The Bar Essentials
All You Need to Concoct Your Favorite Cocktails at Home

By Emily Heil
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, March 26, 2006

In old movies, dashing leading men always seemed to sidle up to tables topped with crystal decanters. After a few sweeps of tuxedo-clad arms and a rattle of a cocktail shaker, they produced perfect, frothy concoctions.

Even if tuxes give you hives, or you don't know how to sidle, you can still whip up an impromptu cocktail party like Cary Grant at his suavest. There's nothing mysterious about confidently serving drinks; it's all in the preparation. A well-stocked home bar filled with a smart set of indispensable tools, proper liquors and the right mixers means you're ready to ask, "What are you having?"

Turns out, the much-heralded rebirth of the cocktail is more than just a fad. Americans are increasingly opting for spirits: Among all alcohol sales, liquor's market share increased a percentage point from 2003 to 2004, while wine only grew by a third of a percent point and beer fell by more than a percentage point, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Mittie Hellmich, the author of the just-released "The Ultimate Bar Book" (Chronicle Books, $19.95), finds a parallel between the mainstreaming of gourmet foods and the surging popularity of elegant homemade cocktails. "It's a status thing, just like having a professional-style kitchen," she says. "Everyone all of the sudden knows what a shitake mushroom is -- now we all want to be able to mix our friends drinks that they've had in high-end restaurants."

Here are pointers to get you started.

GET YOUR GADGETS

Nicole Herman, a barware buyer for Sur La Table, recommends that home bartenders begin with a few well-made tools that can carry them through a repertoire of basic drink recipes. Start with a jigger, an egg-cup shaped gadget for measuring liquid ounces. (Eyeballing the amount of liquor usually leads to heavy pours and boozy drinks, and boozy drinks make for sodden guests. And sodden guests . . . well, you get the picture.) A double jigger -- which commonly holds three-quarters of an ounce on one end, and 1 1/4 ounces on the other -- is the most versatile.

And it wouldn't be cocktail hour without a shaker: To avoid a leaky mess, make sure the top fits securely on the base, particularly if you've picked up an inexpensive model or a vintage one, which may be warped or dented. Many shakers have a strainer built into the top, but most bartenders keep an extra strainer that they can fit onto the shaker base for easier maneuverability.

While you could spend big bucks on an ultra-luxe corkscrew, most professional bartenders rely on an inexpensive multifunctional corkscrew-bottle opener with a little fold-out knife for cutting the foil around wine bottle necks. If you plan to host parties that involve uncorking cases of wine, you might shell out more for a lever wine opener, which is easier on the wrist.

If you really want to kit out your bar, a few additional tools will lend it a more professional air. A combination zester-channel knife peels off ribbons of citrus rind with ease. A muddler -- used to crush fruit, mint and other ingredients -- makes a good addition, although the back of a heavy spoon will do. You can use a fork or your hands to wring the juice from citrus fruits, but a reamer makes the job easier and neater. A cocktail spoon -- a slender stirrer long enough to dip into a large cocktail shaker -- is more stylish than a knife (or any other make-do utensil) for gently mixing drinks.

SERVE IT IN STYLE

Like navigating esoteric flatware (that's an asparagus fork, you rube!), picking the right glasses can seem daunting. But Susan Lacz Neimann of uber-caterer Ridgewells says glassware is more about style than propriety. As long as you're not inviting oenophile Robert Parker over for some vino, a medium-sized stemmed glass will do for most wines and mixed drinks, says Neimann, a frequent hostess herself.

Old-fashioned glasses, which are short and squat with straight sides, are versatile, too. They can hold mixed drinks or even wine for a rustic-European feel. For larger drinks, try a double old-fashioned glass, a highball glass (slim and straight-sided) or a Collins glass (which is even skinnier than the highball). Keep in mind that no standard sizes for glasses exist -- to some manufacturers, a regular old-fashioned glass holds as much as another's double. But no matter the vessel, just make sure it's not plastic, Neimann insists. "You can buy all the shapes for pennies, really -- just go to Ikea or a Crate & Barrel sale," she says.

STOCK YOUR SHELVES

Most bar experts agree that a repertoire of liquors for the home bartender should include a bottle each of vodka, gin, bourbon, tequila and blended whiskey. Whiskies come in a variety of styles (rye, Scotch, etc.), but a blended whiskey offers the most versatility, says Derek Brown, the manager and creator of the innovative cocktails at Dupont Circle's Firefly.

Jack DePrato, a salesman from liquor and wine emporium Calvert Woodley, recommends picking a white or light rum over a dark or spiced variety for maximum mixability. Add a bottle each of sweet and dry vermouth (the former for Manhattans, the latter for martinis), and you've got the booze equivalent of a little black dress -- tweak it a little here and there, and it's ready for anything.

When it comes to brands, you want quality that's good enough for company, but not so precious that you feel guilty mixing an after-work drink to go with your takeout. (You can't go wrong with our experts' picks, at right.)

And Neimann suggests keeping a good stash of beer and wine on hand, since that's what most casual imbibers usually drink. "If I read somewhere about an unusual wine that's a really good deal, I'll buy three," she says. Don't get hung up on wine varietals, just have a mix of whites (chilled, of course) and reds on hand, she advises.

Mixers provide mixologists with countless options. Club soda, tonic, orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger ale and tomato juice are standards, but unusual juices lend cocktails a more exotic flair (say, blood orange juice instead of Minute Maid.) Simple syrup is a classic sweetener, and making your own is a snap (see the Chamomile Syrup recipe above for a variation).

FINAL TOUCHES

When serving drinks, you'll seem quite the host if you can break out some cocktail-ready snacks. The easiest options are jars of olives and tins of lightly salted nuts that can hang out in your cupboard indefinitely. Add a hard cheese, and you've got a spread worthy of a great drink. And for a truly impressive nosh, Howard Foer, the CEO of Festive Foods, a party planning and catering service, suggests tucking away some elegant hors d 'oeuvres in the freezer that can be popped into the oven and heated in a few minutes. You can easily assemble them yourself using frozen pastry sheets and fillings of your choice (think cheese, prosciutto, sauteed veggies, etc.), or pick them up in the freezer aisle of fancier grocery stores.

Finally, you'll need to take care of your setup: Wash and dry your tools after using them. Keep liquor bottles fresh by wiping their rims before tightly screwing caps on. Have ice on hand, and check occasionally to make sure it hasn't picked up any freezer smells. Open wine shouldn't hang around longer than a day or two, although an inexpensive vacuum cap can prolong its life for a few more days.

Consider designating a piece of furniture as the "bar" so you can keep all your bottles and gear in one place for easy access -- even an old dresser or small bookshelf will do. And in cramped quarters, pretty bottles and utensils on display serve as decor.

"It makes it fun to have a little space -- and it makes everyone who comes over want to have a drink," says Foer.

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