Lifestyle

The Art of the Home Bar (with Ori Geshury)

Much like being able to change the oil on your car or build a bookcase, I think being the proud owner/operator of a home bar is a dying art.

Mixing cocktails is a gentlemanly skill that far too few possess.

I'm always taken by the charm of old movies when the first thing a host does is offer their guest a drink.

And they actually have the know-how and supplies to meet that request from their home bar!

Being able to whip up a Manhattan or Mint Julep at a moment's notice has always been a goal of mine, but I have to say that I'm nowhere near an expert.

So when Ori Geshury, Director of Education/Co-Founder of Aqua Vitae Institute, offered to educate me in the way of mastering the home bar, I jumped at the opportunity.

And he took our lesson in a completely different direction than I expected!

But first…

Social significance of the home bar

Why do we drink and what is it about drinking as a group that is so appealing?

Is it just a means to getting hammered?

I don't think so.

If that were all we were interested in, everyone would just slam the cheapest, strongest alcohol available and stumble around like brainless zombies until they passed out.

There's more to it than that.

Ori and I discussed the traditions of drinking (the Italian way of hosting a cocktail party is particularly fascinating) and the cultural significance of alcohol in our lives.

It really got me thinking about why we drink and the role it plays in our relationships with each other.

So here are my musings on the reasons we raise a glass together and the case for keeping a home bar.

A motive to gather

I've said this before about food.

We're social creatures by nature, but it would be kind of odd to call everyone over just to sit in your living room for a nice chat.

We need a reason to get together such as “meet me for a drink,” “want to grab a coffee?” or “come to my place for a cocktail.”

Even though the desired outcome (conversation) is the same, those all sound a lot more appealing than “wanna sit on that bench together?”

And when we do gather, alcohol (in moderation, of course) can provide a social lubricant that let's us open up.

I know I'm not exactly a social butterfly, so I certainly find it easier to mingle after my second or third Old Fashioned.

For me, it's a way to calm my hyper-analytical brain, remove my last lingering bit of social anxiety (a relic from my old life), and simply enjoy the company of others without overthinking things.

Self-sufficiency

If you want to truly stand out in an age of voluntary helplessness, it's important to learn how to do things on your own.

And it's rarely as hard as it looks.

To justify the high price tags, restaurants and bars like to make their creations seem like magic.

But the truth is, with practice, you'll be able to master the same drinks just as you can learn to cook a perfect steak at home.

Instead of handing your guests a cheap beer or random soda mixed with vodka, learn how to perfectly execute just a few cocktails.

Not only will you have the satisfaction of a job well done, your guests will no doubt be impressed by your unique skill and expertise.

Stimulate the senses

When you're hosting friends at your home, being able to serve a simple yet elegant drink is an experience for the senses.

No one gets excited about shotgunning a Natty Light.  People aren't looking forward to chugging Diet Coke laced with cheap rum.

With a good home bar, you're able to offer your guests something to eagerly await and enjoy.

Guests experience the anticipation while watching their host craft the perfect cocktail. And just like food, a good cocktail looks great and provides a feast for the eyes before the first sip.

They feel the weight of the glass and the accompanied cold (or hot) in their hand.

They may smell the citrus zest, herbal notes, sweet fruit, or warm, spicy bitters before taking their first drink.

And, of course, there is the taste.

Unique flavors and combinations will stimulate their palate.

Who knew strawberry and basil was a wonderful combination? Or maybe they'll realize they really like gin when presented in the right cocktail.

It's all about preparation and providing an experience for all the senses.

Get closer

The lost art of the cocktail party and managing a home bar gives us a reason to invite others into our homes.

We give friends a better understanding of who we are by showing them where we live, what we bring into our home, and what things are important to us.

And this isn't about showing off an expensive condo or a giant flatscreen.

It's about allowing others to feel closer to you after having shared your personal space.

Just as your body is a representation of “you”, I feel that your home is another expression of self and can have an equal impact.

In essence, it's a way to let people in.

Now, onto the nuts and bolts of managing your home bar.

Mastering the basics of bartending

I fully expected (and asked) Ori to give me a list of basic spirits, mixers, and tools as well as a collection of cocktail recipes every man should know.

But he had a much more fundamental and practical approach.

As an educator, his methods lean more towards teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime, rather than giving him a fish so he can eat for a day.

Here was Ori's advice.

Step 1:  Forget recipes.

Is he serious?

Yes, and his logic is solid.

Just as building an aesthetically pleasing physique requires attaining certain shoulder to waist proportions, mastering the cocktail is all about ratios.

By learning just a few ratios, you can skip the need to memorize an endless list of recipes and create some impressive cocktails, nonetheless.

Components and cocktail families

home bar components

Ori's personal collection of sweeteners.

The basic cocktail components are:

  • strong (i.e., the spirits)
  • sweet
  • sour

The individual ingredients, such as type of spirit or sugar used, isn't as important as maintaining one of the three proven ratios listed below.

Almost every cocktail is based around three essential templates (or families) using these components.

Compare this with weightlifting.

Experienced lifters don't think of every exercise under the sun as unique, but rather classify everything as a variation of a push, pull, or squat movement.

Similarly in the world of bartending, the main cocktail types are: the spirits forward cocktail, the balanced cocktail, and the long cocktail.

Ori described these cocktail types and the ratios of the basic cocktail components in each, as detailed below:

The Spirits forward cocktail

As the name suggests, a spirits forward cocktail is designed to showcase the chosen spirits. All other elements are there to enhance flavors.

Spirits forward cocktails will always be on the smaller side due to the lack of dilution.

Example – Old Fashioned, Manhattan

Ratios:  2 oz. spirits, sugar, bitters and/or vermouth, splash of water, and garnish

The Balanced cocktail

Balanced cocktails are all about harmony between the ingredients.

The characteristics of the spirits will be there, but they won't dominate the drink (hence, balance).

Balanced cocktails will be a little larger in volume than the spirits forward variety.

Example – Margarita, Whisky Sour, Daiquiri

Ratios:  2 oz spirits, 3/4 oz sweet, 3/4 oz sour

The Long cocktail

Long cocktails are drinks like those listed above, but are diluted with a significant volume of non-alcoholic ingredients for a more refreshing effect.

Example – Mojito, Gin & Tonic

Ratios: Build the drink using a spirit forward or balanced drink and then dilute with sparkling water, juice, tonic, or soda.

Choose a drink, get creative

Now that we know the basic types of cocktails, how the hell do we get good at making them?

The best way to improve your skill is to pick a drink from one of the three families and then get creative with the elements.

Ori recommends starting with the Old Fashioned, and as it's my favorite cocktail, I wholeheartedly agree!

TIP:  My preference is to master the basics of your chosen cocktail.  Begin with the most traditional ingredients – aromatic bitters, a good bourbon, and simple syrup made from cane sugar.  Following a known recipe lets you rule out any technique errors.

Once you can consistently produce an exceptional classic Old Fashioned,  it's time to learn how different ingredients and flavor profiles work together.

And for that, you need to try different elements. But remember to keep the ratios constant.

To get started, Ori recommends that you go to the grocery store and pick up a few different sweeteners, such as coconut sugar, grenadine, honey, or stevia.

Next, get a couple different bottles of cocktail bitters. You can try aromaticorange, or rhubarb.

Although you will use these ingredients in your Old Fashioned's, many of these will be able to be used in a wide number of cocktails as you expand your expertise.

TIP:  To aid in the learning process, I suggest that you experiment with one variation at a time.

If you combine grapefruit bitters with molasses and it tastes horrible, you won't know which ingredient is to blame or if it's simply a bad combination.

So change it up one element at a time.

The slow tinkering process is part of the fun of mastering your home bar and building your bartending skills.

The essential tools

home bar tools

Ori's tools also include a zester and an ice bucket.

As long as you already have a selection of glasses, kitchen knives, and other basic utensils, there are only a handful of “bar-specific” tools you need to have a fully functional home bar.

And if you're looking for more detailed guidance on building your home bar, Ori suggested this:

General tips

1. Just know that every time you buy an ingredient to experiment with, you'll have plenty left over and will slowly start building your home bar. Most ingredients, like sweeteners and spirits, are essentially immortal, so no worries about shelf life.

2. Add a pinch of salt. This is an insider trick that won't make the drink salty but, as with baking, it'll enhance the flavor and sweetness of the cocktail.

3. Approach your home bar with the principle of Progressive Overload. Just as you wouldn't attempt a 500 lb deadlift on your first visit to the gym, don't concern yourself with making the most complex cocktails from the start. Start simple, master the basics, and then grow from there.

What now?

If you're interested in taking your home bar skills to the next level, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a starting cocktail
  2. Get the traditional ingredients and tools
  3. Practice to perfection
  4. Expand with different spirits, bitters, and sweeteners

And if you're really serious and want to make an event out of it, contact Aqua Vitae Institute to set up a group class.

Finally, I just want to extend my thanks to Ori for taking time to talk to me. I'm amazed at how much there is to know about the art of bartending!

Cheers,

Nate

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Oliver
    November 2, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    A man without a good home-bar or one who doesn’t know how to make the most of it is a man lacking an essential skill. I liked that you mentioned the wider meaning of a home-bar – somethink most people don’t ever give a thought to.

    • Reply
      Nate
      November 2, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      In my experience, visiting a home with a decent bar setup is very rare. But it always makes the experience that much more enjoyable when it’s there.

    • Reply
      Ori Geshury
      November 4, 2015 at 11:19 pm

      I’d settle for a man who can MacGyver basic cocktails. A full home bar set is is very rare as Nate said. But being able to walk into a kitchen and see: Wooden spoon, sugar, oranges, limes, bourbon, and say: Let’s get to work! That’s a cool feeling. In minutes you sort of own the room.

  • Reply
    Jacob
    November 2, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    The Old Fashioned is a great starter for men in regards to mixed drinks. I have been dabbling more with unmixed whiskey and scotch lately, but never turn down a good mixed drink like this. Beats the over sweetened crap they sell at restaurants, hands down.

    • Reply
      Nate
      November 2, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      It sure does. It’s actually funny when you compare the classic preparation of certain cocktails to the monstrosities they’ve become. Take the Daiquiri for example. The classic preparation is something like 2 oz rum, 3/4 oz lime juice, and 3/4 oz simple syrup. That’s quite a stiff drink. But what most bars and restaurants sell as a Daiquiri comes in enormous fish bowl glasses and is probably more than 8 oz of some kind of sweetener. Not only do those drinks look feminine, they give me heartburn and aren’t much help in maintaining a lean physique. Like you, I’ll take my spirits neat or in a more concentrated cocktail.

      • Reply
        Brett
        November 2, 2015 at 7:07 pm

        There is an episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown that I really enjoyed. He shows you how to create a traditional bloody mary and margarita, not the bastardized restaurant versions we get these days. Very interesting if you ever have the time to watch it.

        I am also a fan of my drinks neat, but I’ll never turn down a good Old Fashioned or dry Manhattan.

        • Reply
          Nate
          November 2, 2015 at 8:25 pm

          I’ll have to look that one up. After watching an episode where Alton Brown explained why pre-made deli sandwiches are always delicious I started making mine hours ahead of time, wrapping them in plastic wrap, and then letting them sit on the counter. Haha.

      • Reply
        Jacob
        November 2, 2015 at 8:45 pm

        I actually have a margarita mix that I whip up from time to time. It’s basically tequila, some lime juice, and club soda. It’s called the NorCal Margarita if anyone is interested in google searching it. It has a very clean taste and won’t kill your waistline like a regular margarita will.

        • Reply
          John Tyndall
          November 2, 2015 at 10:50 pm

          Jacob,
          I drink that same margarita! I first read about that mix in The Paleo Diet Solution. Sometimes I’ll put a splash of OJ in it — just enough to turn it orange. I like it with Cabo Wabo silver. I like a good tequila, but I think Patron is overrated and overpriced.

          • Jacob
            November 3, 2015 at 1:13 pm

            I honestly don’t know enough about tequilas to know which ones are good or not. I typically use Patron Silver simply out of ignorance. How pricey is Cabo Wabo silver or do you have some other suggestions? Orange juice is an interesting idea. Would certainly give it a little bit more vitamins and probably lessen any hangover from overindulging. ;-)

          • Nate
            November 3, 2015 at 2:58 pm

            John, have you tried Casamigos? It’s the one made or endorsed by George Clooney. I picked up a bottle on sale at Walgreens for $7! It normally runs around $40. I haven’t cracked it open yet buy you and Jacob are giving me a reason to.

        • Reply
          Ori Geshury
          November 4, 2015 at 10:46 pm

          Another variation of that is a Paloma, which is made with grapefruit and lime, and sugar (you can omit the sugar). If you really hate the taste of low calorie cocktail what a lot of bartenders and brands have started to do is to layer cane sugar and stevia together. Stevia is very sweet, but the flavor manages to be both cloying and bitter to many palates. Cane sugar has a rounded flavor, and works well. Two really good examples of the combination are Coca Cola Life and the king of IIFYM ice cream, Halo Top (which beats the crap out of Arctic Zero any day of the week). I’ve been experimenting with making sours/margaritas, daiquiris this way and it really works!

  • Reply
    Andrian
    November 3, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    I was bartending a few years ago and I can confidently argue that mixology is an essential skill for men. You will finally understand your drinks and also enjoy cocktails more. Not to mention that you can finally have interesting discussions with the bartenders.

    • Reply
      Nate
      November 3, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      You said it, Andrian. The only times I’ve received free drinks in my life are the occasions when I’ve started talking bourbon with passionate bartenders. Just demonstrating a base knowledge lead them to handing me complementary glasses of their favorite spirits to keep the conversation going.

      • Reply
        Ori Geshury
        November 4, 2015 at 10:51 pm

        Great Points, rapport building tips to get free stuff, special attention from bartenders:

        1) When ordering off menu, specify the base spirit, and if you want a balanced or spirit forward cocktail.
        2) Tip a LOT EARLY, and then remind them that you’re there.
        3) To become a regular, Tuesday and Sunday is the best. Sunday is particularly good because it’s known as Industry Night, where all the bartenders go and visit each other.
        4) Join your local USBG (United States Bartenders Guild) chapter. It’s $100/year, and you can go to free super premium tastings and get loads of information. It pays for itself in about two weeks.
        5) For craft cocktails, there’s a new app called On The Bar. It’ll actually give you the bartender’s name and their favorite off menu drinks. If you go there and address them by name, and order an off menu drink, they get really happy and caught off guard :)
        6) Tell them you are tasting your way through a whisky/cocktail book, and want to know what they’d suggest.

  • Reply
    John Tyndall
    November 4, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Nate, I have not tried Casamigos, but I’m sure it’s going to be good! It’s made from 100% agave which is one of the key things to look for. And for $7? Many bars would charge $7 for one margarita with 2 ounces of a tequila like Casamigos in it. Great buy! Let us know how you like it!
    Jacob, In my area, Cabo Wabo goes for $10 or $15 less than Patron. You can get Milagro for slightly less than that, and it’s also excellent. If you want a “best buy” try Espolon. It’s $20, and not bad at all.
    I’m only speaking of silver varieties. I was told once by a restauranteur that silver tequilas are best because they are not aged, and he claimed that tequila is supposed to be had “fresh.” I bought into that, and just developed a taste for the silver variety from there.

    • Reply
      Nate
      November 4, 2015 at 11:27 am

      I picked up the bottle on sale at Walgreens. In case you didn’t know, they randomly clear their shelves and basically give away anything that isn’t selling. When I bought the Casamigos, I also picked up 3 bottles of Crown Royal Maple Finish, 3 bottles of Malibu Spiced rum, 2 bottles of Jameson Caskmasters (aged in beer barrels), and a bottle of Jameson Select. I left with 10 bottles for a grand total $65!

    • Reply
      Ori Geshury
      November 4, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      The perception that people have within the industry and outside the industry of tequila is very different. What the restauranteur was referring to is that tequila is the most complex spirit in the world, because the agave takes from 7-15 years to mature. And aging it can interfere with the bright vegetal flavors and complexities of the spirit. If you are even a little interested in tequila I encourage you to listen to our soundcloud with David Suro, who started the Tequila Interchange Project to educate the public about it:

      https://soundcloud.com/aquavitaeins/lets-talk-tequila-with-david-suro-the-owner-of-tequilas

  • Reply
    Brendan
    November 4, 2015 at 3:17 am

    I could tell by reading your cologne blog that you knew your way around a whisky or whine nosing. I’ve spent the last few years developing (somewhat recklessly) a fairly respectable spirit collection. I’ve found that my ability to analyze and appreciate smells and tastes in other aspects of life has greatly increased. Whether it be the pages of an old book, a nice cigar, or the smell of cold fallen leaves in the morning. The majority of my closest friends are the “drink for effect” types and I feel like they are missing out on that carryover.

    • Reply
      Nate
      November 4, 2015 at 11:33 am

      I wish I could say that it was a natural talent, but I have an average nose at best. But it was something I wanted to learn so I’ve been working at it. The real trick is to have side by side comparisons. It’s hard to detect certain flavors if they’re experienced days apart. Our sense of smell is nothing short of amazing. I sampled a cologne for the first time at Marshall’s the other day and it was instantly familiar. I racked my brain for over 48 hours (I went back for another spray) trying to place it. Then it hit me. It smelled exactly like a can of spray deodorant from Right Guard I had about 18 years ago. And all the memories from that time came flooding back.

      • Reply
        Ori Geshury
        November 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

        Paul Pacault, who is arguably the best “nose” in the business, has stated on many occasions that everyone can do what he can do, all it takes is experience, and comparative study. Bartending itself is a lot about building a sensory lexicon, not just of spirits, but also of sweeteners, water, coffee, tea, ice, strange ingredients (golden berries, cactus pear) etc.

  • Reply
    Ori Geshury
    November 4, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    Hey guys. This is Ori. I was very happy to work with Nate on this and I’m really happy it was well received. If you guys have any further questions, I’d love to answer them.

  • Reply
    Jeff
    November 5, 2015 at 1:20 am

    This post resonated with me.

    Just started working as a bartender. In reality, it’s mostly pouring beers and polishing glasses, but I do the occasional cocktail.

    Right now my home bar consists of one bottle of bourbon. I’m not a fan of bourbon straight up, so I’ve been mixing it with whatever I can.

    Straight up/on the rocks: too much bite, probably because it’s an average bourbon.
    Bourbon + coke/soda/juice: eh.
    Old fashioned: wasn’t bad with muddled sugar/cherry/orange, but without bitters it was missing something.
    Whiskey sour: not too bad, also wasn’t my favorite. Used fresh lemon juice, sugar, and an egg white.
    Mint julep: currently my favorite bourbon drink. Bought a mint plant so I use fresh mint. Absolutely delicious.

    When this bottle is gone I’m planning to repeat the same process with another spirit, maybe rum. The best way to learn cocktails as a bartender isn’t memorizing recipes, it’s making and drinking them.

    • Reply
      Ori Geshury
      November 5, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Jeff. It depends on where you work. You have to inspire people to drink better and to make your bar more money. Ways to do that:

      Infusions: Easy example, homemade fireball. Bourbon, brown sugar simple syrup (sugar and water at a 1:1 ratio).

      Punch: Make a simple Hendricks punch for people that don’t “like” gin, and feature it as a special.

      Tequila/Rum/Whisky etc. Flights: Add a tasting featuring a succession of different spirits, and put it on the menu.

      Desert: Italian Bitters, Dark Chocolate, Salt

      The most important thing is to build your skills up, while making the bar money, and giving your customers something unique.

      PS Old Fashioned is: Spirit, sweetener, bitters, water, peel. Nothing else. The muddled orange and cherry are prohibition relics from when the whisky was shitty. Go to a craft cocktail bar and try it the traditional way. You’ll never go back. Traditional rations + fresh ingredients is a paradigm shift. You will NEVER go back. It’s like realizing that you’ve been eating sushi made with canned tuna all your life and then tasting the fresh fish.

  • Reply
    lwhays
    January 14, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    I have to ask:

    “the Italian way of hosting a cocktail party”???

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