We've all done it. In a few hours, guests will begin arriving for a little get-together at the casa and it's time for a booze run. So it's off to the local liquor store to round up some hooch. We grab a bottle of this, a bottle of that, and head out the door, giving little or no thought to what the heck is in our shopping bag.
"Most people do it all wrong," says Joe DeLuca, a veteran Cleveland bartender and founder of the United States Bartenders' Guild. "That's not the right way to build a bar."
DeLuca says we're all doing it ass-backwards: First come the drinks, he says, then come the bottles.
"Start off with a little education," he says. "Learn how to make half a dozen cocktails—a vodka drink, a gin drink, a couple whiskey drinks—and from there you build your bar. Visit your favorite restaurant or bar and ask the bartender how they're made properly. Pretty soon you start to learn that all of these drinks are related, and most can be made simply by swapping out a base spirit or a citrus juice."
"If we're going to start anywhere, let's start with the classics," DeLuca suggests. "The five Ms of mixology: Manhattan, Margarita, Mojito, Martini and Moscow Mule. Between them you use each of the main categories of liquor and the five most common hand skills: shake, stir, strain, hand-squeeze and muddle."
"There is no need to spend a ton of money on a bottle of spirits," DeLuca says. "If we go back to the birth of the cocktail in 1806, they were invented because the spirits were very raw and fiery. They added sugar and citrus to them to smooth out the rough edges and make them drinkable. That said, you do make a better cocktail with higher quality ingredients—but there is a point where it becomes absurd."
Get a $15 bottle of Smirnoff, he says. "It's nice and neutral; it's my go-to vodka."
"Don't skimp on gin," he says. "Get yourself a good London dry gin like Tanqueray or Beefeater. I know everybody loves Hendrick's—it's a beautiful gin—but once you start mixing it with the other ingredients, those amazing botanicals all disappear."
"Silver rum is made to be mixed," he says. "It's barely more flavorful than vodka." At $17 a liter, Myers's Platinum white rum from Jamaica is perfect. Or Don Q Cristal rum from Puerto Rico. A nice step up is 10 Cane from the Virgin Islands at around $20. Bourbon
Bourbons are classified as wheated or non-wheated, a reference to the secondary grain behind corn. Non-wheated bourbons are made with rye in place of wheat, says DeLuca, making them "spicy with shoulders, a couple of sharp edges, which means they play real well in cocktails." Thus, avoid Maker's Mark (wheated) in favor of Four Roses or Bulleit ($20-25), both from Kentucky. Tequila
"You want 100-percent agave silver (blanco)—none of that artificially colored stuff (gold)," he says. Bottles like Jose Cuervo Silver and El Jimador cost less than $20. "You can bump up to a reposado, which gets its color from a barrel not caramel coloring."
"Learn how to use bitters," DeLuca says. "They're our spice cabinet. Bitters layer in more flavor and bring down the perceived sweetness in the cocktail." Angostura is fine but look for Fee Brothers at better wine shops. They last forever due to high alcohol content. "There are so many available these days. It's a great way to experiment behind the bar."
Dry and Sweet Vermouth
This fortified-wine product will keep refrigerated for up to a month, but DeLuca recommends buying the half-bottle size to keep things fresh. Look for brands like Martini & Rossi, Dolin and Vya.
"Do not buy Triple Sec. Go ahead and spring for Cointreau if you like drier or Grand Marnier, which is sweeter. Yes, they're expensive, but you only use about a half ounce per cocktail."
"Here are some interesting bottles to throw into your cabinet if you have a little extra cash: St-Germain, Domaine de Canton, Crème de Violette."
"Sugar needs water to dissolve, so you might as well make up a batch of simple syrup," he says. Just boil a cup of water and a cup of sugar until it dissolves. DeLuca makes a "wine bottle" at a go and adds a shot of vodka to extend shelf life to three weeks.
Either a three-piece cocktail shaker or two-piece Boston shaker. "It's a matter of preference," he says. But if you go the Boston route, you'll need to buy a strainer.
"Lemons and limes can be squeezed per cocktail, but for orange and other fruit juices—or when expecting a crowd—you should spend the money on a good juicer," says DeLuca.
"Understand when to stir a drink and when to shake a drink," says DeLuca. "You end up with a completely different cocktail."
"Stay away from wood, which requires more care and cleaning," he says. Stick to aluminum with a food-safe handle.
For citrus twists.
"Your bartender isn't being stingy with the alcohol when they measure," he says. "They want to make consistent tasting drinks."
Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff
"I think this is the most comprehensive book that serves well both the professionals and the neophytes," says DeLuca.
Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan
"If you want to graduate to the next level, this book helps you to categorize cocktails so you can actually go on to create your own drinks," he says.
The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan
"If you really want a good primer on modern mixology with recipes for homemade syrups and tinctures."