Ready to graduate from home bartending to home mixology? If you’ve been building your home bar according to my plan, it’s time to stop blindly following recipes and start creating your own original tipples. Add these five items to your supplies and there’ll be just about no drink you can’t make (or at least make a reasonable facsimile for).
The pre-Prohibition golden age of cocktails involved lots and lots of cognac. From the original recipe for the Sazerac to the delicious and timeless Sidecar, the French brandy played a huge role in the development of the mixological repertoire. And no other spirit can really recreate its flavor. Cognacs can get astronomical in price, but those long-aged bottlings are just for sipping. When it comes to mixing, you want a far more affordable VS (2 to 4 years old) or VSOP (4 to 6 years old) brandy.
I don’t care how much you hate its licorice flavor; a proper cocktail bar needs a bottle of absinthe. A few drops add beautiful depth to drinks like the Sazerac or Corpse Reviver No. 2 without taking over. Try a dash of the stuff in a whiskey-based Old Fashioned or Manhattan-style creation, a gin-based highball l or even a rum-soaked tiki concoction—it’ll work in all of ‘em. And if you do enjoy those anise notes, there’s nothing better than absinthe the old-timey way: by itself, with ice water dripped in slowly until it turns cloudy.
From pre-Prohibition cocktail ingredients we go to something contemporary. Sherry’s been made in Spain for hundreds of years but only recently has it become a darling of creative bartenders. The dry and nutty fino and amontillado styles make a wonderful aperitif and can be used in place of vermouth or even as the base spirit for a low-alcohol drink, while the thick and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry is almost like a liqueur.
Amaro is a broad class of bitter Italian liqueurs that includes Campari as well as dozens of other beloved bottlings. The category is a fountain of cocktail creativity, as each amaro has its own intense flavor, ranging from the super-bitter and ultra-minty Fernet Branca to the mildly bitter vanilla-and-ginger Ramazzotti to the totally weird but totally delicious artichoke-based Cynar. Amari work wonderfully with whiskey, and there’s a whole world of Manhattan variations out there using different types of the stuff.
A HOMEMADE INFUSION
You can’t let the liquor companies do all the work. For a truly original cocktail, you need a truly original ingredient. Thankfully, homemade infusions are ridiculously easy: Take vodka or another spirit (the higher-proof the better), add fruit, herb, spice or some combination, and let sit until it tastes like you want it to. Depending on the ingredient, flavorful infusions can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, but having a signature spirit for your signature cocktail is worth it. Try some unexpected combinations to yield creative results: A basil infusion works very nicely in a Bloody Mary, while a watermelon infusion can punch up tequila.