Adam Jaime


How to Stock Your Home Bar Like a Real Bartender

Dating is a gauntlet. From the first fumbling conversation to the cusp of foreplay, it’s fraught with innumerable opportunities to look like an asshole. The first kiss gets better lip service and declarations of love are more dramatic, but there might be no moment more high stakes, no step slipperier, than the first invitation back home for a drink.

“When I got into someone’s house and they have a bar and it’s full of crap I think, what’s the point?” says Ivy Mix, partner at Brooklyn’s Leyenda. “I think, why do you have this stuff? It’s not impressive. We’re not in college anymore. You don’t need to build a bar to house your Popov vodka. You can just keep it in a cupboard.”

Not every date is going to be with a world-class drink-maker—Mix was voted Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail in 2015—but the problem is universal. That first nite cap is for many people the first time we set foot in our date’s home, the first introduction into their private world. For the first time, your date will see the books on your shelves, hear the mix on your system and taste the booze in your glass.

The culture of drinking in 2018 is more complex than it has been in a century. Liquor stores across America are bulging with greater stock then they have in anyone’s lifetime, carrying rarer and more precious distillates from all over the globe. Even our corner bars are pressing juice fresh and taking pride in their Old Fashioneds. And if your date is used to boozing at the fanciest of fancy, God only knows what esoteric delicacies they’re used to getting sloshed on. Our own tiny hoards of hooch can seem quaint, if not pathetic.

“If you got someone to come back to your place, you’re halfway there. That’s not the time to go all out,” says Joaquin Simo, partner at New York’s Pouring Ribbons and himself a recipient of the Bartender of the Year award at Tales in 2012. “It’s the time to keep it simple and clean, and you look like you know what you’re doing and very quickly have something delicious and beautiful in someone’s hand. The point is not to admire your mixology.”

Assuming that someone has agreed to join you at your place, it puts both of you in a position of vulnerability—some might say it’s the first stage of intimacy. Your first responsibility (like that of any bar) is to make sure that your guest is cogent and healthy and happy and can handle and wants another drink. Once you’re sure, then what?

“The first and most important thing is to have a cold bottle of Champagne. A chilled bottle of a dry [Champagne] bottle should always be in a fridge, no matter what,” Simo says. “No matter what happens regarding the cocktail, you can at least have a sip of Champagne.”

Think of the Champagne as both your parachute and the gild on the lily—we’ll come back to that later.
You don’t want to have six different types of bourbon. If they don’t like whiskey, that’s not helping.
“You’ll want base spirits that are good and ethically made,” says Mix. This is a bit of barroom jargon that’s not hard to parse: Base spirits are the umbrella of booze that makes up the base of a cocktail. At a lot of bars, bartenders sometimes refer to this as their “rail,” but that can also mean the literal bottles in the rail (which can mean anything). Think gin, whiskey, tequila, rum and vodka; the core spirits that make up the lion’s share of cocktails throughout history. Figuring out the ethics of production is complicated and changes with each spirit and region, but a good first step is check out what they’re pouring at your favorite bar. Often times you’ll want to avoid the absolute cheapest stuff (and probably the most expensive as well).

“Your preferences might not be the same as your guest. With a little bit of variety you’ll give people the opportunity to show some preference to say, ’Oh, that’s the thing that I like,’” says Simo. “You’ve got to have that ability to seamlessly transition to another option. You want to be able to anticipate those needs. You don’t want to have six different types of bourbon. If they don’t like whiskey, that’s not helping. You want to have a bottle of gin, a bottle of rum. You want to have stuff you like, but also think about your guest.”

At a bare minimum you’ll want to have a dark spirit and a light spirit. Simo advises a bottle of gin (and I’d go so far as to advise going with the original London Dry style) and a bottle of Cognac to go with the aforementioned champagne. Of course, if that’s not your thing, a bottle of vodka and whiskey will do OK. It’s your home bar, after all.

“Know your own interests. To me, going on a date, nothing’s more attractive than someone who knows what they want, how they like it and what they like about it,” says Mix. “I’m really impressed with people who get geeky about stuff. I find it impressive when somebody is interested in something—anything. I find it to be really attractive.”

After you’ve got at least a couple of bottles kicking around on a shelf, both bartenders agree having some fresh citrus on hand is clutch. Grab a handful of lemons at a bare minimum, but if you’ve got both limes and lemons you’re doing great. You can peel the fruit first so you have a garnish on hand before using a hand-press juicer. Use a tea strainer if you’ve got one. (Pulp is great for the next morning in your orange juice, but not so much for your nite cap.)

You’ll want to keep a little bit of simple syrup in the fridge with your Champagne. Remember to keep it simple. Put equal parts white sugar and filtered water in a blender and mix until it reaches solution. Keep it far away from the stove.

From here on out you’re equipped to make a sour. Your favorite cocktail book will have various theories on the proper ratio (and it’s probably not a bad idea to have a couple of these around your home bar) but I like two ounces of spirit along with three quarters of an ounce of both citrus and simple syrup. Use whiskey and lemon and you’ve got a whiskey sour (toss in an egg white to get old school); use rum and lime and you’ve got a daiquiri. 
Remember, not every experiment is a success. Luckily, you’ve got that Champagne in the fridge.
Once you’ve got the bare minimum, you can branch out.

“But no bar is complete without a bottle of Campari and a bottle of Cointreau,” says Mix. “These aren’t things we necessarily buy first. Add some sweet and dry vermouth. With that, the possibilities open up.”

And they open up exponentially with every additional modifier. At some point you’ll look at the creme de violet and yellow Chartreuse on your shelf and wonder where the money went, but for now I’d go into the store with a plan. Go check out those books you bought and pick up a modifier or two based on the stuff you already have. A lot of times the addition of one ingredient will add an entirely new drink to your repertoire. This is where the Champagne comes in handy. Assuming you haven’t screwed the sour up beyond repair, add some Champagne for a tried and true twist. If you do it to a gin sour specifically, you’ve got a French 75, a classic end-of-the-night celebratory cocktail.

Once you’ve arrived to this point, you’re already down the rabbit hole. Depending on your personal style, you’ll be growing herbs on your windowsill, collecting classic eaux-de-vie or buying silicone molds for large-format ice. (The latter is what Simo recommends, but he’s adamant about keeping it in a ziplock bag in your freezer so it doesn’t absorb flavors.) Most bartenders will tell you not to overreach with your creativity, but honestly, that’s half the fun. And remember, not every experiment is a success. Luckily, you’ve got that Champagne in the fridge.

“You’re dating this person because you don’t know them. They’re not your boyfriend or girlfriend yet,” says Mix. “Playing to your own strengths and solidifying your own identity for them is the most attractive thing you can do. If it involves making a good drink, well, then good on you. Well done."

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