11) Perhaps the greatest brandy-based drink ever invented is the Mint Julep. That’s right: Before the Civil War, French brandy was the preferred spirit in this American classic. And small wonder—make it with a rich, old, and expensive brandy and you’ll get all the complexity of the old bourbon coupled with a suavité that’s truly French. But XO-grade brandy—what we’re talking about here—is expensive. Armagnac, at least, is two thirds to three quarters of the price of Cognac and every bit as delicious. I like the Castarède XO, but almost any XO Armagnac will make a fine Julep.
Finally, the spirit of the agave. One thing I’ve learned in my years of cocktail writing is that you can’t tell anybody how to make a Margarita. It’s like barbecue—everybody’s got their own way and it’s just the best. All you can do is advise that they use a good tequila. Or, if they’re a little crazy, a mezcal, tequila’s smoky, badass cousin.
12) If you like a bold, sharp, and vegetal tequila (many of us do), you can’t do better than El Tesoro Platinum, a wildly flavorful tequila from the highest part of Mexico’s tequila region. If you prefer something rich, mellow, and earthy, I’m very partial to Partida Reposado.
13) If you’re the type of person who thinks mezcal sounds intriguing, there’s no better place to start than with Vida. After that, you’re into the world of artisanal sipping mezcals; you may never come back.
The Wild Card
Finally, every bar needs an oddball bottle of something or other that nobody’s heard of and that happens to make fabulous cocktails if you know just what to do with it. It can be Pisco from Peru or Chile (look for Barsol or Alto del Carmen); Batavia arak from Indonesia via Holland (look for Batavia-Arrack van Oosten); aquavit, traditionally from Scandinavia (Norway’s Linie is excellent, as is Oregon-made Krogstad); or—well, basically anything. Take a chance on something unusual: Life is short and the world is full of booze.
Mixers: Liqueurs, Fortified Wines, and Bitters
Of course, you’ll need some of each of these. Angostura Bitters and Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 are cocktail essentials (a Manhattan without Angostura is like a Caesar salad without anchovies, and orange bitters do wonderful things to a dry Martini). Also indispensable are red and white vermouths: Martini & Rossi red and Noilly Prat white are the traditional first-reach choices; they’re fine, but there are many other choices to explore, many of them good. In the 19th century, when the art of the bar was new, the only liqueurs generally on hand were orange curaçao (as recommended in my gin cocktail recipe, the Buckingham, below), Bénédictine, green and yellow Chartreuse, and Maraschino. Keep any two of these on hand and you can liven up an ocean of cocktails; just add a teaspoonful and see what happens (for the Maraschino, look for Luxardo or Maraska).
There’s more stuff out there, obviously; a lot more. Much of it is good (although I’d advise staying away from the cashew fenny). But if you stick with these 13 bottles and a few mixers for a while, try out different proportions, and practice your techniques (hint: stirring takes the most practice; it’s all in the wrist—your arm should stay still), you’ll be ready to handle just about anything and make any guest happy. Even—who knows?—someone who fantasizes about living in a bar.
This simple formula is quite adaptable: You can use any fortified wine or aperitivo (e.g., Aperol, Cocchi Americano, vermouth) in place of the Campari, and you can substitute any 80-proof orange liqueur of good quality for the curaçao.
Shake well with ice:1 1/2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
The Classic Manhattan
Why even try to improve on it? The only secret is to use enough vermouth.
Stir well with cracked ice:2 ounces straight rye whiskey
1 ounce Martini & Rossi red vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel on top. Don’t worry about the cherry unless you’ve got a minor to give it to. For a Rob Roy, use Scotch. For a bit of Gilded Age heaven from the old Delmonico’s restaurant of New York, make an “Appetizer à la Kingman”: Use the Genever and dash in a little orange bitters as well.
The Original Daiquiri
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
2 ounces white rum
- Squeeze the lime into a cocktail shaker and stir in the sugar. Add the rum, fill the shaker with ice, and shake viciously. Strain into a champagne coupe.
Navy Rum Punch
INGREDIENTS3/4 cup Demerara or turbinado sugar
1 quart plus 3/4 cup water
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 750-ml bottle of Smith & Cross rum
1 quart-size block of ice (freeze a quart-size bowl of water overnight)
- Stir the sugar and 3/4 cup of the water over a low flame until sugar dissolves. Let cool and add the lime juice, rum, and the remaining water. Pour in a bowl with the block of ice and grate half the nutmeg over the top.
INGREDIENTS2 teaspoons superfine or bar sugar
1/2 ounce water
6 to 8 mint leaves plus 3 to 4 sprigs mint
2 cups ice
2 1/2 ounces XO-grade French brandy
- In a tall glass, stir the sugar and the water together. Add the loose mint leaves and press them lightly with a muddler. Crack ice into fine pieces (wrap it in a towel and smash it with a rolling pin), then fill the glass with it.
- Add the Cognac, stir, and add more cracked ice (the level will have subsided). Garnish with 3 or 4 mint sprigs and a straw. Let sit for 5 minutes before sipping, if you can.
Brooklyn-based David Wondrich is the James Beard Award–winning author of Punch and Imbibe!, among other books. He has covered cocktails for more magazines and newspapers than he can count; What Your Drink Says About You was his last story for Gourmet Live.