Plenty of people have written about the home bar staples, which typically include whiskey (sometimes rye and maybe scotch), gin, vodka (although a cocktail enthusiast may find relatively few recipes that need it), rum, and tequila. Add to that some essential mixers like sweet and dry vermouth (no one mentions that they go bad as fast as they do), Angostura bitters, and Cointreau (it seems to be in more than half the cocktails I like to make). A good article from the San Francisco Chronicle a couple years ago recommended some brands and did the math: it’s about $250 for a good starter home bar, one that includes brandy and $16 worth of bar tools. I agree with the writer: skip vodka and splurge on a good gin.
But the problem that every home bartender runs into is illustrated perfectly by this basic Mai Tai recipe, from that same SF Chronicle article:
1 1/2 ounces 10 Cane rum
1/2 ounce Wray & Nephew overproof rum
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
3/4 ounce orgeat syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 mint sprig, for garnish
Instructions: Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds full of ice and add all of the ingredients. Shake over ice and strain into a crushed ice-filled old-fashioned glass. Add the garnish.
If I followed the Chronicle‘s advice, I bought Barbancourt rum. This recipe calls for two brands of rum and neither is Barbancourt. I could probably use the rum I have in place of 10 Cane (which would set me back about $30 at most stores), but the Wray & Nephew (mercifully only about $22) is an overproof rum, which means it’s really strong: 126 proof (most spirits are 80 proof). Which makes it unlike the rum I have and more likely to be important to the recipe. So do I make the Mai Tai with 2 ounces of the rum I have, or do I go out and buy $50 worth of rum for one drink?
And then there’s the half ounce of Grand Marnier. I have Cointreau in my bar, which is sort of similar. A tiny 375ml bottle will run you around $23. Finally, we have the orgeat syrup, which is an almond and orange flower water concoction. Not as easy to find in the grocery store as Angostura bitters.
So there are two main problems here: first, the issue of brands and substitutions. How important is it to use one brand of spirit over another in a given recipe? Some cocktail recipes will call for, say, an ounce of whiskey and an ounce of rye. If I only have whiskey, am I cheating myself out of an essential flavor? The next issue is that of obscure or unavailable ingredients. Do I spend the money on something like Maraschino liqueur for an Aviation cocktail in the hopes that I’ll make lots of them, enjoy the liqueur straight, and find a few other recipes that call for it?
My solution is just to make the damn drink. I’ll use the stuff I have (one kind of rum, Cointreau instead of Grand Marnier) to see if I like it enough to justify investing in the right ingredients. Can I use orange juice and Amaretto instead of orgeat? And then I’ll look for variations on the recipe to see if others call for different things.
But I run into these problems every time I hear about a new drink. It just takes time–and strategizing–to build a good home bar.
Next in my On Building a Home Liquor Cabinet series: my essential recipes.