Hundreds of articles out there offer insights about what spirits should stock your home bar. From the 150-year-old single malt whatever to the new and disruptive hibiscus-infused so-and-so taking Brooklyn by storm, there is no shortage of advice on what big bottles you should be serving. But what about the small ones?
With a few exceptions, most decent cocktail recipes call for more than just the headliner spirit; you've got a supporting cast of bitters, liqueurs, and other additives that usually help take any drink to new heights. But just like everything else in the drinks world, you’re choosing from a vast variety of cocktail co-stars.
Luckily, you don't need to stock three shelves' worth of obscure ingredients to have a proper home bar — all you need is a few heavy hitters that can work across a huge range of drinks. Here are a handful that lend themselves to a wide breadth of both functionality and creative experimentation.
Dozens of bitters varieties exist, exploring the farthest reaches of botanicals, fruits, and spices. Assuming you already have the standard aromatic bitters (a key ingredient in Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and many other classics) and had to pick just one to experiment with, make it orange bitters.
Citrus notes blend famously well with most spirits, which is why you can make literally anything into a “sour” by adding citrus. And though that usually refers to lemons and limes, orange bitters have a long and storied history in the cocktail game. In fact, in the late 1800s, most original martini recipes called for orange bitters as a key ingredient.
Any version will do, really, but we especially like Fee Brothers' gin barrel-aged orange bitters. The Rochester-based company lets regular orange bitters soak in Old Tom Gin oak barrels for a year, allowing all those botanical and citrus notes to get friendly.
Infusing spirits with loose-leaf tea gives the moonlighting mixologist a ton of creative leeway. The list of tea flavor profiles is endless, just like the list of cocktails you could infuse. You'll never have to drink the same thing twice… though we’re guessing you’ll probably want to.
The infusion process is impossibly easy. Pour several cocktails’ worth of your spirit of choice in a sealable jar. Bourbon and vodka both work especially well with tea, but feel free to experiment.
Next, add two tablespoons of loose leaf tea to the jar and stir gently to combine. Seal the jar and let it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours. Strain out the tea leaves and you’re ready to serve.
Regular old tea works just fine, and you can experiment with all kinds blends. Or if you want to get fancy with it, Owl's Brew makes specialty versions of ready-made tea that's made for mixing. Your call.
Orange blossom water and rose water can be used to freshen rooms, your skin, and even your bath. They do the same for your cocktails. These little numbers are made from distilled flower blossoms and add a fragrant boost to any drink.
According to The 12 Bottle Bar, both rose and orange flower water combine with pomegranate juice, water and sugar to make a sumptuous homemade grenadine. They also appear in standard recipes like the famous Ramos Gin Fizz.
If you’ve ever been on a cruise or to one of those all-inclusive resorts, chances are you’ve sworn off simple syrup as a high-fructose filler unfit for anyone who likes to actually taste a cocktail’s ingredients. Which is why you should make your own to a just-right strength, and then use it in proper moderation.
Hearkening back to The 12 Bottle Bar one more time, a lot of recipes benefit from sugar in a smooth, liquid medium. The Fitzgerald, French 75, Gimlet, and Mint Julep — just to name a few — all depend on it.
Simply combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan and heat over a low flame. Stir the sugar so that it dissolves in the water, remove it from heat and let it cool to room temperature. Store it in the fridge in a covered container for up to one month.
It’s tough to narrow down a list of liqueurs to a single must-have. Just like with spirits, liqueur flavor profiles vary wildly in very pronounced directions. There are easily over 40 liqueurs you could buy right now just in the coffee family, and that's saying nothing of fruits, herbs, florals and countless blends of the aforementioned.
A liqueur, generally speaking, is a cocktail ingredient that can stand on its own in small quantities with a sugar content over 40 percent and a lower ABV than most spirits. They've been enjoyed for centuries before dinner to whet the appetite (those ones are called apéritifs) or after dinner to aid in digestion (digestifs).
The best policy here is to visit a bar with a strong cocktail game, identify a drink you really enjoy, and buy for that. If you love Negronis, Campari is your liqueur. If a Sidecar drives you to your happy place, orange liqueurs like Grand Marnier or Cointreau are more your style.
Although cocktail-mixing is often portrayed as an austere and esoteric science, the goal is simple: make something you like to drink.
And just like with any other culinary venture, it usually takes a dash of this or a sprinkling of that to bring out all the rich flavors in your main ingredients. So from our bar to yours, pour boldly, have some fun, and here’s to you.