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True Essentials for Your Home Bar: Bottles, Bitters, and Tools
I find that it's easy to overthink the simple things. For example, I work from home while caring for two small children. Jeans and a black t-shirt are now my daily uniform at home. Why buy button-downs and polos and sweaters just to wear at home, when they'll just get jam and drool and Angostura on them anyway?
It's also all too easy to overthink the home bar, and to assume you need to spend a couple hundred at the Liquorteria just to get started. Here are some tips on the essentials you really need.
Stocking Your Bottles the Smart Way
It might feel like a home bar should have one of everything, but the best way to stock your bar is to start with the cocktails you love to drink. Plan your cocktail shopping the way you plan your meal shopping. If, say, you're making a lasagna, you'll make a list of the things you need for that, and you'll shop accordingly. So when you want lasagna, you buy what you need for the lasagna; why buy ribeye steaks and turkey breast and spare ribs when all you really want is lasagna?
Shopping for drink supplies should go the same way: why should you go out and buy gin and tequila and rum and Irish whiskey and scotch, when all you really want is a Sidecar?
I love Sidecars, so when I started into cocktails, I bought a good cognac and a bottle of Cointreau. Those lasted me for a while, so one night, I bought some tequila and used the Cointreau to make Margaritas.
And this is where it's good to have some idea of when you can make substitutions. Sidecars and Margaritas are both classic Sours—aside from the base spirit, the only difference is that one uses lemon juice and the other, lime juice.
Remember the first rule about substitutions: You don't talk about substitutions. Wait, that's not right. The first rule is: like replaces like. Tequila replaces brandy. Lime replaces lemon. Use other fortified wines (port or sherry) in place of vermouth in cocktails such as Martinis and Manhattans. Any brown liquor can be quite tasty in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.
So in this way, if your bar has bourbon OR cognac OR rum OR tequila, AND a gin, AND a couple of different fortified wines, AND a good triple sec, you can make a good variety of cocktails without repeating yourself that often. I mean, you can make two different sours (a gin sour and, say, a bourbon sour); you can try a couple different variations on a Manhattan; and you can try a couple different variations on a Martini. Just for starters.
Now of course, in the kitchen, it helps to always have some pantry staples around, such as various dried beans, pasta, canned tomatoes, spices, and so on. In the same way, it's always good to have bar staples around. The two most important bar staples are bitters and simple syrup. The latter's easy. Add one part water and two parts sugar to a saucepan, heat it long enough for the sugar to dissolve, and then let it cool long enough to be bottled.
Bitters? Well, what do you really need? I'd start with Angostura aromatic bitters and also a good orange or citrus bitters. Next step is Peychaud's, if you like a Sazerac. Beyond that, I'd wait until you find a cocktail that uses something funky, and only then go shopping for the more obscure stuff, such as celery, grapefruit, or rhubarb bitters.
Truly Essential Tools
When it comes to bar tools, only a few items are truly essential.
Glassware: stem glass (coupe or V, not both), rocks glass (or old fashioned), highball. That's it. You can do anything with these glasses, pretty much.
Measuring tools: Don't bother with jiggers, not for making drinks at home, anyway. To measure 1.5 ounces in a jigger, you have to fill it to the top. Unless you're holding the jigger over the shaker/mixing glass as you measure, you're going to lose some booze. Jiggers are designed for professional bartenders who work in fastfastfast where's-the-martini-for-table-12 environments. At home you need one tool and one tool only: an Oxo mini angled measuring cup. I only have one problem with it: there's no mark for 3/4 ounces. I usually eyeball it, or if I need more precision, I measure 1/2 and then 1/4 ounces.
Knives: Chances are, you can get away with a paring knife, at least to start. With a paring knife, you can cut citrus for juicing, pare off bits of peel for twists, and cut wheels and wedges for garnish. If you need a larger knife, a basic chef's knife will do. They're helpful for larger citrus fruits and also for bigger items, such as pineapple. If you want to get fancy with your lemon and orange twists, a channel knife is helpful, but it's certainly not necessary.
Shaker: I continue to believe that a basic Boston shaker is the best tool out there for mixing drinks. You can stir a drink in almost any vessel that's large enough, but for shaking, the Boston can't be beat.
Bar spoon: You don't need a fancy bar spoon to stir a cocktail, although I would say that you probably shouldn't settle for the cheap type with the red plastic cap on the end. I'd go with something like this.
Strainer: Traditionally, a Hawthorne strainer (the kind with the looped spring attached) is used in a mixing tin, when straining shaken drinks, and a Julep strainer (the kind that looks like an oversized perforated spoon) is used for stirred drinks. I don't really understand why. Right now I'm using a Hawthorne for everything because I can't find my Julep. I think one strainer is enough, though it's up to you whether you prefer the Hawthorne or the Julep.
Swizzle stick: Do you need a swizzle stick? I don't know. Do birds need hang gliders?
Got More to Add?
Tell me, my friends. What truly necessary bottle, bitters, or tool have I forgotten to mention?