Raising the Bar

Pity the state of the home bar. The vestiges of its romantic past — the silver laid out meticulously on white linen, the dark wood buffed to a high shine, the perfectly made martini — are now so rare, people have forgotten what a thing of elegance a bar can truly be. And that's a crying shame, because our bars should be every bit as smart as we fancy ourselves. Now, as we jump headfirst into a new social season, is the perfect time to take inventory. With these classic recipes, essential tips, plus recommended brands, tools, and ingredients, anyone can make a superlative cocktail (and serve it with style) at home. Here's to the resurgence of the grand home bar. Bottoms up!

Four distinct spirits — Irish, Scotch, bourbon, and rye — compose the whiskey family. Blended scotch is essential for the Rob Roy and Robbie Burns, but you could use Irish, too; bourbons and ryes make perfect sours, juleps, and toddies.

The Wonder Bread of spirits, vodka is the perfect blank canvas upon which to draw just about any cocktail, from the ubiquitous cosmo to the retro Harvey Wallbanger. Vodka is known for its lack of pronounced flavor; individual labels are distinguished by their particular “mouthfeel,” or texture on the tongue, as well as heat on the palate — either hot and raw or smooth and round. Flavored vodkas are giving high-end traditional labels a run for their money.

Luxury Spirits
Making a great drink ethereal simply involves cash — bumping up the quality of the ingredients. A lowly kir becomes royale when chambord replaces crème de cassis. A brandy-based sidecar made instead with Cognac is still a sidecar, but it should be called a limo.

Tequila may be the current darling of the spirit world, but margarita lovers have known for quite some time that Mexico's 100 percent blue agave elixir adheres to citrus and fruit juices like chili to carne. Its vegetal character works particularly well in savory drinks, like the traditional tequila con sangrita, or when standing in for a bloody mary's vodka in a bloody maria.

Made from molasses, sugarcane juice, or concentrated syrup, rum could scare a carb-counter sober. It comes in three basic styles — light, medium, and dark — increasing in flavor as it darkens. Sub-categories include spiced or aromatic styles, as well as the current fad: flavored varieties, which are giving flavored vodkas a run for their money.

First of all, real martinis are made with gin-period. Gin, meanwhile, is made with a mash of cereal grain (corn, rye, and barley) that's spiked with botanicals, chief among them juniper. Though it's made around the world, bottles labeled “London Dry” are considered the benchmark for quality, and excellent specimens have lately been emerging from Holland — where gin was invented — such as Zuidam Dry Gin and Zuidam Genever Gin.

Mixers & Gadgets
You can certainly have a party with a bottle of bourbon and a great imagination, but making proper cocktails involves mixing, which means you need things to mix and things in which to mix and serve the mixes. To make a drink properly, even minimalists need high-quality tools (for a full list see page 203), including a shaker, strainer, muddler, ice bucket, tongs, corkscrew, and bottle opener.

Mix Masters
Everything you need to make cocktails worth getting stirred up over.

Boston shaker: a two-piece set comprising a mixing glass and a larger metal container that acts as a cover for shaking cocktails.
Barspoon: a long-handled, shallow spoon for stirring drinks.
Hawthorn strainer: a perforated metal “top” for the metal half of a Boston shaker, held in place by a wire coil.
Electric blender: essential for making frozen drinks, pureeing fruit, even crushing ice.
Cutting board: either wood or plastic, for cutting up fruit for garnishes.
Muddler: looks like a wooden pestle, the flat end of which is used to crush and combine ingredients in a glass.
Grater: useful for zesting fruit or grating nutmeg.
Bottle opener: essential for opening bottles that aren't twist-off.
Church key: usually metal, pointed at one end to punch holes in the tops of cans. The other end is used to open bottles.
Corkscrew: Professionals use the “waiter's corkscrew,” or the “screw-pull” or “rabbit” corkscrews. The “winged corkscrew,” found in most homes, is considered easiest to use.
Jigger: for precise measuring. It usually consists of two connected, v-shaped metal cups, one measuring 1 ounce, the other 1 1/2.
Ice bucket with scoop and tongs: A bar without ice is like a car without gas. Use the scoop-never the glass-to scoop ice, and tongs to add cubes to a prepared drink.
Miscellaneous: stirrers, straws, cocktail napkins, coasters, and cocktail picks.

Bitters: Angostura bitters, Peychaud's bitters, orange bitters.
Fruit juices: lime, lemon, cranberry, pineapple, and other juices and nectars.
Savory: tomato and clam juices, horseradish, hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce.
Sweetening: simple syrup, powdered and granulated sugars, coconut cream, grenadine.
Dairy/Egg: milk, cream, eggs.
Sodas: seltzer, tonic water, various colas.
Garnishes: lemon and lime wedges, pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries, olives, celery, fresh herbs (mint, basil, etc.).

>>DOs and DON'Ts
Don't: handle glassware near the rim. If it has a stem, that's where you hold it; if it doesn't, hold it as close to the base as possible. This keeps your fingerprints off the glass and your hands from warming the drink.
Do: serve cocktails ice cold. Pre-chill glasses in the fridge or freezer, or, while preparing drinks, fill each glass with ice and water, then empty it before adding the cocktail.
Don't: pour like Tom Cruise. Until you learn to count with a pourer, use a jigger.
Do: proffer coasters or napkins. Those properly chilled concoctions should sweat if you made them correctly, so don't let them stain your tabletop or bar.
Don't: mess up the bar. Use pouring inserts for a clean, mess-free measure. Rub the rims of wine or fancy spirit bottles with waxed paper to prevent dripping.
Do: coat the rim of the glass properly. For a salt-rimmed margarita or a sugar-frosted sidecar, moisten the rim of a pre-chilled, empty glass with a lemon or lime wedge, then dip it into the salt or sugar.

Classic Cocktails
The nuts and bolts of any good bar are solidly made classic cocktails. Follow these recipes from the city's most experienced bartenders for 100 percent foolproof results.

Bloody Mary
Joe Gonzalez, Radius
1 1/2 ounces vodka
3 ounces tomato juice
7 drops Worcestershire sauce
3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 pinch freshly ground pepper
1 pinch celery salt
1/4 teaspoon grated horseradish

Combine ingredients with ice in a
cocktail shaker, then strain into a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with a
celery stalk or lemon slice.

Bryan Kirby, Harvest
2 ounces light rum
1 ounce real lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar

Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

The Gimlet
Mark Ratte, Casablanca
2 1/4 ounces gin
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Patrick Davis, Grill 23 & bar
3 1/2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
Stir the ingredients with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Add a cherry for garnish.

Luis Alvarenga, the Oak Bar
2 1/2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
small dash bitters

Stir both gin and vermouth with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. (For a perfect dry martini, omit the bitters.) Garnish with either lemon zest or a green olive.

Old Fashioned
Orion Gousie, Excelsior
1 1/2 orange slices
1 cube sugar
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
1 maraschino cherry
splash of soda water

Muddle ½ orange slice with sugar and bitters. Add whiskey and soda to ice-filled glass. Garnish with cherry and orange.

Rob Roy
Sam Jacobson, Clio
1 1/2 ounces Scotch whiskey
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
1 lemon twist

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.