things i’ve learned from keeping a bar
Growing up, my dad gave me sips of wine, teaching me to identify grapes and prompting me with the right adjectives: oaky, dry, balanced, peppery. I grew up surrounded by boxes of wine that he would trade with his friends or seal away in a corner of his office to age. Fifteen years later and he’s disappointed that my favorite wine comes in screw-top bottles and bags and could best be described as “fruity.”
My boyfriend tried to convert me to craft beer my sophomore year. Used to the soothing mediocrity of PBR and ’Gansett, my tongue winced when the bitterness of hops hit it. Despite his patience, he could never convince me to appreciate IPAs, so I’ve moved through the categories. Stouts taste like iron and blood, pumpkin and seasonal beers are too sickly sweet, and even Hefeweizens started to become too watery or too funky. I’ve decided to move on to imported lagers, less piss-like than American big beer but similarly inoffensive.
My first cocktails were quintessentially Brown: Eastside Mini mixed drinks. Ah, the good old days of rum and Coke, Fanta and Everclear, vodka and Vitamin Water. I lacked the corresponding stellar guides I’ve had in wine and beer, but I knew that there had to be more out there. Adults willingly spent time and money in bars, and there must be more than alcoholism keeping them there.
This was confirmed when I turned 21 in New York this summer and the wide world of drinking opened to me. For the low, low price of $14 a cocktail, I found that I actually enjoyed mixed drinks that weren’t just ultra-sugared water and hard alcohol. But as the summer wore on, I realized that most of the seemingly complex cocktails probably cost less than $14 to make, and being fond of both hostessing and saving money, I decided to invest in a bar.
Though I haven’t yet worked my way through the catalogue of sazeracs and pisco sours and I have no idea how to express an orange peel, I would still venture to say I’ve learned a lot from my foray into home bartending. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Barware is pretty but almost entirely unnecessary. You can get by with a muddler (big wooden stick), a cocktail shaker with a built-in strainer (big metal can), a bottle opener, a corkscrew, and a spoon. The rest will collect dust.
A miniature teacup is not the size of a shot and should probably not be treated accordingly.
Guides about stocking bars written for thirty-somethings will tell you to buy every base spirit: whiskey, rum, vodka, gin, and tequila. Also brandy and vermouth in the fancier guides. While this isn’t the worst idea, since these are the basis for most cocktails, frankly, if you don’t like bourbon, don’t buy bourbon. Start small. You’re probably not making Manhattans tomorrow.
You’ll want to buy martini glasses to make fancy little drinks. Don’t. Just buy rocks glasses or tumblers; they’ll hold bigger drinks and be way easier to wash.
Spherical ice cubes instantly elevate the laziest drink.
Get a couple flavored liqueurs. I’m not talking cake vodka (though that may be a delightful addition to your bar); I’m talking about ginger, elderflower, orange, peach, mint, raspberry, all that good stuff. Pick a flavor that you ideally like in real life and could plausibly go with a bunch of different kinds of liquor; it makes it easier to experiment and do new things.
Don’t buy triple sec unless you intend to make margaritas every weekend.
A bar is an act of generosity. Don’t bother asking for tips because you will never recoup your costs and will always feel weird handing your friends drinks and immediately asking for money.
Store-bought sugars and syrups are totally unnecessary. Simple syrup is just three ingredients: water, sugar, and whatever flavoring you want (herbs or berries or tea). Two parts sugar to one part water and then dump as much flavor in as possible. Boil them all together. Keep it in a jar in your fridge and it’ll last weeks and cost you much less than the $12 rhubarb-thyme-whatever you’ve been eyeing.
Always have lemon and lime juice in your fridge. They last forever.
Convince people that you’ll only make them a drink if they find two (three, four) more people to join their round. Saves time and unintentionally causes mingling.
Recipes are great when you have no idea what goes together (my Google search history includes “elderflower triple sec” and “kahlua ginger”) but here’s the secret: Most drinks that are palatable to human beings have the same basic proportion. Two parts base alcohol, one part flavored alcohol, half a part simple syrup, half a part citrus, generous amount of seltzer or other bubbly thing. Maybe a dash of bitters or some spices if you’re feeling frisky. Really. This drink is technically called a daisy, but you will soon notice how many cocktails are just variations on that.
Don’t be disappointed when, despite your mixing prowess, people still take tequila shots.