Your Bar and You
January 27, 2010
Every tee-partialing household has, or should have, a bar. Yours probably does, if we take “bar” to mean a stock of liquor that exists on a “going concern” basis (as opposed to one-off stocks for large parties). But your bar isn’t much, is it? You don’t feel any special sense of proprietorship over it. It doesn’t say anything about who you are or what type of social space your apartment is. But sometimes, after you’ve visited my bar, you wish it did. How can you make that happen? You’ve tried wandering the aisles of the liquor store, but it’s all so bewildering, and you end up spending more money than you wanted to on a haphazard selection that sends you reproving vibes as it sits unconsumed on your shelf, like some stray animal “adopted” by an enthusiastic but irresponsible child. Is there nothing to be done?
The key to building a great bar is the same as it is for any collection, be it of books, movies, autographs, or whatever. You must define the collection’s domain, and you must do so according to (1) your interests, and (2) your budget. A paleoichthyologist friend of mine once won a book-collecting contest with his collection “Man and Fish.” Of course it had Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea, but it also had fishing manuals, treatises on the importance of fishery to American culture, and suchlike. The collection wasn’t worth very much money (I’d guess a few hundred dollars), and most of the books were, if not common, then not particularly rare. Nonetheless it was a remarkable collection. Beholding it, one’s sense of the importance of fish to man was immediately expanded, not indefinitely into vaporous musings, but along the lines that my friend’s own wholehearted engagement with the man/fish question suggested. The collection was an appendage of his personality, an expression of his identity in a new medium. Of course collectors with deep pockets might build much more comprehensive collections, perhaps about about man and the sea in general, but that was beyond my friend’s personal interests anyhow. When you start thinking about building your bar, think “Man and Fish.”
Now, how can we translate the “Man and Fish” principle to liquor collecting? The place to begin is with your interests. What are your favorite cocktails? What are the cocktails you are so attached to that you shake your head ruefully when you discover that a friend doesn’t like them? Those cocktails will form the nucleus of your bar. Let’s say that you love the Manhattan. Start by buying one to three bottles of the main spirit, which can be either rye or bourbon. (I highly recommend Rittenhouse rye, which sells for about $17/750ml and is the best rye I’ve ever had). Next you’ll need some sweet (red) vermouth. Vermouth is a very misunderstood drink: many bars feature a large bottle of Martini and Rossi that sits out for years and years, being slowly depleted. But since you love the Manhattan, you’ll do some research and discover two things: (1) there are brands of vermouth that taste much better than the ubiquitous Martini and Rossi (try Noilly Prat), and (2) vermouth should be refrigerated and consumed within a few months. Finally, you will need some angostura bitters, which is a no-brainer since there’s only one brand. And of course you’ll need a metal shaker, a strainer, and some glassware, but that sort of goes without saying. Now, already, you’re at the point where your friends will say, “Daaamn! Now I know where to go if I want a top-notch Manhattan! Party at YOUR house!”
But this is just the beginning of your bar. At this point you’ve immersed yourself, or at least gotten your feet wet, in rye, bourbon, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters. When you feel like you get the Manhattan, and you have a little walking-around money, you can expand your collection’s doman. If you add some lemon juice and cane sugar to the mix, you can make a great Old Fashioned. With those ingredients you can also make a whiskey sour. Or you could add some orange bitters and Cynar (a delicious Italian aperitif made from artichokes, about $25/liter) for the Black Manhattan: 2 parts rye, 1 part Cynar, 1 dash orange bitters. Eventually you might hit a roadblock, where adding only one or two cheap ingredients won’t get you very far. This would be the point at which to add another major spirit (gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila, or brandy). Pick up some Old Tom gin (about $25/liter) and some Campari (also about $25/liter) and you can make the Negroni: equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Just keep building out from your bases. If you never get to rum or tequila, that’s OK: your whiskey, gin, vermouth, and bitters bar is more interesting than a bar with all the major spirits would be at the same price point. It will make tastier drinks, because you haven’t spread your budget over all the spirits, and it will be a better reflection of your bibulous personality.