Passing the Bar

People often stop your Uncle Joke out on the street and demand advice on all manner of things related to the arduous task of living civilizedly in a world seemingly overrun by philistines. The most thorny of all questions is the one of wanting to have a "good bar." Not because of the degree of difficulty in answering, but because the answer is lengthy.

But, I have a few moments, and I am feeling voluble. Lucky you. Here goes:

First, my general approach. Find a drink that you like and get the highest quality ingredients therefor. From this "genesis" cocktail, branch out. A daiquiri begets a mojito, etc. DO NOT head to Bob's Liq-O-Rama with a blank check.

If you have guests over, and if your guests are the sort who enjoy a variety of properly crafted tipples, this is going to run you +/-$350.


My cocktail bourbon of choice is Maker’s Mark. The price will give you reverse sticker shock -- especially if you can purchase it at a warehouse club's liquor store -- quality is excellent and it is supremely mixable. If your bourbonic cocktails run more to the mostly-straight (and mine do not, being more of a Whisky Sour than a Manhattan sort) or even doing the whole snifter routine (which I enjoy on occasion), then I vote for Knob Creek. My favorite Super Special Limited Edition is Wild Turkey's Rare Breed, but this is so optional as to be an afterthought.

If you had to pick just one: Maker's Mark.

Rye-wise, I really, really suggest you seek out Russell's 6-year rye. Failing that, Wild Turkey's rye. Failing THAT, Jim Beam is the easiest to find and it’s affordable. But rye isn't the linchpin of a bottle shelf that newly minted cocktailians would have you believe. If you get a bottle of rye, unless you, yourself, are a big fan of rye-based drinks, it is very likely that bottle will last you a good long while. Just saying.

For your old-school scotch-and-soda drinker, Johnny Walker Black will be just the thing. Now, I'm a big fan of single-malt scotch and have a veritable surfeit thereof. But my go-to single-malt scotch is Aberlour 10 Year. Like Maker's Mark in the bourbon category, this is the one that does the most things well. It's smoky enough, for those who like that, not so much that it will leave the others coughing. It goes exceptionally well with a cigar -- it's my default for a cigar -- it does marvels with soda, ice, or playing solo in a snifter. I also have Macallan 18- and 25-year, and Balvenie, Laphroiag and Cardhu (the core whiskey in Johnnie Walker). I can also heartily recommend Kirkland 19-year old, made for them by Macallan. Not only is it superb, but it will give you the reverse sticker shock we all know and love. Not to mention the irony of serving "Costco scotch." (If that is more of an issue than a perverse point of pride, place the contents in a decanter. Seriously, nobody would ever suspect.)

If you had to pick just one: Johnnie Walker Black.
If you had to pick just one single-malt: Aberlour 10, or that Costco one.

For the odd moment where Irish whisky is needed or desired -- which, really, ain't often either here -- I have a bottle of Michael Collins which I received from my dad and was probably a gift to him. After several years and two owners, it's still sealed. Mind you, there could be a colossal awakening of palates to Irish whisky, but for now, it really is something beyond the scope of "a basic bar."

If Canadian whisky drinks manifest themselves in your life, use Seagram’s VO.


During the warm-not-hot times of the year (here in SoFla, that means the last two weeks of April) I like gin. Especially London Dry gins. I am currently going through a bottle of Bombay Sapphire which is phenomenal. But my default is Plymouth, which is less botanical. Prior to that I liked Beefeater. Any one of these will be fine, and nobody will think you deranged if you chose Tanqueray. But Plymouth is the more flexible of all, with more manageable levels of juniper and botanicals.

(The botanical gamut runs, from least to most, thus: Plymouth, Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater, Tanqueray.)

If you had to pick just one: Plymouth, or Bombay Sapphire if you can't find Plymouth.


I admit it: I don't "get" vodka. There is only one drink made with vodka which I love -- the Bloody Mary, as recipe-ed in The Preppy Handbook -- and for that I am wildly flexible. I also like consuming smoked salmon or caviar/roe on blinis accompanies by an icy shot of vodka. But that's it. To be brutally frank, most (not all) people who drink "vodkatinis" or vodka-and-tonics or Cape Codders are not the sort who would be able to spot the delicate nuances that distinguish Ketel One from Grey Goose.

Any good vodka will do. This is not to say I can't taste the subtleties that separate, say, Stoli from's that I just don't care about those differences. (Cook's Illustrated ran some cheap, plastic-bottle vodka through a Brita pitcher a few times and pronounced it as good as any hyperdollar brand.)

At the moment, we have Finlandia, with a gifted bottle of Absolut Citron in the freezer for blini duty. When that runs out, I think I have an unopened bottle of the Smirnoff silver label (whatever THAT's called) and if I'm wrong and it turns out I don't have that bottle, then I can try the new Kirkland vodka, made in the same town where they make Grey Goose -- draw your own conclusions. If your vodka-loving pals are few and far between, and the few that do drink it stick to Bloody Marys...then stick to a good-but-not-top-shelf vodka; if they like drinks where the liquor is in the spotlight, then get Tito's.

Incidentally, we also have 10-12 mini bottles of vodka in the freezer. When those run out, we refill and refreeze.

If you had to pick just one: Tito's or the Costco one.


This is where it gets interesting. Rum is a strange liquor. Before I go on, I'll illustrate via an analogy:

Think of cats. They vary in coloration and hair length and some of them have squashier face, but that's it for cats, variationwise. Dogs, on the other hand, are a riot of variations. From great danes to pekingese to labradoodles to shnauzers to boxers and pointers. Rum is like dogs. Rum can be as colorless (and flavorless) as vodka, as overpoweringly offputting as one of those middle-of-nowhere single malt scotches and everything in between.

There is a gamut, see.

If you are an aficionado of Tiki drinks -- and you should be -- you will need a minimum of five rums. Silver, gold, black, aged, Demerara. Maybe an aged and an overproof if you really want to be thorough.

Here's what I suggest: Silver rum - Cruzan, Gold rum - Bacardi 8 (Bacardi has a less than stellar reputation among cocktail snobs, but their Bacardi 8 is really above reproach), Black rum - Cruzan Blackstrap or Gosling's Black Seal, Demerara (a smoky, funky rum from Guyana) rum - El Dorado 12 year old. I'd also suggest Barbancourt 8 for your aged rum, and for your overproof...pick 'em. I have Bacardi 151. This bottle will last you a long while. Flavored rums? Um. Cruzan Coconut, otherwise learn to infuse your own.

If you are not into Tiki drinks (it happens, even in the best families), you'll still need a silver and a gold rum.

If you had to pick just one (of each): Cruzan Aged Light and Bacardi 8.


I find tequila wildly overrated. There. I said it. Outside of the margarita I don't see a lot of call for it. And here in FL, when people think of a slushy something with a kick, they think daiquiri and not margarita.

Basically, there are three types of tequila (blanco, reposado and añejo) distinguishable by color (clear, "beige" and amber). There is no such thing as a "gold" tequila. It's merely a blanco with caramel. Don't be fooled. You also want to go with something labeled 100% Blue Agave. Again, don't be fooled. If it doesn't say so, scoot down the shelf to the next one.

Some people like their margarita made with a blanco and some with a reposado. I'm neutral on the issue. More important is to select the right brand. I am especially partial to Patrón is a really good, reasonably priced tequila, available anywhere. Take your pick of blanco or reposado. Again, because I am perversely inclined, Costco's tequila (made by boutique distiller Tonala) is on my list of things to try, especially for $23 a bottle.

If you had to pick just one: Patrón or the Costco one.


This is treacherous ground. The only people who like absinthe, so far, are those folks doing the whole belle epoque I'm-so-indolent trip, complete with cravat and ridiculous tonsorial affectations. If you can score some legit absinthe, go to it.


When people say brandy, 99% of the time mean Cognac. The sad thing is that Cognac has a pretty clear relationship between price and quality. You will NOT get, ever, reverse sticker shock with Cognac. If you have a lot of friends of the snifter-and-fireplace persuasion, pop the coin for an XO. If you are someone for whom the finesse and delicacy of a stellar Cognac mean everything, then you already know what you like and you can skip this section.

Otherwise, stick to Martell VS, which is a really nice (albeit not outrageous) bargain, both better and cheaper than its VSOP stablemate. No, I don't know why, but there you go. I like Martell XO if you're going a bit more uptown.

But Cognac has a rogueish brother, Armagnac. You can get a LOT more bang for your buck with this brandy. My pick? Sempe Extra, which often comes in a blue Limoges "Crown of Louis XIV" decanter (skip the decanter and save a few bucks). Cognac also has an even more rogueish first cousin, sherry brandy from Spain. Get the Lepanto, which comes in a snazzy, gold-leaf decorated decanter.

I also suggest, if you are so inclined, that you look into Kirschwasser, Calvados and Poire. I suggest, respectively, Etter Kirsch Buger, Calvados du Prieure, Etter Poire Williams. But this is really getting beyond the basics. (In the cherry front, Cherry Heering or Luxardo are useful, not so much for making cocktails in my particular case, but for making for-reals, legit cocktail cherries.)

If you had to pick just one: Martell VS.



A small bottle of Pernod or Herbsaint for classic cocktails. This is like absinthe with training wheels, easier to find and without that whole Green Muse pas de deux.


NOT, you will kindly note, Benedictine & Brandy (i.e. B&B). If I want brandy with my Benedictine, I'll do so myself, thankyouverymuch.

Orange Liqueurs

Cointreau: Once you hop from generic triple sec or curaçao to this, you will NOT be able to go back. But you CAN substitute it rather well with Patrón's Citronge, for about half the price. Really.

Grand Marnier: Not a direct substitute for Cointreau. Yummy on its own.

Créme de Cassis
If you cannot live without Kir Royle, get the Marie Brizard.

Irish Cream
Bailey's is the archetype. Stash it in the fridge once opened.

Chambord is the archetype also, but my liquor store guy convinced me to try Mathilde, and I have been quite pleased.

If you had to pick just one (of each): Citronge and Bailey's. Maybe a couple of minis of Chambord. Maybe.


You need a sweet and a dry, I like Noilly Prat dry ("green") and Cinzano sweet ("red"). If you can't find Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi or Cinzano dry are just fine.


At a very bare minimum, you’ll want Angostura bitters. You can, as you advance further up the fluid food chain, get something like Peychaud’s or Reagan’s orange bitters.


Vital to a Negroni and a must. In a pinch, it's a terrific substitute for orange bitters.


Here is where it's verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry easy to get derailed. A good rule of thumb is to make a beeline for the back label of any bottle. If there is no real, natural flavoring (i.e. almonds in an orgeat, pomegranates in a grenadine, etc.) or if there is high-fructose corn syrup (i.e. HFCS) move to the next one on the shelf. Here are the ones you will need, especially if you are often doing Tiki drinks.

(While all of these are easy enough to make at home, they do require some forethought and time. I very, VERY strongly recommend Trader Tiki syrups, available online and at some stores.)

Passion fruit syrup
Cinnamon syrup

Cream of Coconut. Until Trader Tiki rolls out Phase Two, you will simply have to gather up some canned coconut cream (Thai Kitchen is the most readily availableone, and while usually the "lite" will work fine, in this case it will not) and mix it to your liking with sugar until it's a luscious tropical sludge. The Very Famous Ones available are riddled with chemicals. Avoid them.


This is a personal idiosyncracy. Whenever I see a bartending book I flip it to the Bloody Mary recipe and, if that recipe calls for lemon juice instead of lime juice, I almost always (only one exception, ever) quietly place it back on the shelf. Here are my recommendations for bartending books:

Esquire Drinks or Killer Cocktails - both by David Wondrich. The Esquire book is the only exception to my Bloody Mary rule.

Williams-Sonoma: The Bar Guide - passes the Bloody Mary test, great sections on history, ingredients, equipment, etc. These days you can pick it up for under $2 used. A bargain.

Remixed and/or Sippin' Safari - both by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. The irrepressible Mr. Berry is the clear leader of the tiki cocktail rennaissance. His books are terrific and fun reads. I especially love the Kevin Kidney illustrations of Sippin' Safari. If your cocktailiness runs to Tiki, you are disgracing yourself by not having these books on your shelf.

You are also going to need some gear:

Shaker - The two-part Boston-style, in a metal-and-glass configuration. Make sure the glass part has ounce measurements along the side.

Jiggers - OXO makes the almost perfect one. (It needs a ¾oz measurement to be perfect.)

Strainer - You want the spring-encircled Hawthorne strainer from OXO, it will fit inside your Boston shaker. (Just make sure you clean the springs of citrus pulp, mint leaves, etc.)

Bar spoon - There is a great one out of Australia, Uber Pro-Stirrer, but that beauty (what with shipping from as far as one can be and still be in the same planet) will set you back almost $28! Basically you want a long-handled spoon, with a twist in the handle, and a flat/blunt opposite end. This way you can used stir (you'll need that to keep clear drinks like Manhattans and Martinis from getting cloudy), for bar measurements (some recipes call for a “barspoon” of X), for layering (down the swirly handle, and gently across the blunt bit at the other end) and for some moderate muddling or strirring from top to bottom with the blunt end.

Citrus juicer - Repeat after me: You cannot get away with bottled lime or lemon juice. You can get away with not-from-concentrate orange juice (I suggest Florida's Natural) which is especially handy when you have a horde descending upon you. But it is clearly a case of mere adequacy. But in the case of lemons and especially limes, there is no getting away from the fact you will have to squeeze all those lemons and limes. Accept it. The good news is that, properly refrigerated, those juices will keep quite nicely a couple of days. Pre-squeezing also allows you to strain out pulp, pith and pips. You can also zest these citri and do all kinds of fun things with the strips o' peel.

A side note on juices: Do not -- ever -- use canned juices. Your drink will suck, even if your guests are too polite or dipsomaniacal to say so. If bottled juice is bad, then tinned stuff is Dark-Lord-of-the-Sith-evil. You don't have to (and often can't) get fresh juices, especially of the more exotic fruits (and, depending where you live, a pineapple may count as exotic). In those cases, frozen pulp (Goya or La Fe are my standbys of choice) or the stuff in cartons is your best bet. The only semi-exception is banana nectar, and I suggest Looza.

Anyway. Citrus. I have an ancient Braun (ca. 1992) electric juicer and it still works perfectly. If your bar doesn't have access to electricity, the enameled steel ones (green for lime, yellow for lemons and orange for, well, oranges) are great. Just remember to cut the citrus halves ALMOST in half before using them in these squeezers.

Muddler - Vital for smushing chunks of fruits, peels, mint or sugar. I prefer the silicone and metal version. I stole a Bacardi branded one for $3 on eBay.

Zester/peeler - To cut long strips of peel from citrus. OXO.

Ice crusher - If your fridge doesn't have this feature (or if it doesn't perform this particularly well) you will need such a gizmo. I grabbed one that fits my Oster blender for $6 on eBay.

Blender - I adore my Oster. The separate blade assembly allows for two things: 1) different blades (for blending, for ice crushing, for frothing) and also the blade assembly neatly fits onto your standard Mason jar -- DO NOT USE WITH HOT LIQUIDS and DO NOT OVERFILL! It's also a snap to clean. Get the beehive model with the most power you can find. For slushy drinks I especially love the "cloverleaf" jar. There are a whole lot of glorious attachments for it, too.

Glassware - To start off, we will NOT be discussing wineglasses. That's another post. For cocktails you only really need four kinds of glasses: short fat ones, skinny tall ones, biggish stemmed ones and cocktail glasses. If you're sashaying down the pre-Prohibition aisle, to the tune of Prof. Jerry Thomas, you may want coupes, toddies, etc. If you're doing the whole Tiki thing, then ceramic coconuts, bamboo-shaped coolers, and tiki mugs could be your thing. This is all fine, mind you, but it ain't the basics. So skip that if you're not at the sophomore level or higher.

The short/fat ones are old-fashioneds, although you cannot get old-fashioneds any more. Now they are double old-fashioned glasses. They hold 13-14oz. of beverage goodness. Tall/skinny ones are highball (or cooler or Collins or chimney) glasses and usually hold between 14-16 oz. of beverage goodness.

The biggish stemmed ones are often called "water glasses" and usually hold between 16-20oz. They are good all-rounders, and can also hold water or beer in an elegant way. Anything you might envision served in a hurricane glass, or a tiki mug, or laden with fruit/veg. garniture, etc. can find a home in one of these. The cocktail glasses are usually called “Martini glasses,” and while it may take some effort, you really want them with a capacity of right about 8oz. Not only is this easier to serve and drink from, it's also a bit more responsible, host-wise.

If you feel a bit more ambitious, you can also opt for a shot glass or a snifter, which, for the maladjusted, is like a hippy wineglass with a very short stem.

My personal suggestion is to find a brand that is sold at restaurant supply stores. This will assure you of plenty of replacements and a decent price. My personal choices for the stemware is Luigi Bormioli's Michelangelo (this also extends to the wineglass selection, like I mentioned, a whole post in and of itself) and for the glassware Luigi Bormioli's Strauss.

Coasters - Get some, preferably those porous stone ones, or cloth (!) bar napkins. You want to absorb condensation, not merely direct its flow.

There. Now you know.

(Stay tuned as I update this with hyperlinks and photos.)



Paola said…
You know your bar darn well.
I'll be back for reference for sure.
Badger said…
Excellent (although I disagree VIOLENTLY on several points, as you knew I would). Next can we discuss locavorism as re: cocktails, or is that just an Austin hipster affectation? We're accumulating an awful lot of distilleries around here, yo.
Joke said…
Badge - That's something of an Austin hipster affectation. Some things simply canNOT be made locally. You cannot get locavore Scotch outside of Scotland, for example.

That said, I think the whole micro-distillery thing is a GLORIOUS thing. Not so much for the locavore aspect, but from the point of having a broader array of artisanal products.

I realize my points on vodka may have been, er, wounding. Still, I am dying to try the Popov-though-a-microfilter thing.

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