Food Issue - Project home bar

A beginner's journey to making cocktails at the crib

Thursday October 17, 2013 04:00 am EDT

On the patio of Victory Sandwich bar, mixologist Greg Best takes a pull from a frosty can of Schlitz and tells me about his grandparents.

"Every day at 5 o'clock, they would fix gin and tonics for each other and then they'd sit at a table playing solitaire," he says. "I think that the idea of the happy hour, the break between your workday and your home, done-working-day, is something that we're rapidly losing. There's no tangible way for us anymore to say, 'Honey, I'm home,' hang up the hat and jacket and be like, 'I'm done working.' Now we're going home and checking our emails as soon as we get there."

In the '50s and '60s, the cocktail hour as Best describes it was a sacred ritual among many adults. But a cultural shift took place at the end of the '60s. Cocktail historians such as the renowned David Wondrich often refer to the two decades that followed as the "Dark Ages." It was a time when mainstream cocktail culture went from being dominated by booze plus a mixer (think screwdrivers or whiskey and Cokes) to sugary, neon-hued fruit bombs like Appletinis, or "shit-tinis" says Best.

And then came Dale Degroff. Aptly nicknamed "King Cocktail," Degroff began reviving classic cocktails such as Last Words and Aviations in the late '80s at New York City's famed Rainbow Room. Today, Degroff is widely credited with laying the groundwork for the current classic cocktail resurgence. By 2000, the movement had garnered legions of devoted bartenders around the country. Atlanta began reaping the benefits in the mid-2000s thanks to dedicated barkeeps such as Best and award-winning mixologist Eric Simpkins, beverage director at the Lawrence.

Earlier this summer, I decided to create a home bar. Unsure of where to begin, I popped over to H&F Bottle Shop and started asking questions. An hour later I had all the ingredients for a Manhattan: rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, angostura bitters. I even sprung for a $25 jar of fancy Luxardo Maraschino cherries. On my way out, the woman behind the counter suggested that if I wanted to know more, I should attend Holeman & Finch's Academy of Bartending: Bar Basics class.

Each month, Holeman & Finch Beverage Director Melissa Hayes leads a series of cocktail classes from behind the bar of the now iconic local pub. Bar Basics is a super-useful crash course that stemmed from cocktail fans like me asking for advice on how to start a home bar. Held on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., the $100-class includes snacks, lunch, four cocktails, and covers the basics: tools, ingredients, base spirits. It's pretty much the least you need to know about making drinks to get you comfortable with mixing at home.

The class opens with a brief history of cocktails before Hayes takes you on a guided tour of a bartender's took kit. You need a measuring device of some sort (usually a jigger with clear measurement markings), a Boston shaker (a tin and mixing glass combo), a long spoon for stirring, and a Hawthorne strainer (the one with a spring).

Apart from tools, the other thing you'll need is booze. Hayes advises on how to best spend your money on a home bar, because it is an investment. She recommends starting with two inexpensive base spirits that you enjoy.

"Gin and whiskey to me are probably the ones that I would go to because gin can be light and summery and refreshing and then whiskey can be sort of moody and dark," Hayes says. "And then I would decide on maybe one amaro bitter herbal liqueur and one or two cordials flavored liqueurs ... and then maybe one or two bottles of bitters."

Stocking up on a core of base spirits, or well, doesn't have to break the bank. The key, Hayes says, is to research recipes you'd like to make and look for ingredients that overlap.

"Especially when you're mixing," Simpkins says, "because you might mess up and waste the good stuff until you're used to mixing with it."

Perhaps the most expensive ingredients you'll need are the modifiers: cordials and liqueurs such as St. Germain or a good triple sec. Best recommends that each time you go to the liquor store plan on buying one splurge item, which is never the base spirit, and one normal item, whether it's a bottle of bitters, a base spirit, or another inexpensive ingredient.

And don't forget the bitters. Bitters are how bartenders season cocktails, like salt and spices for a chef. There are tons of flavored aromatic bitters out there to choose from, but the pros recommend starting with angostura (earthy with notes of Christmas spice), Peychaud's (zesty licorice), and a good orange bitters such as Regans'.

Back at home, I was feeling creative. I broke into my stash of ingredients, and without much regard for measuring I tried to build my first cocktail, a Manhattan variation with orange blossom water. Even though I had just learned that drinks made with only spirits and bitters should be stirred and not shaken to minimize dilution, I wanted to try out my shiny new shaker, so I shook. I poured the liquid into a rocks glass and took a swig. It tasted awful, equal parts watered down and bitter.

Best insists that mistakes are a cornerstone of cocktail making. Any cocktail on a menu represents at least 10-20 failed attempts, he assures. But the mistake I'd made was a particularly rookie one.

"Experimenting too soon. People are so eager to make their own drinks, but I feel like I became so much better of a drink maker once I'd made a lot of classics. ... Study the classics and you won't waste as much money or time," Hayes says.

And before your ditch that jigger, keep in mind that in cocktail making, exact measurements are key. These days, many bartenders are looking to ultra-precise Japanese jiggers designed with long, skinny barrels — as opposed to fatter ones with a larger surface area — to reduce the margin of error when measuring.

"You have to take the time to measure things and put them in proper balance," Simpkins says. "It's almost like baking at first."

Once you feel like you've got a handle on the classics and want to start coming up with your own drinks, be sure to familiarize yourself with the flavor profile of the individual ingredients.

"The whole idea of a cocktail is it's a balance of ingredients. It's a tapestry of flavor," Best says.

Hayes agrees. A lot of times, the most beautiful drinks are made with three simple ingredients.

"If you're gonna go beyond that, seven ingredients, you really want to be able to know why you used all seven. Each one should be adding something to the conversation," she says.

Simpkins suggests applying an iteration of the golden ratio — think of it as your default recipe for success — the next time you want to create a drink.

"Each bar has it slightly different, but ours is 1 1/2-2 ounces of booze, 3/4 sour, and 3/4 sweet. If you start there and shake that properly, you're not going to have a bad drink at the very least," he says.

The next time I set out to make a Manhattan, I came with a recipe and Japanese-style jigger in hand. I poured 2 ounces of precisely measured Old Overholt rye, 1 ounce of Dolin Rouge vermouth, and 2 dashes angostura bitters over ice, stirred for about 20 seconds, and immediately strained the drink into a chilled glass. While I won't say it was the greatest Manhattan ever made, I did go back and make myself a second. And a third.

I got absolutely no work done that night, which is perhaps the one drawback of making great drinks at home. But it got me thinking about Best's grandparents and how proud I was of my three-ingredient success and how this is what "taking the edge off" is supposed to feel like. While cocktail culture gives us a natural way to connect with others in our increasingly isolated little worlds, the at-home happy hour allows you to connect with yourself as well. It's about pausing and taking a moment to unpack the complexities of your day. Just like the cocktail in your hand, you drink up your thoughts, let them linger for a few, and relax as the bitterness fades away.


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