A Bottle-by-Bottle Trail Guide to Cocktails at Home
How do you get started mixing cocktails at home without amassing a vast collection of seldom used bottles?
Here's a trail guide that visits all of our favorite cocktails with no trail longer than seven bottles. All of the bottles in the guide are frequently found in cocktail recipes and most of them are worth a quiet sip all on their own.
Like all good trail guides it comes with a Trail Map.
And there's also a Recipe Chart to help choose a trail.
Shaker: You will need a cocktail shaker. A three-piece shaker is easy to use and will work just fine. We use a metal two-piece shaker partly because it has more room than a three-piece, to really thrash that ice, but mostly because it looks cool. A two-piece shaker will also require a Hawthorne strainer but that's it—that's really all you need.
Ice: is an important ingredient in almost every cocktail. Shaking a cocktail with ice both cools it and dilutes it and that dilution is an essential part of the recipe. Semi-circular ice 'cubes' from a modern home refrigerator will work fine. One inch cubes from an ice tray will also work but don't use anything smaller. Two inch cubes look good in a stirred drink served in a 'rocks' glass.
Bottles: Aim for quality. In liqueurs that means the brand names. In spirits you are looking at mid-range prices. No one in their right mind is going to mix a cocktail with an 18 year-old single malt scotch, but try mixing a Margarita with cheap tequila and you can be sure of that paint-stripper aftertaste shining through.
Juice: Fresh squeezed is the only way to go. Citrus fruit is easy squeezy. Pineapple is possible, if a little messy. Cranberry and beyond—just buy it unsweetened from the store.
Gin: We use Tanqueray, Beefeater or Plymouth but any London Dry Gin will work fine.
Simple syrup: An equal parts sugar and water solution. You can make it yourself but commercial brands are inexpensive and last longer.
Gin Basil Smash—add a little lemon juice and some basil leaves and we have a wonderful herbaceous drink.
(Add ginger syrup to reach the Ginger Basil Gimlet or dry vermouth for the Martini, not a favorite of ours but a classic.)
Angostura bitters: The condiment of cocktails—a tiny bottle that makes a big difference.
The Bennett Cocktail—one of our favorites and a good trail head for further exploration.
And now we are ready to branch out. Choose any of the trails below, in any order. None of them require more than four additional bottles. Use the Trail Map and the Recipe Chart to help guide your choice.
The Light Rum Trail
Light Rum: This is 'white' rum and there are many choices here. We like Plantation 3 Star White Rum though Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4 year is also a good choice.
Daiquiri—another of the classic sours.
Maraschino liqueur: A cherry based liqueur found in many cocktails.
Hemingway Daiquiri—Papa Hemingway's recipe.
(Add Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette to reach another of our favorite libations, the Aviation. You'll not use the bottle in anything else but trust us—it's a worthwhile investment.)
The Gold Rum Trail
Gold Rum: Gold rum is lightly aged. Our recommendation would be Appleton Estate Signature Blend which is aged about four years but there are many other good choices.
Orange Curaçao: This is not the place to go for a cheap brand. Get Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao or choose a different trail.
Orgeat syrup: A French almond syrup. And again, don't get the cheap stuff. We use the Liber & Co. brand. Shake well and don't get it confused with the ginger syrup—the labels are almost identical.
Mai Tai—here we are back on the top shelf again.
(For further credit add John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum to gain entry to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.)
The Dark Rum Trail
Dark Rum: Dark rum could refer to aged rum or it could mean black rum which is rum that may be aged a little but has molasses added so that it looks aged. We have tried aged rum, Appleton Estate 12-year old, which works fine but may be a little too good for regular mixing. We have tried black rum, Gosling's Black Seal one of the suggestions in Smuggler's Cove, but it lacks depth and has no aftertaste. Finally we settled on Plantation Original Dark—it hits the spot just right at a price that's clearly meant for mixing.
Grenadine: Don't get the colored sugar water—real grenadine is made from pomegranates. You could try microwaving pomegranate juice until half of it is gone. We use Liber & Co. Real Grenadine made from actual pomegranates.
Planter's Punch—the dark rum trail is a Tiki trail.
Demerara syrup: Simple syrup made from unprocessed turbinado sugar. We use BG Reynolds Rich Demerara Syrup.
Barbados Rum Punch—still in the tropics.
(Add John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum to make it to Port Au Prince.)
The Green Chartreuse Trail
Green Chartreuse: a French liqueur said to be made from an ancient formula of 130 alpine herbs. The stuff is wonderful! It was a major discovery when we first came across it. It imparts a delicate herbal flavor to a cocktail. Alternatively just drink it neat, at 55% alcohol by volume it'll put a smile on your face in no time at all.
Maraschino liqueur: A cherry based liqueur found in many cocktails. You may still have some left from the Light Rum Trail.
Last Word—the Green Chartreuse imparts a wonderful herbaceous flavor but don't stop here. The Lumière is our favorite.
(Here's another path to one of our favorites. Add a bottle of Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette to reach the Aviation.)
St Germain Elderflower Liqueur: a young elderflower liqueur that became known as the bartender's duct-tape for it's ability to fix any drink.
Orange bitters: We have Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6 and Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters. Angostura also makes orange bitters. We haven't yet determined which we like best.
Lumière—and here we are back on the top shelf again.
(With a bottle of sweet white vermouth, Dolin Blanc, take a look at this classic from the old days the Bijou.)
The Campari Trail
Campari: an Italian 'amaro'—a bitter liqueur made from an infusion of fruit and herbs. You'll either love it or hate it.
Sweet vermouth: an Italian sweet fortified wine flavored with aromatic herbs. We recommend Carpano Antica. Get a small bottle and keep it in the fridge after opening.
Negroni—one of the all-time greats (provided you like Campari).
Cointreau: an orange liqueur—the original triple sec. (Don't bother with the cheap imitations.)
Dry vermouth: a French dry fortified wine flavored with aromatic herbs. We use Dolin Vermouth de Chambrey Dry but there are others. (Again, get a small bottle and keep it in the fridge after opening.)
Lucien Gaudin—a lighter, dryer version of the Negroni.
(Add Bénédictine and Cherry Heering to enjoy the Singapore Sling.)
The Bourbon Trail
Bourbon: after considerable, yet ongoing, research our recommendation would be Elijah Craig. It is both inexpensive enough to mix but good enough to sip—very, very good to sip. Some recipes call for Rye Whiskey rather than Bourbon. Rittenhouse Rye 100 is a good choice (though I wouldn't sip it) but the Elijah Craig will work well enough to begin with.
Old Fashioned—where it all started but it's still going strong.
Sweet vermouth: We recommend Carpano Antica. You may still have some from the Campari Trail.
Manhattan—still on the classics.
Bénédictine: another herbal liqueur created by French monks. You'll have a smile on your face before you can say, "Deo Optima Maximo." Or you could just mix a Preakness…
Preakness—one of many variations on the Manhattan.
The Citron Vodka and Tequila Trail
Citron vodka: Absolut Citron came out in the late 1980s and these 'contemporary classics' soon followed.
Lemon Drop—a simple vodka sour.
Cointreau: an orange liqueur—the original triple sec. (You might have some left from the Campari Trail.)
Cosmopolitan—still at heart a vodka sour.
Tequila: We use Herradura Silver but whatever brand you choose make sure it is labeled 100% agave.
Margarita—last but not least among the sours.
(Add Grand Marnier for a Cadillac Margarita.)