Stocking Your Bar

Casa de Bourbons (already out of date). Note the Mad Men index cards stuck to the back wall.

I’m often asked (well ok, it’s happened once, but starting the post like this makes me sound authoritative…) how a budding dipsologist should set about stocking his or her own home bar.

In truth, there is no simple, all-encompassing answer to this question as it all depends on your personal tastes, style and circumstances.

In attempting to answer the question, I am going to address two broad categories:

  • The Specialist
  • The Generalist

The Specialist is someone with a passion for one drink.  They love this drink, they order it all the time, and can rank every bar within a fifty mile radius based solely on how they prepare this drink.  The Specialist is keen to perfect this drink for themselves and then branch out to explore common, less common and then bespoke varieties of this drink.

The Generalist is a bon viveur, an experimenter and a fantastic host (or aspires to be).  They want to be able to make whatever their guests desire, do it competently and maybe recommend a related alternative drink for when that first glass is empty.  They want to be able to call on surface level knowledge of a large number of drinks, and have the wherewithal to make them all.

Despite their differences, the starting point is always the same:

Pick a drink.  Any drink.  Preferably your favourite, or at least one you’d like to get to know.  Then look it up and see what goes in it.  Take this list of ingredients to your nearest boozemonger and buy the best version of each ingredient that you can afford.  I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of not skimping on ingredients and even if you’re a Generalist, you should have one go-to signature drink that you make perfectly.

Where you go from here is really rather up to you.

A specialist’s selection of vermouth?
Photo courtesy of rockdoggydog, some rights reserved.

The Specialist

I was once a specialist, and in many ways I still am.  My first dipsological adventure was based upon the Manhattan, and this blog still has a primary focus on drinks based around whiskey and sweet vermouth.  I tried different recipes and different styles using the same bottle of bourbon and Martini Rosso, and then one day I stumped up for a new ingredient.  This is how the Specialist begins.

My first non-standard Manhattan ingredient was Maraschino.  I’d read the recipe for a Red Hook somewhere, and decided to inflict it on my guests one New Year’s Eve.  After that I compiled a great long list of Manhattan variants from Affinity to Van Brunt and ranked the ingredients in order of which appeared in the most drinks.  This list is still the basis for the #midweekmanhattan feature and I’m always on the look out for other additions.

The rules for the Specialist:

  1. Pick your drink and buy the key ingredients.
  2. Branch out.  Try it with a different base spirit, a different mixer, different bitters.
  3. Change the fruit juice, the garnish, and/or the quantities of each.
  4. Read up on popular, obscure and unusual variants.
  5. Engage your brain, speak to bartenders and ask around.
  6. Always stay on the look out for a new bottle that might provide just the kick you are looking for.
Eventually you’ll get so far into this that when someone turns up at your door and asks for a Manhattan, you’ll tell them that you can make them a Sweet Rye Martini, and ask if they want Abbotts or Bokers in that.

The Generalist

Before I was a Specialist I was a Generalist.  I had a fifties themed birthday party and set about it by stocking up for every drink mentioned in the first couple of series of Mad Men.  I felt I needed to be prepared for the Gimlets, the Collinses, the Old Fashioned and the Brandy Alexander (nb no one really needs to be prepared for the Brandy Alexander).  I broke my own first rule and skimped a little on the ingredients.  I figured it didn’t matter too much as I was going to be sticking reproduction 1950s labels on the bottles anyway, but it kinda did, not least because I felt a little ashamed trying to make a Vesper with Asda SmartPrice vermouth.

The best way to kick start the habit of the Generalist is to plan for a party, ideally around a loose theme (1920s, 1950s, 1980s all provide good cocktail options) or just in line with what you know your pals will drink.  Come up with a menu that fits.  Then, as with the Specialist, expand.

The Generalist will:

  1. Pick a dozen or so drinks that will appeal to a broad audience (see The 12 Basic Drinks at Home Bar Basics or the Twenty Five Most Influential Cocktails).
  2. Rank the ingredients in order of occurrence, and by the most versatile (or most frequently used).
  3. Buy these ingredients (gradually and as your budget allows).
  4. Remember (easier said than done) which drinks were successful (and any requested that you couldn’t provide).
  5. Set yourself a buying plan (i.e. one bottle a month) and keep buying in order of versatility.
  6. Keep versaility as your watch word and keep thinking about what can serve as a replacement, or do the job of two ingredients.
  7. Keep a healthy supply of bitters, mixers and garnishes.

Of course the reality is that we all want to be a little bit of both and I picture the two categories as extremes on a spectrum.  Ultimately wouldn’t it be great to come full circle and be a General Specialist who has a house full of every conceivable ingredient and a brain full of every conceivable idea?  Well yes, but then you’d never get any work done.

Cocktailising

A few steps nearer on the road to General Specialist is the role of Cocktailiser.  Actually it’s quite a long way from General Specialist.  The Cocktailiser is the (pompous/pretentious/snobbish) gent who turns his nose up at a pint of IPA or a rum and coke and expects every bar to be able to provide a top notch Old Fashioned.  Unfortunately this just isn’t going to happen, so the Cocktailiser provides for himself.

Key to the Cocktailiser philosophy is that at its heart every classic cocktail is just a bittered sling (spirit, sugar, water bitters).  Knowing that even the worst bar should be able to provide the first three, the Cocktailiser is always equipped with the fourth.

I’ve spoken before of the Bitter Truth Travel Bitters set, and this really is the essential weapon in the armoury of the Cocktailiser.  With this selection in hand, a straight whiskey becomes a tolerable Old Fashioned, a scotch and Drambuie a Rusty Nail, and a vodka and cranberry juice a passable (just) Cosmopolitan.

Of course in this age of travel paranoia the Travel Bitters set isn’t a companion you would like to explain to security at Heathrow, but if you want to be the suave gent sipping an Old Fashioned on the dancefloor at Skanky McSkankerson’s Niteclub next weekend, it might just be the way to go.

Not that I could possibly endorse it of course…

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