The 10-Bottle Bar - Mixers
So if you've read my theory, the idea is that you can start a quality bar at home with just 10 bottles of spirits plus a handful of bitters, syrups and other bar accoutrement. This page covers the bitters, syrups and wines that you will need to mix with the 10-Bottle Bar spirits to build your home bar.
Bitters are alcoholic beverages that are flavored with a variety of herbal essences to give them a bitter or a bittersweet flavor. Bitters get used in trace quantities (often just one or two dashes) to add flavor and aroma to a wide variety of cocktails such as the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Ramos Gin Fizz.
Despite the fact that bitters contain alcohol (many are in fact quite strong at between 70 and 90 proof) they are marketed as a food and beverage flavoring and seem to occupy an unusual regulatory position in that they can be sold in grocery stores as well as liquor stores (depending on your state's liquor laws).
A large number of bitters brands and flavors have hit the shelves in recent years. In addition, many people have started to make their own bitters at home. While this has greatly improved the quality and the variety of bitter flavors available, it has also made bitters a bit difficult to approach for the beginner home mixologist.
I recommend starting with just two of the most popular and widely-available bitters brands - Angostura and Peychaud's. These two are most prevalent in traditional cocktail recipes, and differ in flavor enough to not be interchanged. Angostura bitters has a very deep, earthy flavor with hints of cinnamon. Peychaud's is a bit lighter and sweeter with a slightly floral aroma. You will almost certainly want to dabble with other brands once you move beyond the 10-Bottle Bar, but these will suffice for now.
This group is comprised of items that are technically classified as fortified wines - so I have happily whisked them away from the 10-Bottle Bar spirit list and moved them onto this mixer list along with the bitters.
Similar to bitters, these items tend to be regulated differently than distilled spirits and can often be shipped anywhere in the U.S. (they will be regulated similar to wine - check your local state and/or municipal regulations). You can also check with my recommended retail outlets that ship across the U.S. to see if they have any limits on shipping these products.
Dry Vermouth was at one time prevalent as an aperitif and as a drink flavoring (it was used to mask the flavors of low-quality wines from the 1700s and 1800s), but dry vermouth has since exited the collective American palette. It is still a key component in drinks such as the Martini and the Martinez (a cousin of the Martini) to give these drinks a hint of floral flavor.
Vermouth Blanc, a cousin to dry vermouth, has a lovely floral aroma and imparts a sweeter taste in cocktails than dry vermouth. While the blanc vermouth may look similar to dry vermouth, they should not be used interchangeably.
Lillet Blanc is a fortified wine made from Bordeaux wines flavored with citrus and citrus peel. It stands on its own (relative to American tastes at least) much better than its vermouth counterparts, and therefore is quite popular as an aperitif today. It also was useful in a number of cocktails - not least of which the Vesper (which was James Bond's martini in the movies). Unfortunately, the Lillet (formerly called Kina Lillet) recipe was changed in 1986, removing the quinine that added the key bitter qualities that James needed in his martini. Lillet is included in a handful of 10-Bottle Bar cocktails (Corpse Reviver No. 2, Vesper) but these two drinks really call for the old-school Kina Lillet - not the newish Lillet Blanc.
UPDATE (DEC 2010): Given the new arrival of Cocchi Americano (see below) Lillet Blanc is probably best used stand-alone as a nice little aperitif.
Cocchi Americano - Great news! Our friends at Haus Alpenz have solved the Kina Lillet conundrum for us with its introduction of the Cocchi Americano aperitif. Reputable sources have attributed the stuff as a very close facsimile of the old Kina Lillet product.
Cocchi Americano has many of the wonderful citrus flavors of Lillet Blanc, but it also boasts the delectable twinge of bitterness from gentian and cinchona (quinine) bark. It's delicious on its own, but wait until you see what it does for a Corpse Reviver No. 2 or a Vesper!
Bonal Quina-Gentiane - Another delicious new treat is Bonal, a fortified wine from France, infused with gentian and cinchona for a nice bitter twinge.
As I write in my post about the Brooklyn cocktail, this is the long-lost secret ingredient to make a Brooklyn sing. I just got this bottle - and cannot wait to find more things to use this in!
On behalf of all of us, I'd like to send out a special thanks to Haus Alpenz for importing these new spirits to America. As if these two spirits weren't enough - I see that Eric Seed (the proprietor) is on the verge of importing Zucca and Cocchi Barolo Chinato to the States as well. Now that is change The Ace can believe in...
A large number of cocktail recipes out there call for some sort of sweetener. Many old school cocktail recipes call for granulated sugar (either in a spoon measurement or in a cube) to be muddled with a liquid to create a sweetening layer in the drink. Today in most cases it is preferable to use a measure of what is generically called a 'syrup' to sweeten the drink. Syrups have a distinct advantage over muddled sugar in that the sugar is already dissolved in a solution of water, and therefore the sugar is distributed more evenly through the drink.
This most basic syrup is basically a 2:1 mixture of granulated 100% cane sugar to boiling water. It is fast and extremely easy to make.
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups 100% cane sugar (evaporated cane juice)
Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the sugar to the boiling water, lower the heat to simmer the solution and stir for 1-2 minutes to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and let the solution cool. When cool, pour into a plastic squeeze bottle to store. Will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.
Flavored Simple Syrups
Bartenders have also figured out that these syrups are an excellent way to distribute other flavors evenly throughout a drink. To that end, a wide variety of syrups have been made that combine sugar with flavors such as in ginger, cinnamon, mint, tea, fennel, clove, cardamom, hot peppers, etc. These syrups also tend to be simple to prepare - if a recipe posting calls for a flavored simple syrup then you just toss the item that you want to flavor the syrup with into the boiling sugar-water solution and let it steep for an hour or so. Any more specific instructions will be posted along with the drink recipe.
Agave nectar is essentially a honey that is made from the sap of the agave plant core (pina). It is used as a sweetener in a number of foods and drinks, most notably in The Ace's favorite margarita.
Luckily for us, many grocery stores have caught onto the wave of people that are switching to this 'diabetic-friendly sweetener' and are starting to carry a variety of agave nectar products. It should be pretty easy to find a bottle of agave nectar at your local grocer or liquor store. If not, there's always amazon.com
And Now for the Small Hand Foods Portion of Our Show:
There are a number of other specialty syrups that appear in cocktail recipes that that have traditionally been very hard to make well. For the longest time I found myself straying away from recipes that called for gomme syrup, orgeat and grenadine. I had no idea what the hell gomme was, and most orgeat and grenadine at the grocer tasted exceedingly syrupy and/or artificial. Then I came across Small Hand Foods' website.
A special thank you to Jennifer Colliau at Small Hand Foods for solving this problem for all of us. She has made a series of fabulous syrups and is slowly gathering distribution to bring her products to the masses. At this point the Small Hand Foods retail network is still small, but I see that they are now using Cask Spirits as an online retailer so anyone should be able to get their hands on these syrups. And since these are food products there shouldn't be a problem shipping to your home.
I was going to try to describe these syrups myself, but Small Hand Food's Products page does such a great job of describing her lovely concoctions that I figured I would reference Ms. Colliau's work and let her tell her own story.
Gum (Gomme) Syrup
from Jennifer Colliau - Small Hand Foods (www.smallhandfoods.com)
"Also known by its French spelling, gomme, Gum Syrup is a one-to-one sugar-to-water simple syrup with gum arabic, a resin from the Acacia tree, incorporated into it. Gum syrup fell out of favor with bartenders because it is difficult to make, and a straight simple syrup is very easy. However, where both syrups add sweetness, gum syrup adds viscosity as well, giving a richer mouthfeel and weightier texture to cocktails. Organic cane sugar in the product gives it an amber color and a light molasses flavor. It is best used in aromatic, spirit-forward cocktails."
I have the regular gum syrup from Small Hand Foods in my refrigerator alongside my simple syrup and I use it on the really high-end cocktails that I really like, or for when my wife and I are entertaining folks that we want to like us. Its really that good.
Pineapple Gum (Gomme) Syrup
Small Hand Foods also makes a pineapple gum syrup that according to Jennfier's blog requires one to mash up pineapples and somehow get them to infuse in a gum syrup. Yeah... I recommend just buying a bottle. The pineapple gum syrup is used in the Castle Harbor Special, the Hotel Nacionale Special and the Million Dollar Cocktail No. 1 in the 10-Bottle Bar, and in my own cocktail that I call the Le Pamplemousse D'Amour (my wife's money drink). This is a must-have for your bar.
from Jennifer Colliau - Small Hand Foods (www.smallhandfoods.com)
"Pronounced or-zhat, orgeat is a French almond syrup, originally made from barley and used as a shelf-stable milk substitute. Many cultures have versions, from Spanish orxata to Dutch orgeade to Mexican horchata. Made from real California almonds and a small proportion of apricot kernels to give it a distinct "marzipan" flavor without the addition of extract. Organic cane sugar and French orange flower water added result in a rich, flavorful syrup with delicate floral notes..."
This is a key ingredient in the Mai Tai and in the Gaby de Lys, two 10-Bottle Bar cocktails. And forget it - there is no comparison between this orgeat and the ones marketed by Torani or Trader Tiki or whatever. This is another must-have for your bar.
from Jennifer Colliau - Small Hand Foods (www.smallhandfoods.com)
"The ubiquitous cherry-red bottle of syrup holding court at every bar, modern grenadine is a far cry from its pomegranate origins. Many cultures enjoy pomegranate juice when it is available, as did early bartenders in America and abroad. Rest assured, they were not using high-fructose corn syrup colored with red #40. Our Grenadine is made from fresh pomegranate juice and unrefined cane sugar. No concentrate, nothing else. The bright acidity and tannic backbone of this syrup will transform any drink that uses it."
Grenadine is a star in the Castle Harbor Special from the 10-Bottle Bar and also in the Singapore Sling and the Jack Rose cocktails. It is very handy to have around, and I won't use any alternative that has high fructose corn syrup in my cocktails.
A Few Words About Juice
Many cocktail recipes call for citrus juice (lemon, orange, lime or grapefruit). PLEASE resist the urge to use a pre-packaged citrus juice from your grocery store in these recipes. Citrus juices in a cocktail should ALWAYS be squeezed directly from the fruit with the use of a citrus squeezer. When you squeeze citrus with a hand juicer you get the fresh-squeezed taste of the citrus, plus you get the oils from the skin of the citrus that will give your a lovely aroma.
In cases where a drink recipe calls for tropical fruit juices (such as pineapple, guava or for passion fruit) I do use pre-packaged juices. But I only try to get 100% pineapple and guava nectar (Ceres makes a good one) and I use a passion fruit puree (It has preservatives, but Finest Call makes one).
100% Apple juice from a bottle is fine for recipes that call for apple juice.
In case you haven't seen it, ginger beer is a carbonated soft drink made of ginger, sugar and water. It tastes something like ginger ale on steroids. It has the delicious spiciness of fresh ginger without the cloying sweetness of the ginger ale of my youth. Ginger beer is used in the 10-Bottle Bar for the Moscow Mule recipe, and once you move outside the 10-Bottle Bar it is a key ingredient in the Dark & Stormy cocktail, which holds a very special place in my heart.
I recommend that you choose one of the ginger beers that avoids using artificial sweeteners and flavors. There are a number of very tasty ginger beers out there that are fine as soft drinks but that do not mix as well in cocktails (Reed's and The Ginger People, for example). My favorite ginger beers are Bundaberg, Fentiman's, Cock N' Bull and Fever Tree. Many of these brands are starting to hit the shelves at high-end grocers like Whole Foods, can be found at a number of liquor stores and I see that they are available (on a somewhat spotty basis) on amazon.com as well.
We're all pretty familiar with club soda. Almost any brand of club soda will do - I simply recommend that you buy the small 9 to 10 oz. bottles of the stuff. Most drinks call for only a small amount of club soda, so a small resealable bottle gives you a reasonable chance of using the rest of the bottle before all of the "fizz" escapes the bottle. And if you throw it out then at least you're only wasting a couple of ounces.