Maybe I’m a little off, but I’ve always wanted to own a bar—and live in it as well. Whether it’s the plush, red leather booths, the big, pulsing jukeboxes, the mellow, soft lighting, I don’t know. I suppose it could be all that booze. But over the years, I’ve enlivened many an idle moment—standing on line at the post office, becalmed on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, captive in a conference room—by figuring out just what tunes I’ll have on the jukebox in my bar-home, where I’ll put the Big Buck Hunter machine, what cute names I’ll paint on the restroom doors (Innies and Outies? Checks and Mates?). And, of course, precisely what bottles will be ranked behind the bar.
It’s a harmless fantasy, to be sure, and a not particularly realistic one. I have, however, managed to live one part of the dream. My house is fully stocked with booze. Twelve years of writing about spirits and cocktails have seen to that. Between the bottles people have sent me and what I’ve picked up in my travels, you want it, I’ve got it. Scotch? Sure. Cognac? Check. Barrel-aged cachaça? Goan cashew fenny? You want that over ice or neat? I’ve got bourbon that was distilled in 1919. I’ve got 39 different bottles of rum on the wall. I’ve even got, God help me, a shelf full of blueberry-flavored vodkas and cookie dough–flavored liqueurs and suchlike, although that shelf’s down in the basement, hidden behind the water heater.
I say all this not to gloat, mind you, but to establish my credentials. Most of those bottles gather dust. I’d like to talk about a few that don’t. By that I mean the booze, given practically unlimited access to the stuff, I actually use to mix drinks with; the bottles I’d buy to restock my bar should I one day put my house in the custody of teenagers or invite the English National Rugby Union team over for a drink.
Here, then, is what experience has shown me to be essential to stocking a bar. I’ve limited my choices to a little more than a dozen mixing spirits; the sipping ones can wait for another time. With these, you should be able to turn out enough different cocktails to satisfy any conceivable mix of friends you might be entertaining, short of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. And just to get your shaker warmed up, I’ve added a few can’t-miss cocktail recipes.
The modern cocktail bar begins with gin. Gin is to the ’teens what vodka was to the ‘80s—the lightest, most mixable spirit you can drink and still seem cool. And judging by the number of new gins on the market, the decade seems likely to end awash in the stuff as well, buried under a mountain of cleverly designed bottles. Most of those newfangled gins I don’t drink, at least not often. Their eccentric approach to botanicals—they’ll often use not just juniper and coriander, which are standard, but things like feverfew, chamisa, and dragon’s eye, which are decidedly not—can make them taste weird in a standard Martini, a simple sour, or a G&T. Even so, it’s still worth having one of these exotics around to invent interesting new drinks when the mood strikes.
1) Plain-old London Dry gin. What with all the novelties around, people sometimes forget how good an old-fashioned London Dry gin can be. I’ve always liked Tanqueray for its juniper-heavy boldness, but Beefeater, Boodles, or Junípero also work just fine in your canonical gin drinks.
2) Plymouth gin. Both a brand and a style of gin, Plymouth is light, clean, and fragrant and mixes perfectly with lemon juice when you want a Tom Collins or such.
3) One oddball. Whether it’s Hendrick’s, flavored with cucumber and rose, or Whitley Neill, flavored with baobab berries, or one of the domestic microdistilled gins such as St. George Botanivore, I like to have a new-style gin on hand for times I’m feeling creative (try one out in the Buckingham, below).