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Stocking Staples for a Winter Bar

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; F01

One cold autumn afternoon, back when I was young and clueless, a successful friend of the family took me out for a drink. The reason is lost to me now, but surely it involved some pointed career advice that I never followed. Anyway, this older gentleman -- who in my hazy memory wore a brimmed hat and a flower tucked into his lapel and carried a pocket watch -- took me to a hotel bar. As we sat, he announced to the bartender with a wink: "Jimmy, as of today, I'm putting you on official notice. I've switched to my winter drink."

Without a word, the bartender promptly mixed and served him a Stinger on the rocks. The gentleman laid a crisp $100 bill on the bar and told me to order, so I asked for a vodka and tonic, hoping to seem sophisticated. The gentleman appraised me, my slovenly attire and my vodka and tonic, and gruffly declared: "That's a summer drink." Then he told the bartender he'd better make another Stinger.

The implication was clear: What sort of adult doesn't know when to switch from a summer drink to a winter drink? Or worse: What sort of soft generation was this that needed to be told how to drink at all?

Years later, I learned that cocktail purists drink a Stinger straight up and year-round. The Stinger aside, now that I am the one dispensing advice, I'm here to say: If you haven't already, it's time to switch to your winter drink. If you don't have a winter drink, it's time to grow up and acquire one.

I am recommending six new bottles to stock for winter, totaling around $100, as an addition to the basic 12-bottle value bar I suggested six months ago. In May, I proved that a versatile, high-quality cocktail bar could be stocked for under $200. Selections included vodka (Stolichnaya), bourbon (Maker's Mark), light rum (Flor de Caña), tequila (Sauza Hornitos), gin (Tanqueray) and Laird's Applejack. I also suggested mixers: Benedictine, Cointreau, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and Angostura bitters and orange bitters. [See: Best Buys for the Summer Bar]

I still stand by just about everything I recommended in the basic setup. The one exception: I've lately been leaning more toward Plymouth gin ($18) in some of the classic cocktails I've been making. I like its more assertive, yet smoother, flavor a little better, though Tanqueray still does the job. I'd recommend restocking all the rest of the same bottles for the holidays if you've run out (at the very least, I hope you've replenished your vermouth by now, because as a fortified wine it spoils after about a month).

With the winter bar, I'm applying the same principles as before: affordability, versatility, mixability and an element of surprise. Although I recommended a number of white spirits in the earlier edition, the winter bar's emphasis will be on brown spirits and liqueurs.

To begin, it's essential to add a cognac to your winter bar. Sipping a snifter of cognac beside a roaring fire is a cliche for a reason, after all. Yet finding one on our budget seemed next to impossible. VSOPs such as Hennessy or Courvoisier can run $40 to $50. But I found one from a highly regarded smaller producer, Pierre Ferrand Ambre, that retails for about $30 -- an outstanding value, one of the best in the liquor store. Cognac can be used in so many ways (one being in a Stinger) that it's a shame it's not more popular as a cocktail ingredient.

The other spirit I think about when the weather turns cold is whiskey. With the chill of winter, perhaps we all need something a little higher in proof. That's why I'm adding a bottle of rye whiskey: a little spicier, brasher and wilder than bourbon. Rye has certainly become trendy in the past few years, and there are some wonderful craft-distilled brands on the market, included Old Potrero, Sazerac and Black Maple Hill. But when it comes to value purchases, I was torn between Rittenhouse Rye ($17) and Wild Turkey's 101-proof rye ($22). In the end, I went with Wild Turkey, an old favorite. Try it in your Manhattan and be amazed by the difference.

I'm also adding a slightly aged rum, Mount Gay Eclipse. A light rum is fine for mojitos and daiquiris, but this golden oak-aged rum is richer, more full-bodied, with hints of caramel and spices. It works better with eggnog and hot drinks such as Hot Buttered Rum. Of course, if you have some left when the weather warms up, this rum is also fantastic with a little tonic and a squeeze of lime.

Now for the mixers. Because the holidays go hand in hand with sweets and after-dinner drinks, I'm suggesting two budget-bar essentials: creme de menthe and creme de cacao. I know, I can hear it now: Creme de menthe? Have you lost your mind? First of all, I'm not talking about the green stuff; go for the white (clear). And secondly, how in the world are you going to make a Stinger -- one of the essential classic winter cocktails -- if you don't have creme de menthe? As for creme de cacao, there are sexier, and more expensive, chocolate liqueurs on the shelf than this old workhorse. But if you want to make a classic Alexander (with gin, brandy or other spirits), you're going to need this.

I'm also suggesting one obscure, wild-card mixer: Advocaat, an egg-based Dutch liqueur. Yellow-hued Advocaat had a moment of fame in the 1960s as an ingredient in the kitschy Snowball cocktail (mixed with 7-Up and lime juice). But I like it as a light alternative to eggnog in drinks such as the Golden Rye Flip.

You should be able to buy all six of those bottles for about $100. But since it's the holidays, some of you might be looking for a splurge. If so, two other spirits will surprise and impress you and your friends and family.

The first is a bottle of Chartreuse, the green version. No other spirit has a color named after it, and Chartreuse is like a taste of the Old World: a mix of 130 herbs and flowers for which, by legend, only two monks hold the recipe. Chartreuse can be served as an excellent digestif after a big holiday meal, and it adds a primal, herbal edge to cocktails such as the Bijou.

The second is Belle de Brillet, a wonderful fusion of Poire William and cognac, with a natural pear flavor (each bottle is supposedly made from 20 pounds of pears) that is never cloying. This is one of my favorite liqueurs of all time and an excellent after-dinner tipple by itself. But for a perfect winter cocktail, try substituting it for gin or brandy in an Alexander.

Experiment with these eight bottles this winter, tweak the recipes to your liking, and by all means choose a winter drink. Of course, you can freely ignore this advice, just as I ignored all the potentially life-changing advice given by the dapper gentleman on that cold day long ago. All of it, that is, except for one thing: A Stinger on the rocks is still my winter drink.

One of them, anyway.

Tip: Mix Right In

Bols Advocaat isn't the sort of thing you want to drink straight up, but it makes a fantastic winter mixer. Mix 2 ounces Advocaat on ice with 4 ounces lemon-lime soda and a squeeze of lime to make a Snowball (trust us, it's tasty). Or try an Advocaat Sour (2 ounces Advocaat, 1 ounce lemon juice, 1/2 ounce simple syrup) or a Devil's Advocaat (1 1/2 ounces Advocaat, 3/4 ounce creme de cacao, 3/4 ounce lime juice and 1/2 ounce simple syrup).

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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