detailed my fondness for the soda siphon before, but that may be going too far for a basic home bar.  Oh, and of course there's ice: both an ingredient and a tool, really.  Keep plenty of it around.

So really, that's about it!  Seems like a lot, I realize, but I truly think this is the minimum investment for a toolkit that will let you produce the vast majority of classic cocktails.  Even without branching out, you've got plenty of room for experimentation, substitution, and creativity.  Make a few additions gradually, and you'll have a full semi-professional bar with which to astound your friends and produce some damned fine drinks.