Upping the Ante: Graduating From Starter Bar to Higher End
Ok, so you’ve set up your basic home bar. You now have a bar or table or nook in your home that you’ve stocked with the booze basics. You have a nice collection of liquors, a couple pieces of nice barware, glasses, an ice bucket, shaker, tools, cutting board, and more. You’re a master of the martini, manhattan and gimlet. If need be, you can pick a dozen or so of our recipes and with maybe a quick drive to the liquor store, you can make them. Still…there’s an empty feeling in your liver. You lay awake at night thinking if only…. If only I had a few more bottles; if only I didn’t have to run up to the kitchen every time I needed ice; if only I could “up the ante” on my home saloon…. Well, let’s do it.
Do you think about cocktails, entertaining, and barware a lot? Would you rather go out to a nice pub, lounge or bar more than you’d like to go out to a restaurant? When you go to restaurants, do you find yourself gravitating toward the bar side, often taking dinner while sitting on a bar stool rather than a chair? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then it very well may be time to consider expanding your home bar at home.
I’m a bar hound. I love nothing more than reading a good mystery while sitting at a hardwood bar nursing a Guinness with a Jameson back. I figured out not too long ago that while you couldn’t recreate the ambiance found in a favorite restaurant, you could recreate the vibe found in a cozy bar. Bars are special places, and the good ones, at least the ones I like to have a drink or two at, have a dark, relaxed, old-school charm that one can come close to at home with a designated, devoted space that you can decorate, fix up and retire to specifically when you want to unwind, have a few friends over, and enjoy a drink.
So, to graduate from the minors to the majors, you’ll need a little more than a coffee table with a few good bottles of booze on it. You’ll need a long bar or table, designated close-by storage, a sink and bar fridge if you can swing it, and bar stools or a pub table and a couple of chairs. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, all the unattached items I’m mentioning (bar, stools, table, etc…) can be found inexpensively used at estate sales and 2nd hand shops, or new and shiny at in-home entertaining sections of most of today’s furniture and catch-all stores.
I have three bars in my home, believe it or not. I have a fun little tiki bar out in my garage which we casually use all through the warm months. I have a formal, leather-studded 60’s bar in my living room which is more of a bric-a-brac catch-all wherein I store a few good bottles, my crystal decanter, candlesticks, etc…it is seldom-used but looks nice, and I have a 60’s basement build-in bar which has a sink and built-in fridge. This is the bar I use most. I’ve decorated it with photographs and signatures of dozens of 60’s entertainers, ad art of the day, and period barware. This is my baby, my main house watering hole.
Now, in upping your ante, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to build a huge, professional style bar. You just need dedicated space — an area that will be known as “the bar” by all your friends. I sincerely recommend that, if you’re a bar nut, graduate and join us home bartenders with a joint of your own. Carve a niche, decorate accordingly, and build your already fabulous stock by adding the following:
A larger variety of stemware – Whereas before you had maybe 5 or so martini glasses that you used for every “up” drink, now start building your arsenal of cocktail glasses. 3 ounce, 4 ounce, bigger, cocktail glasses come in varieties as varied as wild flowers on a summer stretch of highway. Buy two of each when you happen upon something special at a thrift or antique store. A nice, fat assortment of classic stemware can add significantly to a night of different cocktails. The same goes for hi-ball and short, nonstemmed glasses. Variety is the spice of life, and you and your guests will appreciate the alcoholic trip back in time that an assortment of old beautiful glasses will provide.
Catch-all barware – There are just so many cool little barware items invented in the early and mid parts of the last century that look so cool on your home bar. Glass stir sticks, etched measuring glasses, funny bar tool sets, themed ashtrays, lighters, coasters, bar towels, recipe books, paper ads, etc… Have fun searching for this stuff and proudly display it where it fits.
A few more cocktail shakers – You don’t want to be cleaning your shaker after every round of drinks you prepare, especially if you’re throwing a party, having a poker game, or are just sitting around your bar with a couple of couples. I have several shakers, and believe you me, when I have six or more gathered ‘round my bar and we’re all perusing old bar recipe books picking fun drinks to make, I don’t have to take time out to clean a shaker every time I switch cocktails. They don’t all have to be silver, art deco beauties, but three handsome shakers at the ready do come in handy when entertaining. Plus, they look swell displayed on your bar when not in use. They are little ads for the fun times to be had.
Bar fridge, or at the very least, an ice machine – Buy one of those college fridges in September when they’re all on sale. For around $80 you can have a nice little box that will tuck in nicely under your bar or in a corner near your bar area. You’ll need a cold spot to readily store olives, maraschino cherries, bitters, juices, sours, beer, syrups, ice and fruit. If you only use your bar on the occasional weekend, do you really want all that bar stuff filling up your regular kitchen refrigerator? Buy a little fridge and dedicate it to just your bar; it simplifies everything. An ice machine is also a very handy appliance to have. I don’t have one but often wish I did. On many occasions, I still have to run on up to the corner store for ice prior to throwing a party.
So, to graduate from the minors to the majors, you’ll need a little more than a coffee table with a few good bottles of booze on it. You’ll need a long bar or table, designated close-by storage, bar fridge if you can swing it, and bar stools or a pub table and a couple of chairs. A sink is a must have. Kohler sinks make a wide variety of faucet and sink options that can tie the whole project together. Like I’ve mentioned earlier, all the unattached items I’m mentioning (bar, stools, table, etc…) can be found inexpensively used at estate sales and 2nd hand shops, or new and shiny at in-home entertaining sections of most of today’s furniture and catch-all stores.
A sink comes in damned handy – If you’re actually planning on building a home bar or are in the process of converting an area to a bar space, see if you have a pipe connection nearby. Installing a sink near your bar will save you from countless treks to the kitchen toting dirty glasses, shakers, etc… all night.
Music – Gotta have your retro tunes as close to you as your shakers. Check out the retro-tech and music sections of www.Mr-Booze.com for some great ideas for your sounds. Music is as important to a night of imbibing as is ice.
On to the Booze –
As explained in the first part of outfitting your home bar (What You Really Need For Your Starter Bar located at www.Mr-Booze.com), you should already have the booze basics. When upgrading your spread, more really is better.
Liqueurs – Sometimes only called for in ¼ ounce increments, liqueurs are the little taste touches many of today’s and yesterday’s cocktails call for. If you wish to seriously add to the array of drinks in your home stable, a solid collection of these softer spirits is a must.
Really, it comes down to taste, and I recommend that you take a look at our list of recipes, pick two or three that appeal to you on some level, and purchase the called-for liqueurs. Make the drink… if you like it, start searching for other drinks which ask for the same liqueur and so on. Here’s what I have in my bar, give or take – Crème de Cacao (light & dark), Crème de Menthe, blue and clear Curacao, Crème de Banana, Triple Sec, Midori, Chambord, Galliano, Calvados, Parfait Amour, Marischino and more. Once you buy a bottle, chances are you’ll have it for a good long time unless it is called for in many drinks like Curacao or Cointreau.
Flavored Brandies – I was surprised at how many of the old drinks call for flavored brandy, especially apricot. A bottle of apricot, cherry and peach brandy will add much to your home pours. You can use them in already established cocktails or add them to enrich flavor in old standbys like daiquiris, punches, bucks and more. If you want to pour old school, a few flavored brandies will sure come in handy.
Bourbon – Have great, affordable house bourbon for mixing. I use Early Times and I love it. Wild Turkey 80 proof is another great bottle. Have a few small batch bourbons for sipping on the rocks or in a classic manhattan. I love bourbon and kind of collect them. My favorite is the Basil Hayden’s which I take with just a few pieces of ice. Knob Creek, Bookers, Buffalo Trace, Pappy Van Winkle are all fantastic single barrel bourbons (not blended) you can have on your bar. If you ever see someone at your bar pour coke into a glass of bourbon that cost more than $20, remove him or her from your premises.
Gin – Like almost any building block liquor, use the more reasonably priced gins for cocktails calling for more than one ingredient. I think Beefeaters and Bombay are great gins that you can build on; they even stand strongly in a straight-up martini. Having a bottle of higher-end, more flavorful, infused gin is a great addition to any home bar. I have a bottle of Bombay Sapphire which has a juniper muskiness that permeates my martinis and gin & tonics that I adore. I also have a bottle of Hendrick’s Gin which has an almost orangey, cucumber carry that many find too strong; I happen to love it in a martini. Bottom line — have solid mixing gin and a top-shelf martini gin on hand.
Scotch – A great blended scotch will carry you a long way while bartending. Any scotch-based cocktail will stand nicely with an affordable blend. Have a single malt on hand for the connoisseur. I find with scotch most drinkers prefer a higher-end one neat or on the rocks. Talk to your liquor merchant and have a nice, affordable, peaty single malt on hand and a nice blend for mixing.
Rum – No real variation from my earlier advice on rum. If it is summer and you plan on grilling and drinking in the backyard or deck, have a collection of rums on hand — dark, gold, light, and aged. The layering of rums in a tiki drink is an almost supernatural phenomenon. Love that rum when it’s hot outside.
Brandy – You’re still fine with a bottle of E & J, but now it’s time to up your game with a nice Calvados or Lairds Apple Brandy. Too many delicious pre-1950’s drinks call for apple. Even if you’re pouring brandy in a snifter for January purposes, a middle of the road one does the job of a warm-up just fine.
Vodka – I love my Stolichnaya and Smirnoff — the vodkas our dad’s drank several decades back. Many of the drink recipes concocted for vodka used these old bottles as the primary ingredient (Moscow Mule was first made w/ Smirnoff). By the very nature of the distilling process, vodkas remain relatively tasteless although I realize that many would disagree with me. I seldom drink vodka straight, usually adding juice or a strong mixer to it. I suppose, if you want to go with a showpiece on your bar, the Belvedere will stand up. I have sipped this vodka ice cold and found there was indeed something special there.
You should also consider adding a few flavored vodkas to your stockpile. I have vanilla, pear and citrus flavored vodkas and have stumbled upon some interesting uses for all three which I’ll share soon over in the recipes section.
Beer – Now that you have a bar fridge, a couple six packs of beer always on hand will come in handy. A stout, lager, or ale is a nice thing to have.
Champagne – I haven’t really explored champagne cocktails yet but plan on doing so in the coming months. Having a few bottles on hand for instant celebrations or these soon to be explored cocktails is a nice idea. I’ve also noticed that the ladies love champagne. Having a bottle or two available for the fairer sex as they break off from the boys is a great treat.
Wine – I drink it. Don’t know too much about it, but I’m certain there are dozens of websites devoted to the grape. Have some, I guess.
Odds and Ends –
Bitters – Go crazy with bitters. I have peach, orange, whiskey barrel, mint, Angostura, Peychaud’s, and more. Bitters are so often key to the subtle or not-so-subtle dash of flavor a cocktail calls for.
Syrups – Syrups are great. Besides having a basic sugar simple syrup in your fridge, try infusing syrups for a day or two with ginger, cinnamon, honey or mint. These flavored syrups come in handy come summer with those yummy rum drinks.
Vegies – Pickled and spiced vegetables for martinis are a great idea. Have a few bottles on hand.
Non-alcoholic drinks – Have a selection of soft drinks for the great sports that agree not to drink so that others may. If you have a guest in your home taking one on the chin so that others might partake in your cocktails, please remember to reward them with a great non-alcoholic drink. Thank them with selection.
Snacks – Peanuts or any jarred snack are great to store behind the bar. Ever tried a Smokehouse Almond? They won’t be behind your bar for long. Light snacking and drinking hold hands at night.
Well, there you have it — solid 2nd stage advice on upping the ante on your home bar. You don’t have to do everything I suggest to have a marvelous home bar. Really, what it comes down to is you. What do you like when you’re out drinking? Bring those same qualities, pleasures, cocktails and atmosphere home. Set your bar-corner up to reflect your spirit. Some of the best conversations are held ‘round bars. Conversation, laughter, camaraderie, and the relaxation brought on with a few drinks are soul-enriching as far as Mr. Booze is concerned. That’s what you want to bring to your home bar.