Story and photos by Tanya Schaap
Maybe you’re hosting your first quarantine cocktail party with your roommates. Maybe you’re looking to impress your friends with one of those chic prohibition cocktails on the social-distancing-friendly House Party app. Or maybe you just want to sip on a whiskey sour while re-watching Suits for the umpteenth time. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe.
Whatever the reason, there’s never been a better time to stock your bar like a pro. Jiggers, shakers, bitters, aperitifs … what was once hard to find for the average consumer is now only a click away.
I sat down with two of Calgary’s leading authorities in the beverage industry – JD Darnes, beverage director at Cocktail Concierge and Jesse Willis, co-owner at Vine Arts – to get their opinions on the essential spirits, necessary mixers and must-have tools to get you sipping, shaking and stirring like a boss.
“Rule number one,” says Darnes, “is to stock a wide enough range of spirits in order to make as many drinks as possible.
Rule number two is to make sure you choose versatile spirits. Choose spirits that are good enough to drink neat, but not (so) good that you can’t mix them in a cocktail.”
We might be inclined to listen to Darnes. He’s mixed drinks for George Clooney, managed cocktail parties at Cannes Film Festival and re-opened the famous American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London. And that’s only half his resume. Now based in Calgary, he’s leaning into the craft cocktail craze, pioneering a new concept called Cocktail Concierge, a drinks agency focused on custom cocktail event service.
There’s no denying the recent popularity of craft cocktails. Variations on the Moscow mule, smoked old fashioneds and twists on tiki drinks like the mai tai are now standard menu options in most restaurants. And with the craft cocktail trend in full swing, it makes sense that home bartending is enjoying its own little renaissance.
“Customers often come in asking what they need to set up their home bar,” says Jesse Willis at Vine Arts. “Diners try drinks at local restaurants and think, how can I make this at home.”
This recent surge in home bartending is one of the reasons Willis and his partners, Jeff Jamieson and Warren Orban, launched Fifth & Vermouth, an online store that sells a range of barware and cocktail supplies.
“Vine Arts customers started asking where they could find mixing glasses, shakers, coupes and other accessories…but there was a real hole in the market. So, we started Fifth & Vermouth to give people access to professional-grade, reasonably-priced barware.”
Now that you’ve stocked your bar, it’s time to try some cocktails. Start with making Homemade Falernum Syrup to be used in the Olden Bay and Sketches of Spain Cocktails!
STOCK THE BASICS
Both experts agree that it’s unrealistic (and expensive) to try to stock every bottle in the book. Instead, start with some base spirits to make a few of your favourite cocktails and build from there.
Of course, opinions abound over what constitutes “base” spirits – even our experts don’t agree. But there are five staple spirits every well-rounded bar should stock: 1) gin for the martini or Negroni; 2) rye whisky or bourbon for the Manhattan, old fashioned or whiskey sour; 3) rum for the mojito or daiquiri; 4) vodka for the Moscow mule or Caesar; and 5) tequila for the margarita or paloma. From there, you can add scotch, brandy, calvados or absinthe.
You should also stock two kinds of vermouth: sweet vermouth for drinks like the Manhattan, Martinez and Negroni and dry vermouth for the classic martini.
Our pros also recommend stocking liqueurs like orange and cherry. Darnes recommends Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao and Cherry Heering. Other liqueurs to consider: apricot, pear, cassis, elderflower and Chartreuse. For apéritifs, start with Campari, a necessary ingredient for the Negroni. From there, add Aperol or Amaro.
JD’S PRO TIP
Try making your own cocktail syrups at home. Look for recipes for Orgeat, Grenadine or Falernum.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
There are six must-have tools you’ll need to start your home bar: 1) a cocktail shaker; 2) a mixing glass (for stirred drinks); 3) a jigger; 4) a Hawthorne strainer; 5) a bar spoon; and 6) a muddler. From here you can add specialty ice-molds, a serrated zester, a paring knife, a fine-mesh strainer…or, for the truly advanced, a smoking kit.
When serving a crowd, consider “prebatching” your cocktails. Pre-mix your drinks in large batches before your guests arrive. Don’t forget, however, to aerate each cocktail by shaking over ice. Or use an immersion blender to aerate the whole batch!
Want your cocktails to look like the pros? Invest in these three types of glassware: 1) Double-rocks glass; 2) a champagne coupe (the new “martini” glass); and 3) a tall Collins glass.
Non-alcoholic mixers: ice, tonic, soda, lemon and lime juice.
Bitters. Start with the “big three,” says Willis, “Orange, Angostura and Peychaud’s.” Or try Black Cloud’s sampler pack.
Sweetener. Simple syrup is must-have for a number of cocktails. And it’s called simple for a reason. Dissolve one cup of sugar with one cup of water over heat. Store in the fridge for up to four weeks. Look for other recipes for Grenadine, Orgeat and Falernum.
Garnishes. Stock fresh mint, oranges, lemons, limes, olives and bourbon-soaked cherries.
JD’S TOP TEN LIST
I asked JD Darnes one simple question: if you were stranded on a desert island and were only allowed 10 bottles, which would you choose? Here’s his Desert Island top ten picks for versatile yet high quality spirits.
- Gin: Ampersand
- Rum: Appleton Rare Blend 12yr
- Bourbon: Wellers 12yr
- Scotch: Bowmore 15yr
- Brandy: Camus VSOP
- Calvados: Calvados Boulard Pay D’Auge
- Tequila: Tierra Noble Reposado
- Cherry Liqueur: Cherry Heering
- Apricot Liqueur: Merlet Lune d’Abricot
- Vermouth: Gonzalez Byass la Copa