Antique bar cart…check. Silver plated serving tray…check. Eclectic vintage glassware & tools purchased from thrift or consignment…check. Environmentally friendly, low impact paper straws with colorful pineapple design…check.
The second renaissance of the home bar is upon us as the rise of cocktail culture and it’s appeal are undeniably evident again. Let’s face it, making a good drink has always been a cool skill to have; we liken it to what golf is for the business world. You may not particularly enjoy golfing, but it is an established way to network and build a quick rapport with someone. Being able to offer a guest a cocktail is an easy wow when most would be happy with a glass of wine, beer, or cider.
These days, it has never been easier to access information or tutorials on this subject. Gone are the days of dusting off heavy tomes containing 500+ cocktails (95% of which you’ll never make) to find that elusive Tom Collins recipe. Smart phones have changed everything. Within a few seconds, you can be watching a how-to on youtube from your favourite professional bartender…or scrolling through a beautifully curated Instagram feed containing endless visual inspiration with colorful concoctions and gorgeous garnishes.
A problem many face however, when venturing into this world of entertaining at home, is what liquor to start with. What are the bones that will get you up and running? Don’t worry, we’re here to help!
Here is our school of thought when rigging out your home bar:
Collect a few bottles with a targeted approach so that you can mix up a number of recipes depending on your guests tastes. Whip up a house “menu” of sorts that gives an array of choices from spirit forward and boozy, to bright and refreshing.
We’ve put together the tried, tested and true staples that will cover you for a number of celebrated classics, more importantly, on a realistic budget. The following is a $300 kit of absolute workhorses that serve the globe on a nightly basis and have the endorsement of the experts.
Best Home Bar Gin – Beefeater London Dry
Throw any gin recipe at it, we dare you to find one it doesn’t perform well at! It is perfumed beautifully with fruit and spice, but still showcasing the juniper. It still has the sting you want from a London Dry but a herbal bouquet on the palate and finishes with a citrus kick. Tanqueray is nice if you want more of that grapefruit & orange peel, and Bombay is fantastic if you want more black peppercorn & herbs. We like Beefeater because it tempers the two flavour profiles as a nice in-between.
Best Home Bar Rum – Havana Club 3 Year
It’s the ultimate daiquiri or mojito rum, plain and simple. While relatively inexpensive, it is steeped in prestigious Cuban history. Its iconic pale straw hew is a result of resting in ex-bourbon barrels for 3 years. Funky on the nose (we like this with rum), lots of vanilla, spice and dark sugar. It tastes of caramelized pear, honey, slight citrus and mellow oak. When we grab for a rum this time of year, chances are we are whipping up a mojito with mint from the garden, or maybe just a rum and coke for the patio. Havana 3 year has a robust backbone that doesn’t get lost in cocktails and still evokes that sense of the tropics with a toasty molasses character.
Best Home Bar Rye – George Dickel
When picking a house whisky for mixing, you could opt for Bourbon, Canadian, Irish, or American (Scotch is a whole other beast and we will tackle that next). We like this 95% rye entry from Tennessee because it is smooth and spicy all in one. Lots of stone fruit and sweet nutty aromas to go along with charred wood and vanilla. At 5 years of age, it’s still feisty with plenty of white pepper (typical of rye), but then chewy like a bourbon on the palate showing leather and oak.
Tennessee is famous for its charcoal filtering process, and it shows up here with marshmallow notes on the finish which makes this very easy to drink neat despite the higher 45% ABV. This is good for cocktailing though, as it won’t get lost in an Old Fashioned, Sazerac, or Whisky Sour. The peppery quality is really beautiful as a highlight in a Manhattan as well.
Best Home Bar Scotch – McClelland’s Islay Single Malt
Here on the West coast, we love our smoky aromas (no, not that kind). A campfire smouldering on a dewy morning outside our tent, or a piping cup of Lapsang Souchong tea to warm us during the cold months. Put that into a Scotch that costs less than half the price of infamous face melters like Laphroig, or Lagavulin and you have a bottle you can confidently reach for without wincing at your wallet. Scotch is very subjective and people have their tastes they gravitate to by region. Highlands tend to be grassy and floral with candied citrus and spice. Speyside malts reflect sherry character most often with plenty of fig, raisin, and chocolate. Islay is famous for peat smoke on their whiskies; medicinal briny notes that woft our noses with the Scottish sea and earth, then finish with fiery goodness.
We love this as our Scotch offering because it sits alone as maybe the best single malt you will find for its price bracket while still providing the peaty/smoky notes that are becoming more desirable among whisky drinkers. Offer it neat, or in the delicious neo-classic Penicillin cocktail: Scotch, ginger, honey and lemon…if that doesn’t cure you, nothing will.
Essential Home Bar Liqueur – Cointreau
This next category we call “modifiers” as they augment cocktails to provide texture, and secondary, even tertiary flavours. By adding a couple of these to your collection, they diversify your recipe capabilities immensely. Cointreau is our preferred member of the orange liqueur family (Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, etc). It has a cleaner orange oil note to it, and less cloying sweetness than the others. It is an absolute game changer when added to your cabinet as it is essential for a tasty Sidecar, Margarita, or White Lady. If sour is the game, this little number becomes invaluable in balancing an acid against a base spirit.
Essential Home Bar Liqueur – Campari
Italians understand drinking etiquette very well. In North America, we are still sort of figuring it out. Low alcohol “aperitifs” and snacks are consumed to stimulate appetite, setting the stage for dinners with beautiful wines and rustic fare. After dinner, you settle the stomach with “digestifs” loaded with plenty of medicinal herbs to help relax the stomach and let you sleep like a baby. Even just for the Negroni cocktail alone, this is worth stocking. Arguably the most popular cocktail globally for any time of the day, and maybe the easiest recipe ever: one part gin, one part campari, one part sweet vermouth, stirred and strained over ice in a tumbler with a nice slice of orange.
Despite people finding it polarizing with its bittersweet orange & gentian root notes, it harmonizes with pretty much everything when it comes to cocktails, and there is simply no competing substitute for it after all these years.
Essential Home Bar Vermouth – Cinzano Rosso
It is a pre-made cocktail that costs a little over 12$ a bottle. At the heart you have a base wine, fortified with some extra alcohol, and then flavored with bitter herbs, fruits and spices. You can enjoy it on the rocks with a twist of lemon, maybe some soda…or in a myriad of timeless tipples that call for it. It serves as a lengthener in drinks to stretch out the pour and lower the ABV at the same time. We like Cinzano as our one sweet vermouth because it tackles the assignment of taming bitter things very well.
Essential Home Bar Vermouth – Martini & Rossi Dry
Gin Martinis, that is all. Dirty with olives, or crisp with a lemon twist…whatever your fancy, stir one of these and strain delicately to preserve that glassy texture on top. Just remember it is still a wine, keep your vermouth refrigerated to prevent oxidation. Sweet or “rosso” will last a little longer due to the sugar content but no more than 2 weeks after opening. They also have smaller bottles so you cycle through with less wastage.
Essential Home Bar Bitter – Angostura
Bitters are the spice rack of your bar; adding depth and character by bringing out flavours in your other ingredients and binding simultaneously. This aromatic bitter can do no wrong, it is leaned on heavily by bartenders everywhere to add that certain “je ne sais quoi” to a drink that is lacking complexion. Lots of winter spices (clove, cinnamon, allspice) help bring punch to cocktails that are falling flat.
Essential Home Bar Bitter – Peychaud’s
There are an innumerable amount of flavors for bitters these days. However, don’t be fooled, you really only need a couple to execute 99% of the cocktails people actually order. This is one of them: New Orleans in a bottle. A medicinal tonic made by a Creole apothecary from Haiti who settled in NOLA and started mixing his bitters in a more recreational manner with brandy in a toddy style drink. Years later, after the phylloxera plight of the late 19th century all but wiped out France’s wine and brandy production…rye was substituted in a drink that also had absinthe with a dash of sugar and some lemon peel. Enter what many consider the first great American cocktail – the Sazerac. The cherry, anise and cinnamon in this bitter make it quintessential to this category.
Palate and preferences differ from person to person, but as bartenders who live and die by the classics, these are the choices that will perform time and time again. BC has a great selection of craft spirits available with flavors all over the spectrum, so if you wish to upgrade to local offerings, that’s always an option as well. A caveat though, just because they are in the same spirit category, does not mean they will act the same in cocktails.
We’ve alluded to a few earlier, but here are some cocktails you can mix up with these bottles as your foundation:
- Old Fashioned
- Whisky Sour
- Gin Martini
- Tom Collins
- White Lady
- Rob Roy
We will finish strong with a modern classic that puts a few of these bottles together for a great summertime refresher that is clean and elegant while still communicating the potency of the spirits behind it. Think of a Cosmo without the candy sweet characteristics if you will. When executed properly, it tastes of fresh squeezed grapefruits with a slight bitter finish.
Cheers, and happy mixing!
1 ½ oz London Dry Gin
3/4oz Lemon juice
Combine all in a shaker with ice and shake until chilled, strain into a fancy coupe and garnish with a lemon twist.