Yes, it seems TV shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are inspiring plenty of us to get back to the classic tradition of living room tipple. And while your local down the road may have spent millions on that fit-out, we can all have our private cocktail bars with mere modest effort and investment.
"I'm always setting up home bars," says Merlin Jerebine, the manager and creative director of Melbourne's award-winning cocktail bar 1806. He says there's a big shift with how we're making cocktails these days. Ten years ago, where people were blending and muddling drinks, they're now looking into shaking and stirring – the domain of classic drinks. "They are looking at the finer skills in cocktail making," he says.
When it comes to stocking your home bar, you need spirits, modifiers, bitters and mixers. Which spirits exactly? It's a pretty straightforward collection of vodka, rum, gin, tequila and whisky – and feel free to swap in or add bourbon or Scotch. The big differentiator is the quality of grog. "It's just a matter of common sense," says Charlie Ainsbury, a past Bartender of the Year (Bartender Magazine) who now specialises in curated cocktails with super-fresh ingredients for Sydney's Duke Bistro. He stresses not dipping below the $20 line. "Anything that cheap is going to be horrible," he says. Spending only slightly more makes a world of difference.
Gerald Faundez, who’s a bartender at Brisbane's X&Y – named by Australian Bartender as one of the country's 10 best mixologists – agrees. "Spending a little bit extra on a premium brand is definitely worth it. Buy something decent and you'll really taste it." Here are some of Faundez's guidelines to being in good spirits:
Tequila Those days being hungover on the cheap stuff are over. Faundez prefers a blanco; a clean style that's only rested for some 60 days, often in stainless-steel. "You can really taste the agave," he says, as opposed to aged anejos in wood, which he believes overwhelms the flavour of the cocktail: "It takes on the flavour of the barrel."
Rum "I'm a fan of a nice, clean, fresh, crisp cocktail," he says, so white rum is the call for making the likes of daiquiris and mojitos. Most of his customers prefer Bacardi for its slight hint of sweetness, he says, while those wanting a drier rum can opt for rum such as Havana Club. "I like a dark rum for after dinner, when you just want to sit there and sip."
Vodka Go for decent-quality brands, like Grey Goose or Belvedere. "Not the most expensive, but not the cheapest."
Scotch and whisky "You're better off using a blend. It's not worth wasting your money on a single malt," he says. "A single malt is meant to be used by itself." For cocktails, he goes for blends like Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker Black to make classics like a Rob Roy or Rusty Nail.
Gin "The labels tell you a hell of a lot," he says, as different gins all have different botanicals in them. Common ingredients are juniper berries and coriander, but it deviates wildly from there. Hendrick’s shows cucumber and Hungarian rose; Tanqueray No. Ten is all grapefruit and chamomile; Bombay Sapphire is a blend of about 10 botanicals. Plymouth is another popular gin. A personal favourite is the original Tanqueray. "You can taste the juniper in it; it's a ballsy gin."
Bourbon He pulls these out for specific classics, like Manhattans. The choices are up to personal taste: Maker's Mark is a sweeter bourbon, while Faundez finds Wild Turkey to be spicier. The triple-distilled Woodford Reserve is another bartender favourite.
WHEN IT POURS
When it comes to the modifiers, namely liqueurs and vermouths, things get more varied. Where Frangelico and Kahlúa might have once been vitals, now it's liqueurs like crème de pêche, apricot brandy, crème de cacao (white or dark) and crème de menthe are in"¦ and Cointreau (aka Triple Sec) has never left. As for Baileys, save it for the shot glass; there's not much use for it in today's cocktail repertoire. Sweet and dry vermouths are used in numerous cocktails, martinis being a key one, and Ainsbury also recommends one or more berry liqueurs.
Then there are bitters, which add an extra layer of complexity to drinks. Angostura bitters are a must-have standard, but there's a growing trend toward more unusual, creative types of aromatic bitters; from the booming use of orange bitters to obscurities like tobacco bitters. "You have heaps of bitters coming out," says Jerebine, who's in awe of the "bitter crazy" scene in the US, spanning coast-to-coast. And not all bitters are the same; at 1806, he stocks three different orange bitters for use in varying cocktails, from a classic Champagne cocktail to a rum Old Fashioned. He also stocks Peychaud's Bitters for their specialty use in a Sazerac.
Ainsbury says the most overlooked ingredients are often the basic mixers. "People don't have enough soft drinks in their cabinets," he says "Think of small bottles. Forget about the big bottle crap, they go flat really quickly." Then there's the matter of citrus fruit, primarily lemon, lime and orange. "If you give me a bit of citrus and liqueur, you're in business."
Ainsbury recommends bypassing cocktail mixes, such as the typical margarita mix, which are devoid of the fresh ingredients that make a vibrant cocktail version. "They're easy and they're cheap, but people should stay away from them," he says. "Think of it like food. You're not going to buy pre-packaged mashed potatoes and boxed gravy." That means squeezing fresh fruit juice, which can be as simple as using a wooden hand juicer. "The fresher the better," he says.
And instead of bringing more alchohol as a party gift, Ainsbury has a better suggestion: Bring ice. "Ice is the thing that people often forget about it," Skip the petrol-station kind, he says, which melt too quickly and make drinks watery. Instead, make your own larger, denser ice at home. He recommends going on eBay to buy a large ice tray with 1.5 to 2-inch squares. "Larger blocks take longer to melt, since there's less surface area."
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Look in your kitchen, and the likelihood is that you'll have most of the tools you'll need to run a well-honed cocktail bar: a serrated knife for slicing fruit; cutting board; zester for garnishes; and a spoon for stirring. You can even use a rolling pin if you're doing any muddling, and a fine grater for shaving nutmeg.
The most important addition will be a shaker, with most bartenders recommending the three-piece Cobbler shaker for beginners, because of its ease of use. It's a familiar metal shaker that has a cap to close off the built-in strainer on top. Another popular option is the Boston shaker, which pairs a tall metal cup with a full-sized mixing glass – it's faster to use and allows you to pull a chilled glass from the freezer, but takes practice and requires a separate Hawthorn strainer. It can also allow for one half of the drink to be prepared in the tin, another in the glass, and then combined.
Also handy is a bar spoon, which is long enough the reach the bottom of shakers, and also has a flattened base for coaxing flavours and juices from delicate fruit and herbs. Other optional tools include a glass mixing jar (if not using a Boston shaker), a jigger to measure spirit doses, and maybe some other strainers, such as a julep and tea strainer. "With that little set-up, you can make every cocktail imaginable," says Jerebine.
As for a serrated knife, Jerebine prefers a small 9-inch version, such as a Victorinox steak knife. He's also partial to a cleaver for taking the tops off of coconuts.
ART OF GLASS
Unless you get hooked on collecting vintage glasses – an admirable pursuit – a glassware range for the cocktail cabinet is pretty straightforward. There are Champagne flutes for cocktails with, yes, bubbly in them, and martini glasses for, yes, martinis. Most other cocktails find themselves served in statuesque highball glasses or stout tumblers (aka a lowball or rock glass), and there are a couple of different rules of thumbs for how each should be used. There's the colour barrier, where white spirits like rum get served in highballs, while dark spirits like bourbon go into tumblers. Then there's the gender barrier, which says that women drink from highballs and men from tumblers. Jerebine says the rules don't really apply that steadfast anymore, so use whatever glass speaks to you.
There are also some specialty glasses to consider. There's a larger tumbler called a double old-fashioned, which is used for drinking its eponymous cocktail, straight whiskeys and Scotch. And there's also the very collective tiki glass route, which are used for Polynesian and other tropical-inspired drinks that are far more complex than they might seem. Start serving tiki drinks, and Jerebine recommends taking a proper cocktail course. "So much goes into them," he says. "It's where you need to start learning about balance."
When it comes to making cocktails, it's all about balance. "It has to be a symphony in your mouth," says Jerebine. "If there's one ingredient standing out too much, it means the drink isn't balanced."
A good rule of thumb to start with is a famous saying for ratios: One for sweet, two for sour, three for strong, and four for weak. Faundez says the sweet is usually sugar syrup or fruit; the sour is citrus; the strong is your spirits; and the weak are your mixers. For example, a drink could be 15ml sugar syrup, 30ml lemon juice, 45ml whisky or rum, and 60ml water, juice or soda (ginger beer, tonic, soda water, etc). Even so, once you know the rules, you're likely to deviate. "These days, people's tastes have changed, so I don't really use it," Faundez says, "but it's a good rule of thumb to start with." Another popular ratio is 3:2:1, which is three parts featured ingredient, two parts supporting ingredient, and one part accent ingredient.
While garnishes may seem like mere presentation to some, Faundez urges not to skip them. "I think they're really important, because when they sit on top of the drink, you smell it," he says. "You smell things better than you taste them." One of his favourites is a flamed orange zest with an Old Fashioned, which produces micro pyrotechnics over the glass thanks to a lighter and a heated, then pinched, slice of rind.
EAT & DRINK
When it comes to cocktail and food, think about the timing and occasion. "It's just about making it fun," says Jerebine. He suggests doing a backyard barbecue with "fruity cocktails in the sun" or starting the meal with cocktails and canapés.
You can also serve aperitifs to open up the palate before the meal, he says, such as using Campari in a Negroni. Mealtime usually sees cocktails go the way of wine, beer or water, and then things start up again by dessert, where creamy drinks like Brandy Alexanders or Grasshoppers pair with dessert. For cold weather, Jerebine likes to pull out some warming blazer cocktails.
The single biggest trend in home bars is punch, says Ainsbury. "We're not talking high-school punch, where someone's spiked it," he says, but rather a more refined version. "You don't want to be shaking up cocktails and missing a party if you have guests. The thing about a punch is that you can prepare it a few hours before. It's just a matter of squeezing from fresh juice." Punch, he explains, was one of the earliest forms of cocktails, and can be a great uniting part of a dinner party. "You can get everyone involved: someone juicing the fruit, someone cutting the lemons, someone muddling pineapples, plucking the mint for decoration." Simply ask your guests to bring each ingredient. He also recommends using takeaway containers to make large blocks of ice, which are perfect for keeping bowls of punch cold without melting too quickly.
TWIST & SHOUT
If you're looking to brush up on your classic cocktails and overall bartending skills, there are some great resources recommended by bar professionals. Ainsbury recommends the two cocktail books by Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff, who was once a fixture at New York's Rainbow Room: The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. "He makes some of the best drinks in the world," says Ainsbury, who's also a fan of some of the better iPhone bartending apps, especially one called Flip 'N Drink, devised by cocktail book authors Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan.
Jerebine says the one must-have cocktail book for bartenders is The Savoy Cocktail Book, which features some 750 classic drinks, hailing back to the 1930s heyday of London's famed The American Bar at The Savoy, which remains one of the world's top-rated classic bars. He also recommends tapping into the better cocktail websites, such as DrinkBoy.
Night courses on cocktail making used to be the primary lair of bartenders, but not any more, says Jerebine. More and more classes are being offered to citizen bar folks, showing them how to properly pour drinks, melt ice and learn why a martini should stirred, not shaken – unless you're ordering a Vesper. "The only reason why Bond shook his was martini, was because he was the rogue," says Jerebine. There are too many courses to name, but a Google search will turn up plenty of options in your capital city.
And once you’ve nailed your bartending skills, bought your tools and stocked up on your favourite liquids, Ainsbury has one final piece of advice: "Just make sure everyone gets that drink on arrival, whether it's champagne or punch or whatever."