Build a Better Bar
Years ago, my brother was house hunting and asked me to check out a nearby beach property. What impressed me more than its views of the Long Island Sound was the interior: almost every room had a wet bar, replete with an ice-making machine. I remarked that the owner must be a serious cocktailian, and the realtor revealed that this was an East Coast abode owned by none other than Rodney Dangerfield, who had decamped for Hollywood. Despite his onstage protestations, the comedian earned my immediate respect—as well as envy.
Dangerfield’s setup may be overkill, and frankly I’ve never been able to match his level of liquid hosting. But over the years, I’ve moved into and out of many homes, ensuring that each one had a proper bar for entertaining. Yours should have one too.
There is no one bar setup that will suit every entertainer. Choosing the appropriate character from a few basic lifestyle categories will help.
• The First-Timer So you’ve finally settled down, but square footage is still at a premium and your significant other doesn’t smile at the notion of a full bar dominating the domicile. Opt instead for a low-slung cabinet and hide the bottles behind sliding doors. The coolest we’ve seen has a motorized column lift, bringing the liquor to table height when needed. But you can get by with a simple credenza with a slate or glass top. Make sure it has enough room to store a few bottles, plus your humidor.
• The Gentleman When you’re king of your own castle you deserve more elbow room than a mere cabinet. Graduating to a tall armoire with shelves gives you not only ample working space to build drinks, but the real estate you need to lay in such an array of bottles to meet just about any drink order. An even bolder move? Carve out some of that precious closet space you paid extra for.
• The Professional Most of us work all our lives trying to create the perfect man cave, but the precocious Otter of Animal House exemplified it as a college student: a full, glittering bar in his fraternity-house room. Of course, you’ll want a back-lit, back bar on glass shelves to show off your spirits collection and perhaps a walk-behind bar, which offers your bottles some modicum of protection and gives you a proper place to serve your guests. But most of all, living the dream means cutting the umbilical cord with the rest of the house. For that, you’ll need a sink with running water, a refrigerator with a freezer and an ice-maker that makes good-sized cubes. Also invest in a door that locks.
CHOOSE YOUR POISONS
The 12 Bottle Bar (Workman Press) posits that with a dozen spirits and liqueurs one can create hundreds of cocktails. The authors are right, but for most guests you can do fine with fewer. You need at least five hard spirits, and you should tailor the spirits selection to the crowd you typically entertain. If they’re cocktail people, choose a whiskey, a rum, a Tequila, a gin and a vodka. With that, you can build Martinis, Manhattans, and a slew of other mixed drinks. Your choices won’t number in the hundreds, but you’ll please all but the most arcane tastes. If you know cigars will be smoked—and we do hope cigars will be smoked—adjust accordingly. Stock at least two types of whiskey, add a brandy, and make sure the rum is aged rather than clear.
Not included in the bottle count, for they take up such little space, is at least one bottle of bitters and two bottles of vermouth. Both are absolutely essential for proper cocktails. You need one sweet and one dry vermouth. They won’t clutter your bar, as it’s best to store them in your refrigerator for longer life. If you buy only one type of bitters, make it Angostura, but a more complete bar includes orange and Peychauds. That trio allows for a world of cocktail possibilities.
As you gain more storage space and a larger budget, flesh out your bar. First, add more whiskeys to ensure variety. Add a rye to compare and contrast with your Bourbon, mix in some peaty single malts to offer a different taste from the blend you stock and consider Irish and Japanese whiskies. Expand on your brandies, with Cognac (we prefer XO and above for sipping), Armagnac and perhaps Calvados. Then consider alcohol-based modifiers, such as amaro, orange liqueur and Benedictine. Flavored spirits can be a waste of space. After all, you can always add a twist of lime to your vodka.
IMPLEMENTS OF CONSTRUCTION
The cocktail revival has meant there are more bar tools, which run from the essential to the helpful to the inane. The sine qua non of bartending is the shaker, and the one to have is the Boston shaker, a combination bar glass and metal topper, which allows you to see your drink as you build it in the glass. The metal will conform to the glass while you’re shaking and then quickly pop off with a rap on the bar. Avoid all-metal shakers, which have the drawback of freezing together and taking a while to unfuse before your next drink. Kitschy shakers that come in the shape of roosters and rocket ships are display items and not meant for serious mixing.
Vital to the shaker setup is a strainer, of which there are two types: the Hawthorne, a flat disk with a coiled spring that fits snugly in the bar glass, and a julep strainer, which is shaped like a large spoon with holes. The former is built for speed mixing. The latter is better at straining fruit and seed detritus. A good bar should have one of each. You’ll want a bar spoon as well, especially if you’re a stir-not-shake guy. The ones with spiral handles help to drizzle floaters on the top of drinks.
Most other tools can be substituted with standard kitchen items, but as your bar grows you may prefer adding dedicated barware to your collection. In a pinch, anything long with a blunt end can be a muddler, your Estwing hammer will smash ice and you can squeeze lemons by hand, but why not have the real thing? True muddlers and ice mallets add style to your bar, and a juice press is best if you’re operating at any kind of volume. Kitchen measuring equipment will work, but why not have a graduated shot glass or, better still, a stately jigger to measure your spirits in style?
You’ll certainly want a knife, but the ones they sell for bars are essentially the same as the fruit knife in your kitchen drawer. And a device that plucks olives from the bottom of a jar? Save your money.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
The spectrum of drinking vessels can be overwhelming. (The specialty glassmaker Riedel has at least one for every spirit.) But these three types represent a good starting point: highball, Old-Fashioned and cocktail glasses. The highball (or in a pinch the slimmer Collins glass) is the most versatile as it will hold any drink that takes ice and is perfectly acceptable for drinking neat. The Old-Fashioned, or rocks, glass is home to a number of classic cocktails, including the one it’s named for, and is good for sipping a spirit neat or on ice. You may know the cocktail glass as a Martini glass, but it’s designed for most any drink that is shaken over ice and strained. You may be tempted by the modern vogue for huge birdbath-size glasses. Resist it. With no ice to keep them cool, such drinks will be warm before they’re finished. If you’re still thirsty, have another.
When you’re looking to branch out and you find yourself repeatedly serving a drink that has a specialty glass—e.g. a Mint Julep or a Moscow Mule—by all means invest in that. But skip the shot glasses. Drinking contests are not for the aficionado. Buy tulip-shaped tasting glasses instead. They’re perfect for sipping and savoring your whiskey, rum and brandy, ideally as you enjoy the item that gives you the most respect: a fine cigar.