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Not everyone has this. [Photograph: Wes Rowe]

Today begins a short series of posts on everyone's least favorite topic: dealing with a low-stocked bar. We've all been there, unfortunately. You go to mix a drink and you realize you're running low on just about everything. So what do you do? Or maybe you're starting out fresh, and you want to know which bottles will help you build the most versatile bar.

I'll start with one bottle and talk about what you can mix with it; then, say, you add a second bottle of something. What can you mix with those two bottles? Add a third; now what can you do? Add a fourth! Now your possibilities explode—assuming you've chosen carefully.

Prepare Yourself

Now, we're talking about one bottle here, but there's a gimme. Before we start, I need you to do something. Drop what you're doing, and if you don't already have them, get up right this very minute, go to your grocery, and buy the following items: limes, lemons, sugar, soda water, and Angostura bitters. If you want, you can add an orange and tonic water to this list, but it's not necessary.

As for the sugar, two types are great for cocktailing: superfine white sugar, and Turbinado or some other rich, brown sugar. Make a simple syrup from some of it, and keep some of it around in its sugary wonderfulness.

Versatility in Spirit

Here's a question: what's the single most versatile spirit? What spirit is the most useful to the home bartender, either on its own or in cocktails?

There's no right answer to this question, of course, but there is a framework we can use to discuss the question, and talk about our answers.

I'm going to argue that although there is no one spirit that is the single most versatile bottle to have on hand, there is a class of spirits that is more versatile than any others.

Aged Spirits

If you're down to your last bottle of booze, and suddenly you learn that this is your last night on earth, what would you rather drink? A vodka on the rocks or a bourbon on the rocks? What would you prefer to drink neat, gin or a single malt?

I consider aged spirits to be the most versatile category because you can sip so many of them alone, either neat or on the rocks. I know there are people who love to sip vodka and gin alone. I'm not among them. (I can sometimes get behind a pink gin, which is made with just gin and Angostura, but only sometimes.) If you want to linger and enjoy your beverage, you'll probably go with an aged spirit when you're sipping straight.

So for versatility, start with your favorite aged spirit. Mine happens to be rye, so that's what I'll talk about here.

One-Bottle Cocktails

So, what can you make with rye? Well, to start off, you can sip it on its own, as I've already pointed out, either neat or with a nice chunk of ice. Or you can drink it with a little soda; that's up to you.

If you've already done your grocery shopping, however, you can make one of the world's best cocktails, the Old Fashioned. Here's what you'll do. First, take a rocks glass and add several ice cubes. Pour about a half-teaspoon's worth of simple syrup into the glass. Add one or two dashes of Angostura bitters. Then add two ounces of rye. Stir and stir and stir until the ice cubes start to melt and shift around in the glass. Add more ice if you wish. Take a paring knife and carve off a piece of lemon or orange peel, being careful to avoid getting any of the white pith, which is bitter. Twist it over the glass to squeeze the oils into the cocktail, and then rub the colored outer part around the rim of the glass. Add the peel to the glass, or discard it: your call.

Two-Bottle Cocktails

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[Photo: Jennifer Hess]

Okay, no excuses, go buy some gin. While you're at it, get two bottles of vermouth: sweet and dry.

Now your world starts to open up. With gin, rye, and two vermouths, you can make martinis and Manhattans.

What's that? You have scotch instead of rye? No problem; make a Rob Roy. (Here's a hint: although it doesn't have a special name, rum works in a Manhattan, too, especially rhum agricole.) We're still in easygoing territory here.

Three-Bottle?

Here's where things get complicated. Whiskey is versatile because you can sip it on its own and also mix it into hundreds of cocktails. Gin is versatile because you can also mix it into hundreds of cocktails. But what's the third bottle? If you have gin, vermouth, and Bottle X, what should you choose to ensure that Bottle X will give you a lot of bang for your buck?

I'm going to suggest that the answer is an orange liqueur. It could be Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Combier, Pierre Ferrand Curacao, or any quality product that fits your budget. (If bottom-shelf triple sec is all you can afford, it'll do, but I won't envy you.)

With gin, vermouth, lime, and orange liqueur, for example, you can make a Pegu Club, although it'll help if you can find orange bitters first.

With orange liqueur, lime, and lemon juice, you're most of the way to the Sour family of cocktails: Sidecars (cognac, lemon, orange liqueur), Margaritas (tequila, lime, OL), Daiquiris (even simpler: rum, lime, and sugar or simple syrup), Whiskey Sours (just like the Daiquiri, but with whiskey, lemon, and sugar or simple syrup).

So I've given you some ideas on building a versatile bar around just a few ingredients. I've mentioned 10 cocktails here (the Old Fashioned, Martini, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Rum Manhattan, Pegu Club, Sidecar, Margarita, Daiquiri, and Whiskey Sour). If you keep vermouth, lemons, lime, bitters, and simple syrup on hand at all times, all you need is a base spirit and a bottle of orange liqueur, and you can mix anything.

For example...

  • With a base spirit, simple, and bitters, you can build an Old Fashioned. Technically, you can build an OF out of anything: bourbon, rye, scotch, tequila, mezcal, rum, genever...all of those are lovely. Gin? Sure, I've had a good gin OF in my time, although I wouldn't ordinarily go there. Vodka? Hey, if it makes you happy, go for it.
  • With a base, vermouth, and bitters, you can build a Manhattan or Martini (where, of course, the bitters are optional, but delicious).
  • With a base, citrus, and sweetener, you can build anything from the Sour family.

Cocktails needn't be hard, and with the proper preparation, you can usually make a damn good drink even when your bar is sparsely populated.

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He lives with wife, son, and cats in Brooklyn. You can touch him on twitter at @dietsch.

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