Basic Bar Essentials
By Alex Mountjoy
Here’s the perfect arsenal of tools, liquors, juices, and mixers for a truly inspired cocktail lounge.
Once you start collecting cocktail recipes, you’ll find yourself with a shopping list a mile long. Are all these rare, handcrafted spirits and obscure liqueurs really necessary? Is it worth investing $60 on a drink I may not like?
It’s fun to try everything, but in the end, from the spectrum of spirits and mixers there are only a relative handful that I find myself using over and over. If I were stranded on a desert island, these are the ingredients and mixing tools I’d choose.
What You Need on Your Bar Cart
Straight-sided 4oz graduated measuring cup and measuring spoons
If you make a great drink once, you’ll want to be able to make it again. The ability to measure accurately is crucial to reproducibility. Measure, and write it down.
Notebook or PDA database
For some reason, most published recipes are imperfect as written. We can blame the publishers. (Did nobody try this drink?) Or blame the uncertainty principle. Also, a lot of published recipes are simply too small.
You need to test and adjust. For every new drink you make, you’ll want to balance the ingredients until they seem right to you. You’ll need a place to keep notes, so that at cocktail hour you can pick up where you left off, building on previous work, just like a real scientist.
Don’t leave a sinking ship without one. Come to think of it, don’t leave without ice either.
Lemon zester (for lemon or lime twists)
The last star in a five-star cocktail is earned by the garnish. Not necessary if you’re drinking alone, but absolutely essential if you’re entertaining.
Fresh lime and lemon juice are crucial cocktail ingredients. The most kingly liqueur in the world cannot compete with the liveliness of fresh-squeezed lime juice.
Grater (for ginger)
We rescued a lemon zester from our sinking ship, but we might just swim back for the grater, if only to release the fragrant content of the ginger root, which will be second only to lime and lemon in making your protracted island stay survivable.
Most Important Ingredients
Buy a 1.75-liter jug of a quality version of each of the following and you’ll be set.
Vodka: I use Stolichnaya for its superb quality and value. A key ingredient in many classic cocktails, including the gimlet, Cosmopolitan, and Lemon Drop.
Gin: Good gin is a fragrant pleasure, and it’s the core of classics such as the Negroni and the martini. These two drinks alone are reason to keep a jug on hand. I use Bombay Sapphire for martinis and Tanqueray for everything else.
Bourbon: For the simple reason that you can’t make an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan without it. Jim Beam Black Label is an excellent choice here.
Tequila: Buy 100% blue agave only. The best value here is Sauza Hornitos. For sublime margaritas, of course.
Whiskey, scotch, or rye: Rye is essential to the classic Sazerac, scotch to the Hole-in-One, whiskey to the Jameson Cocktail. They all have distinct flavors, but to a certain extent they are interchangeable. If you can’t stock them all, just grab a jug of one and you’ll be fine.
Rum: Mount Gay is the tastiest choice, whether the recipe calls for light, golden, or dark.
This is the category that can really bury you financially, as every cocktail recipe you come across seems to call for a new one. Having bought most of them, I find that the one I couldn’t live without is Cointreau, the French orange liqueur that’s indispensable to the Cosmopolitan, the Lemon Drop, the margarita, and many others.
Cointreau: There are many liqueurs to spend money on, but this one is essential.
Campari: This Italian classic is irreplaceable in the Negroni, and its bitter, not-too-sweet nature makes it a rewarding ingredient to experiment with.
Fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices: These 2 you’ll use all the time, whereas all other juices you’ll use infrequently at best. In practice, you can stretch the meaning of “fresh squeezed.” Store your juice in a 10oz tonic water bottle in the fridge and it’ll be fine for at least a week.
Simple syrup: Alcohol is made palatable by sugar. You need sugar if you’re going to make cocktails, and unless you want to spend a lot of time dissolving it in juice each time, you need to make simple syrup.
This recipe has the advantage of yielding a volume equivalent to that of granulated sugar. For any recipe that calls for sugar you can substitute the equivalent volume of this syrup:
1½ cups water
Bring to a boil. Simmer covered 10 min. Makes 2c.
Fresh sour mix: Easy to make and very useful. Over ice, any liquor plus sour mix plus a maraschino cherry becomes a [fill in the blank] Sour. Fresh sour mix is far superior to pre-made. Just mix equal parts lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, and water.
Martini olives and maraschino cherries: Keep them in your fridge.
Old Fashioned bitters Fee Brothers or the widely available Angostura.
Orange bitters: Hard to find but essential. Our source is Fee Brothers, from Rochester, N.Y. Chances are you won’t find any in a store near you, so call them.
Peychaud’s bitters: An essential ingredient of the Sazerac cocktail.
Ginger root: Freshly grated ginger adds spice to any concoction. It’s crucial in the Spice Island, and in variations on many classic drinks. Extracting the full power of the ginger essence can be a challenge. The trick: simmer briefly in simple syrup, blend, and press into a strainer to filter out the fibers.
Rose’s Lime: This pre-sweetened, everlasting juice product actually has a place in great drinks such as the gimlet and the Candied Apple Martini because of its distinctive flavor. Good recipes call for fresh lime juice as well, to add brightness.
Grenadine: The value of this red syrup is mostly in its color. It is useful in summertime on-the-rocks drinks and keeps forever in the fridge.
What You Need in Your Head
25, 34, 59 Memorize that sequence of numbers. Don’t go overboard without it. These numbers are the ounce equivalents of the standard metric units for bottling alcohol: 750ml, 1l, and 1.75l. Knowing the conversion is helpful when calculating per-ounce costs for spirits or buying for a party.
1Tbsp = 3tsp = ½oz When a recipe calls for 1½ teaspoons, it’s really just saying ¼ ounce.
50ml = 1.7oz Useful on a flight when you’re trying to keep track of how much you’re drinking in real-world units. One of those little airline bottles of spirits, it turns out, is not so much by our standards.
The sweetness of fresh-squeezed juices varies. With lemons it varies a lot. To repeat that perfect Lemon Drop you’ll want to taste-test the drink before serving. You may need more or less simple syrup depending on the variety of your lemons (Meyers are sweeter), the source, and season.
The yield is small on standard cocktail recipes. Pick up any cocktail book and mix up a recipe and more often than not you’ll find your glass half empty. For whatever reason, the yield on most printed recipes is less than what we’re used to when we go out for drinks. Be prepared to multiply everything by 1½ or 2.
R&D your drinks before you serve. This is what Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are for. Every cocktail recipe, no matter the source, needs to be tested before it’s served. Adjust levels of liquor, sugar, and mixers to your taste — and write it down.
Liquors are interchangeable. Many classic drinks have versions that are made with alternative liquors. Although there’s usually one version that is best, substituting rum or whiskey for vodka can get you out of a bind at times and you may find yourself with a variation that has its merits.
Garnish elevates all cocktails. When drinking alone, you can skip the garnish. Otherwise, an excellent drink is always improved if you include the lemon twist or the fresh-grated nutmeg. Garnishes add flavor as well as improve looks. Be creative.
Use the right glass. A good, thin-walled martini glass extracts less heat from the cocktail, and feels more elegant in the hand. Plus the long stem keeps hot fingers from warming up the drink. With 60% of the heat capacity of regular glass, crystal is the best choice of all.
An “old-fashioned” glass is the other essential item of glassware, suitable for all on-the-rocks drinks. The heavier this one is, the better it feels. A big, glass bottom and a wide mouth are nice attributes.
Beware glasses that are too capacious. They make even big drinks seem small. You want your cocktail to always fill the glass to the brim.
Note: Don’t forget to R&D!
Hole-in-One (serve in martini glass)
¾oz dry vermouth
2tsp simple syrup
½oz lemon juice
Dash orange bitters
Negroni (serve in martini glass)
1oz sweet vermouth
Dash orange bitters
Lemon Campari Cocktail (serve in martini glass)
1oz simple syrup
1oz lemon juice
Orange Bitters Martini (serve in martini glass)
1½tsp dry vermouth
Dash orange bitters
Garnish with a slice of orange.
Caribbean Sour (serve in old-fashioned glass)
1oz lemon juice
1Tbsp simple syrup
dash orange bitters
Garnish with a cherry and a slice of orange.
Spice Island (serve in martini glass)
1oz ginger simple syrup
Dash orange bitters
Sugar-frost the rim by wetting with ginger pulp and rolling in sugar.
About the Author:
Alex Mountjoy traces his drinking habit to the gift in all innocence of a cocktail book from his mother-in-law, “for the beautiful pictures.”