A good mechanic needs good tools, a good bartender needs…
A while ago someone asked me to help them build a bar. This is obviously something I’m passionate about and, so, I felt I could really help. He was keen, I was excited.
Both of us were wrong.
There’s a huge difference between stocking a bar and constructing a bar. I’m decent at the former but would be an embarrassment at the latter. Besides, you don’t need some fancy set-up to serve great cocktails, but you do need a good selection of spirits. I told him to call me when he was done.
Stocking a bar for spirit/cocktail lovers is not a generic exercise. In fact, it’s more like home decorating than mixing drinks. You need to know a person’s style—are they into the classical and elegant or do they prefer more modern and brash? Simplicity or complexity, or somewhere in the middle? What spirits do they really like or dislike?
When I get to sit with a top-notch bartender, I tell him/her I like spirit forward cocktails, that aren’t sweet; my favourite spirits are whisky/bourbon, gin and tequila. I want to take advantage of being at a well-stocked bar with a professional barkeep. I want them to use their more obscure liqueurs, simple syrups, bitters and flavourings and make me something that would be a challenge to make at home.
So, in the spirit (pun intended) of relative simplicity and maximum flexibility, let’s stock a bar. Since every house starts with a good foundation, we’re going to build a bar with some solid choices that allow you to grow as your tastes expand. And we’re going to get good value for your money.
London Dry Gin – Beefeater is better than you think and does well in blind tastings.
Whisky – Not many cocktails are made with scotch, but there are some classics. And people like it by itself. Johnny Walker Black is a good choice.
Bourbon – There are almost too many choices—you can go crazy researching bourbons. Makers Mark or Knob Creek are solid.
Rye – Canada makes some outstanding whisky and its better than bourbon in some sweeter cocktails. A Crown Royal whisky won best whisky in the world a few years ago. Also good: Lot 40, Alberta Premium.
Tequila – Like bourbon, there are tons of choices. I like Altos or Espolon.
Rum – Not my favourite spirit unless we’re talking the stuff you drink neat like El Dorado 15 or Ron Zacapa 23. If you buy a solid white rum you don’t need to add dark rum—El Dorado makes a good three year old while rum, but again, tons of choice in this category. Rum is ubiquitous.
Vodka – It pains me to recommend this, since I have none in my bar. I can’t stand the stuff. But like rum, it’s everywhere, so have a bottle on hand. Since vodka is largely a neutral spirit, not a huge difference at various price points.
Brandy – That’s the generic name for what many call Cognac. Cognac is the Champagne of brandy, meaning its from a specific region in France and really damn expensive. Gallo makes a fine brandy that is good and well-priced. No need to go crazy here.
Orange liqueur – Cointreau hands down. It’s in lots of cocktails and better than generic triple sec.
Sweet and dry vermouth – Essentials in many, many cocktails. Buy small bottles and keep them in the fridge—it’s wine based and will go bad quickly if not refrigerated.
Campari – Some love it, some wince at the taste. From simple Campari and soda to one of the all-time classics, the Negroni, to some cool new modern cocktails, it’s a must-have.
Bitters – There has been an explosion of different kinds of bitters in the last decade, so choices are endless. But if you have Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters (try Dillions, a great Canadian distiller), you will be in good shape.
Simple syrup – As the name implies, its easy and you can make it at home. It’s just sugar and water.
With these foundational bottles in your bar, and lemons and limes in the fridge, you are well on your way to being a solid mixologist.
And if you want to construct a bar, call someone else. Trust me.
Randall had the misfortune of being a bartender in the late 1980s, widely considered Hell in the annals of cocktail history—remember the fuzzy navel, the tequila sunrise and various coconut and blue curacao drinks? Resistance might have been futile against the Borg, but there was no way he was giving in, he kept drinking his Manhattans, Rob Roys and Old Fashioneds, despite almost never serving one at the bar.