A cocktail seems like a great way to relax after hanging up your hat from the long commute, but do you go to the liquor cabinet and realize you can’t make anything? Or perhaps you’re thinking of having people over for dinner and cocktails. You’ve got the dinner down, but the cocktails make you nervous. How do you stock a home bar so that you know you’re ready for guests? Here’s a guide to the basic cocktails you need to make your bar stocked, whether it’s for you or a houseful of guests.
Gin is an old spirit, made since at least the 17th century by distilling ethanol in the presence of juniper berries for that essential gin flavor. The strength of the juniper flavor made it ideal for concealing off-flavors introduced by shortcutting distillers during Prohibition. That’s why “bathtub gin” was more or less the official spirit of the Roaring 20s. Since many of what we consider the “classic” cocktails were invented during this period, many of them feature gin.
Suggested Gin: Hendrick’s Gin is anything but bathtub. It’s got a wonderfully balanced botanical flavor. The juniper is still dominant, but it’s balanced with lighter, sweeter flavors like rose and cucumber. This is a gin you don’t want to drown, you’ll want to celebrate it.
From Spirit to Cocktail: One of the great things about gin cocktails is that they’re delightfully simple. All you need is tonic for a G & T. Add sugar syrup and lemon juice and you’ve got a Tom Collins. Substitute lime for the lemon and you’ve got a gimlet.
Whiskey is one of the most widespread spirits, partly because it’s such an ancient spirit. It’s been distilled for probably 1000 years. Whiskey is the spirit de rigueur, and if you have to pick just one to start your bar with, this is one of the best to choose.
Suggested Whiskey: Because whiskey is so widely consumed, you have to be ready for people who want to do all kinds of things with it. You want a whiskey that’s sippable, shootable, and mixable. Crown Royal is a great choice for this. It’s not too harsh to enjoy on its own, and not too dear to put in a cocktail.
From Spirit to Cocktail: There are many great whiskey cocktails you can make with a few simple ingredients. Whiskey sours require just whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Even easier is a highball, which is whiskey and ginger ale. Want something unusual that sounds sophisticated, but is really easy? An Algonquin is whiskey, pineapple juice, and dry vermouth. It looks and tastes like liquid sunshine.
In many situations, you can substitute different types of whiskeys, but there is no substitute for scotch. There is some business that must be handled over scotch. And if people ask for scotch and you don’t have any, you will probably fall in their estimation. So it’s important to make sure you have one on hand.
Suggested Scotch: Glenlivet 18 is a great choice for stocking your bar. This is a classic Speyside scotch. Speyside whiskeys come from the region near where the river Spey empties into Spey Bay. These are often considered some of the easiest scotches to enjoy, which accounts for their popularity. An 18-year single malt will keep you respectable in anyone’s books.
From Spirit to Cocktail: Scotch is not typically used in cocktails, as it’s part of the culture of scotch to emphasize the spirit. Most often, people enjoy it straight, with an ice cube, or maybe a splash of water. The one classic scotch cocktail you might want to be prepared for is the Rob Roy, which you make with scotch, sweet vermouth, and bitters, though you might want to save that for when you add a second scotch your bar.
Tequila is the classic spirit of Mexico, made from the blue agave plant. It has been produced at scale since around 1600. Tequila starts out clear and gains color if it is aged in wood, although some brands add color artificially. True tequila can only come from specific regions in Mexico.
Suggested Tequila: Don Julio 70 is a unique tequila. It’s an aged tequila that spends 18 months in American oak barrels, but it’s been carefully filtered to remove the color and create a special flavor combination of the oak and agave flavors.
From Spirit to Cocktail: Of course you’ll want to be able to make a margarita (tequila, lime, and triple sec), but there are so many more easy tequila cocktails to try. The tequila sunrise is just tequila, orange juice, and grenadine, while the Paloma is grapefruit soda and tequila. And, of course, the Don Julio 70 is the kind of tequila you can enjoy straight or on the rocks.
Vodka is an ancient spirit, so ancient that its origins are lost to time. It probably began production around the same time as whiskey, although we’re not entirely certain when. It was originally known as gorzalka, derived from gorzec “to burn.” The word “vodka” begin to be used in the 15th century. Vodka is the diminutive of water, somewhat literally meaning “little water,” but more properly meaning “friendly water” or “beloved water.” Vodka is one of the least restrictive types of liquor, and can be made practically anywhere from practically anything, including grains, potatoes, even beets.
Suggested Vodka: Three Olives is a great vodka for basically any occasion and any use. What, no Russian vodka? You might object. But they say there’s no zealot like a convert, and at Three Olives, they’re definitely zealous about their vodka. Starting with fine English wheat, quadruple filtration gives Three Olives vodka the clean, crisp flavor that vodka is prized for. Once you’ve enjoyed the basic version, you’ll understand why it makes the perfect base for flavors, which includes 20 in the Three Olives brand.
From Spirit to Cocktail: Of course you should be prepared to make a martini, which requires just three ingredients: vodka, dry vermouth, and bitters. A black Russian is even simpler: vodka and coffee liqueur. These days, Moscow mules are very popular, and they’re easy, too: vodka, lime juice, and ginger beer.
Rum is an amazing spirit. It comes in many varieties and can have amazing complexity like whiskey, but unlike whiskey, it hasn’t yet been recognized by connoisseurs and trendmasters, so you can get amazing rum for a very reasonable price. Modern rum is linked to the Caribbean and the sugar plantation, and is associated with pirates and sailors who braved the seas of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Suggested Rums: Just as with whiskey, it’s impossible to appreciate the range of rums with just one example, so we recommend you keep a couple on hand. Flor de Caña Extra Dry is a great light rum for mixing. The flavor is crisp and clean, and it’s no wonder it’s been in production since 1890. Goslings Black Seal is a premium dark rum from Bermuda. It’s made from two pot stills, which are blended to give the spirit its nuanced flavor.
From Spirit to Cocktail: Of course, you should be ready to make a daiquiri. In its simplest incarnation, this is just rum, lime juice, and simple syrup. Want something that sounds outlandish but is easy? Try the Yaka Hula Hickey Dula, which is equal parts dark rum, vermouth, and pineapple juice. And if you’ve got ginger beer on hand for Moscow mules, why not try a dark and stormy, which mixes ginger beer with dark rum. And for winter parties, try doing hot buttered rum: dark rum, vanilla extract, brown sugar, butter, and winter spices. That’ll keep your guests warm!
Now that you’ve got your basic bar stocked, and you’ve started discovering how fun it can be to mix up new cocktails, you’ll realize that your bar is just in its infancy. Add a new spirit monthly or so, and you’ll be delighted with the amazing flavors you discover.
Looking to start your new bar? At Applejack, we’re always ready to help, both in the store and online.