There’s a certain kind of magic that takes place in a cocktail bar, when complex ingredients meet fancy tools in the skilled hands of a mixologist. Perched at the bar, you might watch in awe as the maestra mixes and shakes, stirring and blending with exotic instruments, plucking organic items from jars and carefully adding droplets of some unknown liquid into a gleaming chrome shaker. With a flourish, she might pour this concoction into a delicate glass and garnish with a fresh leaf. With your first sip, you know you’ve chosen correctly. The cocktail seems to be greater than the sum of its parts, and you may leave wondering how on Earth anyone learns to create such a masterpiece seemingly from thin air. No, you say to yourself, I could never make such a thing at home. While mixologists at bars have access to dozens of ingredients and a lot of expensive, specialty spirits, they all had to start from somewhere — and the same techniques they use at the bar can be replicated (with practice) at home. While you may not have the myriad tools, extensive experience or professional equipment at home, you can still make a good portion of the cocktails you’d find in a bar from the comfort of your pajamas. It’s not as expensive or as complex as you’d think. So where should you begin?
Tools of the Trade
First thing’s first: You need the right tools. While there are dozens of pricey, specialized gadgets out there, you really only need four basic tools to make most cocktails.
1. Bar spoon. A long spoon stretching 12” or more. This is for precision mixing and stirring. You can use a regular spoon if needed, but most bar spoons have knurled edges or twists that make it easier to stir.
2. Cocktail shaker. You need this if you want to make even the most basic cocktails. This simple set of mixing cups is the crucible in which your concoctions are forged. Many cocktail shakers have a lid that strains (called a Julep strainer) but there’s also a Boston shaker, which is just two cups that come together. Either will do.
3. Double jigger. This little doohickey is a double-sided measuring cup, making it easy for you to pour out your spirits. They typically are one ounce or two ounces, but sometimes you’ll find .75 ounce and 1.5 ounce varieties.
4. Hawthorne strainer. A palm-sized circular device with a metal coil on one side. You’ll use this to cover your shaker when pouring your cocktail into a glass. The coils and slots will strain out everything but the liquid.
A speed pourer (the metal spouts you sometimes see on olive oil bottles — this works for liquor too and will help with precise pouring into your jigger); a funnel, a muddler for bruising and crushing fruit or leaves in your shaker; a juicer or press for fresh-squeezing juice; and cocktail picks to spear garnishes and finish your cocktails with a flourish.
You’ll also find absinthe spoons, cocktail smokers, brass ice-presses, vermouth misters and elaborate pressurized foamers. Most of them (with the exception of an absinthe spoon) are “form over function” and are best suited for craft cocktail bars where flair and showmanship are integral parts of the experience.
About glassware: Don’t overthink it. Yes, there are dozens of styles of glasses, all suited for different drinks and purported to enhance the flavors of whatever spirit that’s inside. All-purpose cocktail glasses like the short, stout, wide rocks glasses will do for most drinks. You can upgrade to fancier styles later, but I wouldn’t recommend spending top-dollar or falling for the fallacy that you need a specialized glass for each type of cocktail.
All About That Base
The next step in building a home bar is understanding base spirits. Base spirit is the liquid foundation upon which the drink is built — the predominant booze for any given cocktail. For example, the base spirit of a margarita is tequila. Old Fashioned? The base spirit is whiskey. Gin and tonic? I’ll let you figure that one out.
I would recommend finding good quality, inexpensive spirits to mix. You don’t want high-quality stuff to toss in with mixers. Brands I like for mixing whiskey are Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill and Old Forester. Bulleit is overrated and has a checkered past of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, so don’t buy it. Other favorite bases are Monopolowa potato vodka, Javelina blanco tequila, Bluecoat dry gin and Plantation spiced rums (there’s a whole line, all great).
Next come the other ingredients: bitters, cocktail garnishes and mixers. Many cocktail recipes call for adjuncts to add flavor, substance and texture to spirits.
Bitters. It’s a misnomer cocktail bitters are actually bitter. Some may be, but for the most part these cocktail additives are simply neutral spirits infused with herbs, spices, barks or extracts. Think of them like the condiments for your cocktails. The most common bitters are Angostura and orange, although there are hundreds of varieties. I have over twenty bottles of bitters in my bar, my three favorites being eucalyptus, habanero and molasses.
Garnish. For the final flourish, you’ll want garnish. Cocktail olives are the classic garnish for Martini, but the sky’s the limit: You can use dried fruit like oranges and lemon, fresh fruit, maraschino cherries, leafy greens, chocolate and even edible bites of food to accompany the cocktail.
Mixers. For “long” drinks, you’ll need mixers — nonalcoholic beverages to blend with your spirits and bitters. The most common are ginger beer, tonic water, club soda seltzer or soda. There are tons of brands out there, but I like San Pellegrino’s oakwood tonic and Fever Tree’s line of mixers. They have a bunch: ginger beer, lime & yuzu, pink grapefruit and lemon tonic, to name a few. Lemon juice is also critical.
Tonics + Syrups. One of the most important liquids in a home bar is simple syrup — just sugar water, really, but crucial in so many drinks. There’s a lot of flavored variants here, and D.C.’s own Pratt Standard makes a lot of great syrups and tonics, which are just sugar syrup mixed with other ingredients (usually fruit extract or spices).
Since D.C.’s alcohol consumption per capita is second only to New Hampshire, it stands to reason there’s a lot of places to buy your booze. While nothing beats the big box stores like Total Wine for selection and prices, I like to shop local. Odds are local proprietors are far more acquainted with their products and can get their hands on some rare stuff. Here’s a few of my go-to places.
Costco. Like Trader Joe’s, Costco is famous for their in-house brands. The Kirkland Signature imprints are fantastic. Their spiced rum is a staple in my bar and their single malt Scotches are no joke either. Seriously, for high quality house brands, look no further than Costco. The D.C. Costco sells liquor, whereas the Virginia ones do not. Various locations around the D.C. area.
Irving Wines and Spirits. A Mount Pleasant institution, Irving Wines and Spirits is where I get most of my booze. They have a fantastic selection of aperitifs, spirits, vermouths, sake, amari and liqueurs, not to mention a comprehensive supply of all the major spirit labels. Well worth a visit, this compact store punches well above its weight and you’ll find some unique items here. 3100 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; irvingwineandspirits.com // @irvingwinedc
Odd Provisions. Odd Provisions is fun. It’s a neighborhood market in Columbia Heights offering fancy foods, a neat supply of cocktail fixings and a solid selection of wine. They’ve got great cheese, too. 3301 11th St. NW, DC; oddprovisions.com // @oddprovisions
Trader Joe’s. While we all know the Trader Joe’s house wines are pretty decent for the price, did you know the Virginia Trader Joe’s carries a whole range of house brand sherry, Madeira and vermouths? All of them are spectacular for the price. If you want to fool around with using fortified wines in cocktails, this is the place to dabble. Due to liquor laws, the D.C. locations are unable to sell the fortified wines. Various locations around the D.C. area.
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