Stocking A Home Bar On Any Budget
After years of dealing with a stodgy reputation, the art of the cocktail is making a comeback, and frankly, we couldn`t be happier. The cocktail walks the line between sophisticated and macho; it`s more intelligent than beer but not as snooty as wine. Not only that, cocktails are fun to make at home and there`s an endless variety with which to experiment. Of course, a home bar takes some preliminary investment – with all the liquor out there, what do you really need? We asked Ethan Kelly, spirit sommelier at Manhattan`s Brandy Library, to pare down the bare bar essentials.
Colorless and tasteless, you couldn`t ask for a more forgiving alcohol to start your cocktail hobby. Throw it in some plain fruit juice when you`ve got a crowd waiting, or take your time with more advanced drinks like a Long Island Iced Tea. When all else fails, steep it with some fresh berries for a Russian-style shot.
- Cocktails: Cosmopolitan, Screwdriver, Sex on the Beach, Bloody Mary
- Best Vodka per Dollar: “For my money, Smirnoff is the clear choice,” says Kelly. $15 @ Astor Wines
The Brits know what it takes to make a real martini and it`s not vodka, no matter what James Bond would have you believe. Infused with citrus and spice flavors, especially from the juniper berry, gin is the essential, in fact the only option when it comes to a real martini. Aside from that, gin has endless uses in old school drinks and stands on its own just fine with a few drops of Angostura bitters.
- Cocktails: Martini, Negroni, Silver Fizz, Gin & Tonic
- Best Gin per Dollar: “Something classic, something British – Boodles or Beefeater is what I`d buy.” $28 @ Sherry-Lehman / $27 @ Sherry-Lehman
Most people know rum as clear liquor, but amber and dark styles pack a richer, fuller flavor. Distilled from pure sugar cane or molasses, rum tastes of caramel and sweet vanilla, making it the perfect partner for tropical drinks. Rum cocktails also tend to be crowd-pleasers, so the next time a group of friends is over, you`ll be glad to have stocked a bottle of Caribbean hooch.
- Cocktails: Mai Tai, Mojito, Cuba Libre
- Best Rum per Dollar: “Start with a light amber style – Montecristo 12 Year is perfect.” $30 @ Astor Wines
As booze goes, nothing has a finer pedigree than Cognac – made in belle France for centuries, it`s critical for making heavy-hitting classics and satisfying cocktail snobs. Like a smoother, fruitier whiskey, true Cognac is only distilled from grapes grown in a small region in Southwest France, so look at the label when you buy and make sure to get a bottle that says VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or XO (Extra Old), the latter having at least two more years of oak aging.
- Cocktails: Sidecar, Singapore Sling, Sazerac
- Best Cognac per Dollar: “Courvoisier is affordable and available, solid to start out.” $43 for VSOP @ Sherry-Lehman / $130 for XO @ www.sherry-lehmann.com/
Blended Scotch Whisky / Bourbon
A powerhouse liquor, blended scotch or bourbon will put the hair on your chest without the cost of the single-malt variety. Strong oak flavors and the firm bite of alcohol are the backbone for making dark and complex cocktails for toasting your rise to power in the boardroom. Like Kelly says, “If it were up to me, men wouldn`t get their right nut until they can make a Manhattan.”
- Cocktails: Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Mint Julep
- Best Brand per Dollar: “If you`ve got no money, buy Famous Grouse, I think it`s under $25 these days, but a bit rough on its own. Chivas 18 on the other hand, is the best blended whisky for the price, and if you ask any bartender they`ll tell you the exact same thing.” $24 @ Sherry-Lehman / $55 @ Astor Wines
Single-Malt Whiskey / Bourbon
We give a lot of credit to home cocktails, but sometimes you just need a straight shot of that old Dutch courage, and for that it`s good to have at least one bottle of the good stuff. Fanatics like Kelly keep at least two kinds on hand – a peaty style and a non-peaty style. What does that mean, exactly? Peat is what gives some whisky a strong, smoky flavor. Some people love it, some hate it; with both on hand you`ll make sure no one has the advantage of sobriety on poker night.
- Cocktails: None – drink neat or straight up
- Best Brand per Dollar: “It`s really a matter of taste, but I like Tomintoul 16 on the low-end, Highland Park 18 if you`ve got a little more money and Talisker 10 if you want to go with a peaty style.” $40 @ Union Square Wines / $70 @ Sherry-Lehman / $55 @ Sherry-Lehman