On Building a Home Liquor Cabinet: Substitutions and Missing Ingredients

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.

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7 Responses to On Building a Home Liquor Cabinet: Substitutions and Missing Ingredients

  1. Brian says:

    Mai Tais are unusually tricky – the combo of rums really makes a huge difference in the drink. I wouldn’t use two clear rums no matter what (even if it is Wray & Nephew OP which has a fruity flavor once you get past the jet fuel component 😉 Mai Tais made only with “white” (I don’t consider the W&N ‘light’) rums tend towards bright and fruity which overemphasizes the orange & almond flavors. And no you really can’t (unfortunately) reasonably substitute OJ & Amaretto. (btw, I prefer regular DeKuyper Triple Sec to GM or Cointreau for some reason.)

    I would strongly recommend spending the money for Appleton 12 combined with Clement VSOP (1oz of each):

    http://rumdood.com/2009/01/26/a-month-of-mai-tais/

    It really makes a big difference.

    Finally, get your Orgeat from Trader Tiki!

    http://www.tradertiki.com/

    As for Maraschino – there is no substitute (again, I’ve tried lots of options), but there are more drinks you can make with it besides the Aviation. Definitely need to try the Last Word; 3/4oz each of lime, Maraschino, gin (anything reasonably dry) and (regular) Chartreuse (yeah, another big ticket item.) Shake, strain & serve with a good quality cherry in a cocktail glass.

  2. Thanks for all the ideas, Brian, and that Mai Tai recipe looks great. I finally got to make Aviations with creme de violette (many say it isn’t an essential ingredient) over the weekend, and found them much, much better. Somehow, the violette balances the Maraschino just right.

  3. Brian says:

    what Creme de Violette are you using? for me it seems very specific on the brand of Creme de Violette, as some of the newer more available ones are too medicinal for my taste.

  4. I use Rothman & Winter, which is the only one I’ve seen in NYC stores — unless you count Creme Yvette, which is something a little different (and more expensive). I like the Rothman & Winter stuff.

    My Aviation problem has always been that I don’t like how Maraschino liqueur overpowers everything around it. I’ve had to reduce it in every recipe. I’ve even resorted to merely rinsing glasses with it in some cocktails, instead of using the full half-ounce or so called for. However, with creme de violette added to an Aviation, a third-ounce of Maraschino is just about right.

  5. Brian says:

    What kind of Maraschino are you using? I assume Luxardo but you could be using Maraska or Stock. I like Maraska quite a bit (and it predates Luxardo – Maraska is sweeter and ‘lighter’ than Luxardo, doesn’t have the earthiness to it) but I have heard Stock is pretty awful (though I have never tried it myself.)

    My issue with R&W Creme de Violette is that it has a sharp medicinal quality to it, which is why I usually don’t use it. I think my bottle was from one of the first batches that came out a few years ago though and think newer batches are mellower. There are some very hard to get CdVs from Japan that are *awesome* – a few bars around Seattle have them 🙂

    It’s really important to make sure your Aviation has enough lemon juice in it to balance out the Maraschino. And most good recipes I’ve seen just use a barspoon of Maraschino.

    CdV should definitely not be confused with Creme Yvette or Parfait Amour.

    this is all stuff I’ve learned over the past few years. 😉

    do you know about BarSmarts Wired? You might be interested:

    http://www.barsmarts.com/about/index.php

  6. I do use Luxardo, and you’re definitely right about the lemon juice.

    Thanks for the tip about BarSmarts — I’m looking into that now. For everyone else out there, BarSmarts is an invite-only bartender education course, and BarSmarts Wired is their online version, which anyone can do. It’s $65, and it includes bar tools. You get 45 days to complete the work, which includes virtual cocktail making tests.

  7. Brian says:

    BarSmarts Wired is:
    a) fun
    b) the tools are nifty (I still prefer the shaker/glass combo they sent me to any other I’ve ever owned/used.)
    c) really, really interesting. 🙂

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