Our friend just retired. His wife is still working, so she thought he might want to work on his cocktail skills to ensure that he has something tasty to hand her when she comes home from a hard day at the office (and he had an adventurous day in the mountains). This inspired us to write up some cocktail guidelines, for those that are uncertain where to start, but appreciate that cocktail hour is the second best hour of the day.
If you are alive you are probably aware of the new and improved cocktail scene in the US. No longer are your cocktail choices a gin & tonic or a screwdriver. Not that there is anything wrong with those… except for the screwdriver. For many of us, there are several reasons to mixologize at home rather than at a bar: those drinks get expensive! You may live in Utah where a mixed drink can only have 1.5 ounces of booze (see recipes… there are very few that have only 1.5 ounces of booze). Like us, you might prefer the company of your dogs when you imbibe… Whatever the reasons, if you choose to take this on at home, you can get as fancy as you like and spend a small fortune on equipment, booze, and glassware. That is not, of course, the Wild Westish way. We have done our share of dabbling with numerous liqueurs, syrups, bitters and eclectic booze, and are here to offer our pared down list of essential tools, liquor cabinet staples and cocktail faves.
How Much Booze do you Really Need?
Building up a liquor collection is a whole lot of fun and we embraced it with gusto. And then we moved, and moved again, and we started to realize that some of the same bottles were getting packed and unpacked and re-packed and not getting used. It turns out that we have a few favorite cocktails, a few favorite spirits and we just don’t need quite that much variety in our cabinet. There are seasonal favorites, or course, and new faves, and quite possibly you enjoy flavors that we do not, but hopefully our simple list can be a starting point for your inner mixologist.
Yes, buy the good stuff! If you wouldn’t drink it straight then don’t drink it at all. This doesn’t mean mix your very best whiskey (we save that for sippers) but it means it should taste good without anything in it. If you mix crap booze with good ingredients, you are going to have a half-assed cocktail. (And if you mix crap booze with crap you will have a crap cocktail…) We believe in quality in the Wild Westish, because it is delicious. The very best should be sipped neat.
The Liquor Cabinet
We love gin and we love whiskey. And we love tequila and cognac and rum! However, for basic everyday drinks we drink more gin and bourbon than anything else. So if you are like us, start with gin and bourbon.
There are so many options in the gin category these days, with flavor profiles that range from a classic London dry to quite floral and complex. Try a few and see what you like. Some will taste great in a simple drink like a Rickey but clash horribly with maraschino liquor in an Aviation. You may end up with a couple of different flavors, depending on what you like to drink and that is okay! You may end up with something you don’t like at all (beware the Genever), but it’s all fun and there is always punch to get rid of the weird ones.
For whiskey based cocktails, we tend towards bourbon. Bourbon, too, has quite a bit of variety. We tend to favor those that are less sweet and have been aged a bit longer. Rye is also a wonderful whiskey for cocktails, but a good rye can be harder to come by in the West.
Vermouth: dry and rouge. Please please please put your vermouth in your refrigerator and drink it within ~3 months of opening. This stuff goes bad, so if you are not going to drink Manhattans or Martinis enough to use it up, get small bottles or drink it over ice with a squeeze of lemon. But do not put manky old vermouth in your quality gin or bourbon. We favor Dolin brand, but as with everything, try some and see what you like.
Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur: Oh-so important for our gin fave, the Aviation. It tends to be used by the half ounce, so it lasts a long time and is worth the investment. Note that maraschino liqueur is not the same as cherry liqueur, not at all.
Grand Marnier: Others may not agree, but this is our favorite orange liqueur. We use it in margaritas, we use it in a sidecar… Sometimes we will use Cointreau, which is sweeter. But mostly we love the full flavor that is the mix of orange and cognac in a bottle of Grand Marnier. We never use Triple Sec (see quality above… we wouldn’t drink it on its own).
**Extra Credit** Creme Yvette: This is not essential but it is truly delicious. We love a Blue Moon and so we keep a bottle of Creme Yvette around.
So: gin, bourbon, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, maraschino and Grand Marnier. With these 6 bottles you can mix up a pretty decent selection of drinks, impress your friends and make your spouse/partner/roommate happy if they’ve had a rough day at work.
Syrups and Soda Water
Simple syrup: so easy to mix! We do it cold so that we don’t have to do it in advance. 1 part water, 1 part sugar (we always use evaporated cane sugar because it is more delicious). Shake in a jar until it is dissolved. Typically we make ~¼ cup at a time and store the extra in the fridge. We know from experience that it goes bad… in a very bad way.
Honey syrup is also quite amazing but requires more forethought. Mix equal parts honey and water in a small sauce pan and warm until the honey is dissolved (best not to boil). Store in a jar in the refrigerator.
Maple syrup: one of the best sweeteners around that we use when we get a hankering for a Fifth Route. Luckily it can also be used for waffles and so never goes to waste.
Other syrups and soda water: When we want a gin & tonic, we use a tonic syrup (Jack Rudy makes a fine one, but there are others). Reasons for this: no high-fructose corn syrup, no need to use the whole bottle right away (like bottled tonic water, which will go flat), and syrup has the benefit that you can add a little or a lot, depending on preference. Our key to this is a Sodastream machine that makes your soda water in-house. If you happen to love soda water, please consider the Sodastream hack, which will change your life, save your money and save you from having to buy and return those proprietary Sodastream canisters. You can probably find a barely used Sodastream machine at your local thrift store, if not, this one works just fine.
Other syrups, usually fruity, are great, easy to make (we just whipped out a batch of rhubarb syrup) and are a fun substitute for simple syrup. They do go bad, so if you make a batch, remember to use them up… These are also handy for mocktails! For example: mix a little rhubarb syrup, lime juice and soda water and suddenly the non-drinking guest feels cared for.
We have at least 20 different kinds of bitters, used 1-2 dashes at a time. We like them! However, as with other things, we tend to like them simple (aromatic, orange, cardamom…). Complex bitters (such as lavender/grapefruit/hops…) can be confusing and might not get used unless we make a conscious effort to fit them with a specific drink. To start, get some sort of aromatic bitters, as well as orange bitters. Those that dig bitters will have ample opportunity to experiment.
A shaker (we highly recommend an insulated one, such as this one). Hipper folks will go with a Boston shaker but we like to mix our drinks and drink them, not worry about how hip our equipment is. Non-insulated shakers will sweat and often leak all over the place.
A jigger. Exact measurements are important! Get a jigger that measures ½ ounce to 2 ounces.
Hawthorne strainer. Essential for stirred drinks.
Small, sharp knife for slicing open fruit and for cutting your citrus twists.
Lemon/citrus squeezer. Fresh juice is a must.
Small glasses. I would recommend a variety of shapes, sizes, decoration and color for maximum enjoyment. Etsy and your local thrift store are all packed with eras worth of amazing glassware.
Have a question? Suggestion? Please contact us!