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!
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.
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.
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
Ori's personal collection of sweeteners.
The basic cocktail components are:
- strong (i.e., the spirits)
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.
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
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.
- Shaker – OXO steel cocktail shaker
- Bar Spoon – Hiware bar spoon
- Strainer – OXO steel cocktail strainer
- Jigger – OXO steel measuring jigger
- Muddler – OXO steel muddler
And if you're looking for more detailed guidance on building your home bar, Ori suggested this:
- Resource manual – The 12 Bottle Bar: A Dozen Bottles. Hundreds of Cocktails
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.
If you're interested in taking your home bar skills to the next level, follow these steps:
- Choose a starting cocktail
- Get the traditional ingredients and tools
- Practice to perfection
- 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!