The other day, I was talking to a friend and she was remarking that she would like to start building up her home bar and make cocktails, but didn’t really know where to start.
As an cocktail “enthusiast”, I was happy to help and then thought that there could be others out there in the same boat – and what a tragedy it would be for people not to be making good cocktails when all it takes is a few simple steps.
1. Buy good ingredients.
Like good cooking, what you use matters. A lot. Don’t by generic “VODKA” – I mean, you don’t have to break the bank go all Grey Goose (unless you want to), but go for something decent. The Costco Kirkland brands are pretty darn good as are many of the liquors you can get at Trader Joe’s. If you live in a state where you’re at the mercy of State Stores, I'm sorry. Do your best.
This rule applies to not only your liquor, but to your mixers. Don’t by “sweet-n-sour” mix – or any mix, for that matter. They’re usually made with a bunch of corn syrup and preservatives and they taste like crap. If you can get them, buy actual lemons and limes and juice them. Trust me, it matters.
2. Get a good recipe book and keep one of your own.
A lot of people never get beyond the screwdriver, gin-n-tonic, rum-n-coke habit because they’re unaware of how many good cocktails out there (or they’re perpetually 22). I’ve found this book to be fairly comprehensive and a great starting point with some very good recipes.
Also, Wikipedia has a good section on classic cocktail recipes. When I come across one I like or want to try online or in a magazine, I clip it out and put it in a scrapbook.
Okay okay… enough with the prep, let’s get to the drinking.
3. The Starting Five
A walk down the aisle of a good-sized liquor store can be pretty confusing, so let’s pare down what are going to be the base alcohols for your cocktails. And don’t be all – oh, I don’t like gin. Because even if you don’t, your guests might.
Vodka – There are a ton of flavored vodkas out there, I don’t usually get them because they’re not very versatile. But on its own, the Big V can go just about anywhere cocktail-wise.
Rum – There are different kinds of rums – white, dark, etc). I’d start with white in my liquor cabinet – again, it’s the most versatile. Add others later over time.
Gin – Some folks are put off by gin – I don’t get it at all, but I’ve heard it enough to believe it. I chose to highlight Bombay Sapphire, which I think is an excellent (but not overpowering) gin. If you like (or get into) gin, try Hendrick’s or Blue Coat.
Tequila – Some folks are put off by tequila – which I totally get. I think everyone’s had that “bad tequila experience”. Well, shake it off and rub some dirt on it. Tequila is a wonderful base for a lot of great cocktails. Only buy tequila that is labeled 100% agave. Buy reposado or anejo for your cocktails.
Whiskey – What’s there to say? It’s the classic “brown” liquor and deserves more than a splash of cola or 7-Up.
4. Things to mix in
This is a pretty easy section. To be ready to make a LOT of different cocktails, it’s amazing how few extra ingredients you need to get started.
Vermouth (both sweet and dry)
Lemon, lime, and orange juices
Cointreau (or some other orange-based liqueur)
Bitters (I suggest “regular” and orange-bitters)
And, of course, olives if you’re making a classic martini
Naturally, you don’t go out and get all this stuff at once, but maybe add a new component every week or two – usually with a specific new recipe in mind. The great thing about booze is that it doesn’t go bad sitting on your shelf and so in six months you can have a pretty impressive cabinet going.
*don’t buy it. Boil a cup of water and a cup of sugar together. Let it cool. Put it in a jar and put it in the refrigerator. It’ll last for weeks.