Last updated on April 26th, 2016
For the latest—and some might say most crucial—installment of Building the Bar, we’re finally hitting the drinks. (Check out Part One, on bar glassware, and Part Two, on bar tools, if you haven’t caught up with the full Behind the Bar series yet.)
Beyond the five basic spirits below, I’m not going to tell you how to stock your bar. The most versatile bar is stocked with tons of add-on liqueurs, bitters, and other boozy accents, supplemented by fresh fruit juices and fizzy beverages from tonic water to Champagne and even beer. I’m a gal who loves bitter and herbal flavors, so my cabinets are bursting with Campari, Pernod, and bitters in all flavors from celery to blood orange. Those of you who prefer more sugary drinks will probably gravitate to sweeter liqueurs like St. Germain and Chambord.
The fun comes with experimenting: mix things up and find a signature drink or two you can whip up from memory. I’ve linked to some classic recommendations with each of the basic spirits, many of which are already tweaking the traditional recipes and creating one of infinite variations for each cocktail. Don’t have simple syrup in the house? Use maple syrup or honey in your gimlet! Don’t like gin with your Campari? Try bourbon and see where it takes you.
I’m not talking about those abominations that taste like bubblegum or whipped cream, but the clear distilled liquor that’s essentially a blank slate for any other flavor you want to pair it with. You can splurge on a pricey label if you want, but penny-pinchers take heed: the New York Times chose Smirnoff as top dog in a blind tasting, praising its classic flavor and smooth neutrality. I buy the 1.75-liter jugs of Smirnoff and decant the goods into other bottles filled with lemon peels for homemade citrus vodka; vanilla beans for homemade vanilla extract; or whatever infusion I’m feeling into at the moment. Because vodka’s such a neutral liquor, it usually appears in cocktails that get their bells and whistles from other liquids, like:
Though it was invented by the Dutch, gin’s kind of a Continental mutt: it’s mainly known as a British tipple and English brands like Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Plymouth still rule the market. To confuse matters further, its name comes from the French word genevre, meaning “juniper,” and that’s the first thing you’ll taste in most gin recipes: a strongly herbal, piney flavor that blends with other aromatics, which can range from the cucumber notes in Hendrick’s to fennel and coriander in Wisconsin’s Death’s Door gin—my current obsession, since I go for the most aromatic gins I can get my mitts on. Beyond the standby gin and tonic, a number of old-school cocktails are gin-based, including:
Most people think of overly sweet, girly drinks when they think of rum cocktails—yep, even I dismissed it offhand before I got to know the depth of flavor that can come from a good bottle of rum. It’s true that the liquor will always be sweet, since it’s distilled from sugarcane, but that works to your advantage when pairing it with tart and spicy flavors like limes and ginger. Whether you’re choosing a light, dark, or spiced rum for your cocktails, look past the cartoon pirates and suntan-lotion coconut-flavored brands to the aged bottles like Flor de Cana, Mount Gay, or Cruzan for drinks like:
It’s not just for shots, folks. Tequila—fermented, distilled agave juice—is taken seriously in Mexico, and though it doesn’t have protected designation of origin status like Europe provides for Champagne or Manchego cheese, if your bottle doesn’t have “Hecho en Mexico” on the label, it ain’t the real thing. (Brands to consider: 1800 Silver, Milagro, Tres Generaciones, or the old standby, Patron.) Though some folks love to sip it neat like whiskey, tequila goes gangbusters with citrus and salt, not just around the rim of the glass but with ceviches and savory tapas-style bites like olives or charcuterie. Need a few good recipes? Try:
It’s no wonder the word “whiskey” intimidates those who don’t drink it regularly. It’s actually an umbrella term for a number of brown spirits, including Scotch—whiskey that’s produced in Scotland, whether it’s a blend or single-malt; rye, which, when made in the U.S., contains a majority of rye in its mash; and bourbon, the qualifications for which GFS has detailed in our post on Kentucky’s bourbon belt. Often sipped neat with a splash of water or an ice cube, whiskey’s also the backbone for a bunch of classic spirits, including:
As I mentioned above, the add-ons really make the magic happen in a cocktail, and while I could devote entire posts to each of the spirits and flavorings below, think of this as a buffet menu of drinks. We’ll take a taste of each and then come back for more.
Though once considered one of the big-name basics, brandy and its sister spirit cognac have sadly fallen out of favor in the modern bar setup. Classic cocktails like the Corpse Reviver #1 (the series of recipes are named for their hangover-curing properties, dontcha know), Brandy Alexander, the Sidecar, and the Vieux Carré (one of my personal faves) are making a comeback via the current speakeasy/throwback cocktail revival, they don’t get mixed up at home very often. So until further notice, brandy’s an add-on in my book.
On the other hand, I consider bitters to be so important in my bar setup that the category has almost elevated itself to the level of basic spirit in my book. Originally developed as a medicinal tonic, bitters cut through the heaviness of high-alcohol drinks and taste damn fine on their own on a hot day with a splash of sparkling or tonic water and a squeeze of citrus. Angostura is the most well-known of the bitters family, but they come in nearly every flavor under the sun, from lemon to rhubarb to celery.
Though it’s technically a fortified wine, vermouth is rarely sipped straight from a wineglass. Its herbal flavor profile makes it a better sidekick for strong booze, which is why it’s the perfect dance partner for gin and vodka in classic martinis, or alongside a similarly bitter cohort like Campari (see below). France and Italy are the world’s top vermouth producers, and their storied history with the spirit make choosing a favorite vermouth a daunting proposition. Dry, sweet, white, red? Check what your recipe calls for, choose accordingly, and store in the fridge instead of the liquor cabinet. Carpano, Cinzano, and Noilly Prat are excellent go-tos.
There seems to be no limit to the number of liqueurs in the world, and no doubt you’ve dabbled at making one or two yourself, even though you might not have known it! A liqueur is technically defined as a base spirit into which another flavor or aromatic has been infused, so if you’ve ever made your own strawberry bourbon, you’ve created a liqueur! Brands range from the traditional—orange-flavored Cointreau or Grand Marnier, raspberry Chambord, almond Amaretto, and Heering cherry liqueur—to newer varieties like Root, derived from traditional bark and herbs but meant to emulate a savory root beer taste; St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur; or the ginger-flavored Domaine de Canton.
- Campari is my favorite aperitif on the planet—though it technically falls under the bitters category, it’s so quaffable on its own that it gets a special place in my heart. For me, it’s the platonic ideal of bracing and refreshing properties. Other bitter aperitifs and digestifs include Aperol and Amari like Averna, Cynar, and Fernet-Branca.
- Pimm’s is a traditional British drink, a proprietary and secret blend of booze, fruit, and herbs that’s an easy-drinking cousin to stronger and more bitter aperitifs. Though there used to be six different versions on the market, ready to blend with different spirits like Scotch, brandy, and rye, now the only one you really need to know is Pimm’s No. 1. Mix with lemonade or 7-Up and garnish with cucumber, lemon, lime, and mint. It’s a quintessential summer drink.
- Absinthe is back, baby! The anise-flavored, wormwood-distilled spirit won’t make you hallucinate, though it’s strong enough to put you under the table if you’re not careful. Pernod was created during absinthe’s exile as a legal, lower-alcohol version, though Sazerac purists will argue that there’s really no substitute.
- Triple Sec is another orange-flavored liqueur, a variety of Curacao (yeah, you know that blue stuff that goes into drinks that make sorority girls say “wooooooo!”?). If you’ve got Cointreau or Grand Marnier in your cabinet, you don’t need a third variety, and you can always steep orange rinds in simple syrup in a pinch too.