It is the time of year where it has become traditional for font stained wretches to take stock; in this week after Christmas and before the New Year, lists abound. There are “ten bests” for new bars and for old drinks. There are rankings of albums and films and trends in everything from electronics to pets. It is an impulse that is understandable, and to resist is futile.
But a top ten list of best bars in this space would necessarily be a reflection of the cities in which I spend some time, and would lack any kind of cohesion. A great bar, in my opinion is not always one in which the drinks are outstandingly crafted, made with attention and the finest ingredients, but rather a bar that knows exactly what it is, what it offers, and, most importantly, treats its guests as welcome friends. Indeed, one of my favorite places to drink in all of Austin is a tiny little beer joint, where the beer runs from Pearl to Lone Star to Shiner Bock with nary a microbrew or craft spirit in sight. But the music is good, the crowd friendly and diverse, and you’re welcome to set a chair in the parking lot on a fine day and drink ice cold, cheap beer by the fistful in the sun.
I could of course, list my top ten new spirits to hit shelves this year. But, again, the vagaries of distribution and differences from state to state make such a list potentially of limited use to anyone outside of Texas and there are excellent offerings from regional distilleries that I would exclude because they are unavailable to me.
How then, to scratch this list making itch?
It has occurred to me, as I’ve been doing these pieces, that my home bar is ridiculously stocked. It is a professional hazard—menu research and development requires spirits on hand and, moreover, reps for various brands insist on giving me bottles. If I come across an old recipe that intrigues or have an idea for something new, I almost always have the necessary in the cabinet. But I have also seen a number of ingredients repeat from recipe to recipe in these little stories, and, looking at my own stock, see the most used bottles near the front, easy to grab hold of, and ever dwindling, while others sit dusty near the back. Reader comments, too, have pointed out that my stock is slightly obsessive.
It would seem that the best list I could offer would be an essential twelve bottle home bar, arbitrarily setting the limit at one bottle for each month, to create a stock that can handle a wide variety of classic and modern cocktails, but that won’t destroy savings accounts in the process of accumulation. This list is not a reflection of my favorite spirits—Irish Whiskey, great Mezcal, Single Malt Scotch and good Bourbon are essential to me, but not here because they do not crop up on in many of the classic drinks.
Tequila was a tough call, because there is no doubt that a good Margarita is one of life’s great pleasures, but, in the end, it came down to the choice between absinthe and Tequila, and I can’t imagine life without Sazeracs, so absinthe won out. My top two Tequila choices would be the Blanco from either Tapatio or Siembra Azul, both excellent products made with integrity and respect for tradition.
Genever, which I would definitely call essential, didn’t make the final list, not because it isn’t necessary, but because it is not as widely used its Juniper based cousin (but get the offering from Bols). In the end, I was also forced to exclude an Old Tom style gin, even though I can’t imagine life without it (get the Hayman’s or Ransom, or wait on the re-release of Tanqueray Malacca early next year).
In any case, away we go…
London Dry Gin
No home bar is complete without a bottle of good London Dry. The brand is almost entirely up to your personal choice, but the classic labels—Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay (not the Sapphire)—are classic for a reason. They have a strong juniper backbone, and the other botanicals support the structure. You also won’t go wrong with the brand new Ford’s Gin, which almost straddles the line between a London Dry and a Plymouth, is incredibly reasonably priced, comes in a beautiful package and makes outstanding drinks.
Do not skimp on London Dry. Buy a well made product, made with real botanicals, and your gin drinks will sing. Buy something cheap and poorly made, and your gin drinks will taste like chemical Christmas Trees.
There are many excellent Rye’s on the market, some of them from smaller producers and not widely available, and others available in quantities that are limited, making them harder to track down. The widely available Old Overholt is cheap, but too easy going at 80 proof to truly understand the potential of rye. If you only have room for one bottle of Rye, consider the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond at 100 proof. The new Knob Creek Rye should be excellent in cocktails, and smaller labels, especially Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye and High West Rendezvous Rye will all get the job done and then some.
Sweet and Dry Vermouth
I’m going to cheat a little bit here and combine the vermouths into one slot on this list because I think half bottles (375ml) are best for home use, as you can easily use them before they start to turn. Generally speaking, Sweet Vermouth should be Italian in origin, while the Dry should be French. That said, while there are Italian Vermouths that I adore and suggest whole heartedly (especially Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Punt E Mes and Carpano Antica), if I could only have one bottle of Sweet Vermouth, I would go with Dolin Vermouth de Chambery Rouge, from a French producer. It is less intense than the Italian versions above, available in half bottles, versatile and delicious.
For the Dry, there are two equally great choices: Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambery or Noily Pratt. Both are available in half bottles and both are excellent, historically accurate products that produce great cocktails. You won’t go wrong with either one.
No matter the label on your Vermouth choices, store both the sweet and dry in the fridge after opening to keep them fresh for several months.
Part of the struggle with this list (and the real reason for the above vermouth fudge) is the wide variety of excellent liqueurs and other modifying spirits on the market. Given the above ingredients, we can make Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Martinis and the like, and we would be well satisfied (indeed, they are the drinks I make most often at home), but life would get awfully boring if we could not create drinks that sparkle with other flavors brought about by the magical alchemy that liqueurs provide us when mixed with strong spirits, ice and sometimes citrus.
Green Chartreuse is my first choice in the category, partly because I love its bold, herbal character and partly because it crops up so frequently in the historical and modern canon. If I had more room, I would also stock its mellower, yellow little brother, but in a limited bar, the more assertive, higher proof Green is the choice. It is one of the more expensive bottles here, but you generally use it sparingly, and it is well worth the investment. Neat, in a small glass, it is also excellent after a heavy meal.
Maraschino is another classic ingredient that consistently crops up in old and new recipes. Its musty sweetness provides sharp contrasts, particularly in Rye based drinks, and the gold standard will be from Luxardo.
There are many options here, and a lot of them are good. You won’t go wrong with Cointreau, Combier Liqueur D' Orange Triple Sec or Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao. They all work slightly differently, based on base spirit, aging, sugar levels, but all are excellent products that will serve almost anywhere orange liqueur is called for.
Campari was one of the tougher decisions to include, but in the end, you need a bitter aperativo in your arsenal, and a world without Negronis and Americanos is a poor place indeed. The similar, but less widely available Gran Classico is also an excellent choice here and should be considered.
Many of the early cocktails now made with whiskey were originally Cognac based drinks, and no bar is complete without a mixing brandy. The problem is that most Cognac is aimed at the rarified sipping market and, while excellent and elegant, lacks the robust character that makes for a good mixer, while cheaper domestic and other foreign brandy is often too rustic to really shine. The base VSOP from Remy Martin or the VS from Courvoisier will do, but the Pierre Ferrand 1840 was designed specifically for cocktail use and is excellent and reasonably priced. The Germain-Robin Craft Method Brandy is also outstanding in mixed drinks, though a touch more expensive.
There is only one, nationally available choice for real, traditional applejack: Laird's Straight Apple Brandy, bottled at 100 proof. Do not confuse this with the slightly cheaper Laird’s Applejack, which is only 30 percent apple spirit, with the rest of the bottle made with neutral grain spirit.
There are a number of excellent light rums on the market, many that offer great value and flavor. Consider the Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4 Yr White Rum , Don Q Cristal, Caliche, and Banks 5 Island Rum. All are outstanding, offered at a good price and will provide excellent rum flavors for mixing. The Bacardi 1909, which saw a limited release, is also great if you can track it down.
Darker rums offer contrast in a number of classic rum drinks and provide great sipping when a cocktail isn’t on the agenda. There are a number of excellent choices out there. Cana Brava, an exciting new product from Panama that was designed by Don Pancho Fernandez, the creator of Havana Club 7 (also excellent if you can lay hands on it) is a great choice, but with limited availability. Rhum St. James Royal Ambre gives a nice Agricole twist in the category; Bacardi 8 Year Old is probably the best product in the Bacardi range. Ron Zacapa Rum 23 is excellent, if a little pricey. Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum is outstanding in the high test range, and Appleton Estate 12 Year Old is a workhorse.
Absinthe is going to be another spendy bottle, but one that you use only in dashes and spoonfuls for most cocktail use. A bottle will last forever and let you make a number of classic and modern cocktails that call for the stuff. The choice is pretty wide open here, depending on how much you want to spend and if you’ll also be drinking the stuff on its own. Three favorites are Kubler, a Swiss Blanche absinthe that is excellent and a great value, Tenneyson Absinthe Royal, another great Blanche and Vieux Carre Absinthe Supérieure, an excellent Verte absinthe.
You could also just go with Herbsaint if budgeting is an issue, but, if you want to go that route, consider the slightly more expensive, slightly less sweet and slightly higher proof, Legendre Herbsaint Original Liqueur.
Those twelve bottles will get you started and place a rich tapestry of recipes at your disposal, but I’m going to give one more fudge here. Because the United States Government doesn’t classify most bitters as spirits, but rather as a food item, they don’t count towards your bar total So, keep and Angostura, Peychaud’s and a good quality orange bitters on hand and they should cover most of your bitters needs, with the caveat that there are excellent smaller producer bitters on the market that the truly obsessed will wind up collecting and using.
Happy New Year. Enjoy.