6 Ways to Upgrade Your Bar

Party season's over, it's time to re-stock


It’s not your fault, you tried very hard: armfuls of Charles Shaw, a case of Cava from World Market, a few bottles of the Captain for your party’s signature cocktail. Just 24 hours ago you felt well stocked, defended, a discount beverage moat dug deep around your liquor cabinet. It just simply wasn’t enough.

The marauders are gone now. Your hangover abated, you eye the liquor cabinet across the room, doors splayed open. It comes back to you: The last garrison fell around 2 a.m., the keep was taken, the coffers plundered. It’s gone. All of it.

That’s the bad news. The good news? Well, it’s like that popular half-truth about the Chinese character: You’re poised to turn this crisis into an opportunity, pal. Because, let’s face it, your bar wasn’t that well stocked. Top shelf maybe, but all it said about you is that you were able to successfully memorize the brands from a hotel minibar. You have holiday money now, and those empty shelves in your cabinet -- that’s where the soul goes. It’s time to upgrade, resolve to drink better in 2011. Here’s a quick guide to getting started.

You're out of: Grey Goose

Replace it with: Tito’s Handmade Vodka

While the Goose is a good bar standby (though close your eyes and you may find you prefer Ketel), it does manage to hit the two notes that can make a vodka off-putting as either a cocktail base or a straight drink: it’s both syrupy and a little harsh. Tito’s is from Texas, from the state’s first legal still somewhere outside of Austin -- that magical place where cowboy boots and vegan bakeries co-exist in harmony. And harmony is what it brings to the table. It’s an exceptionally clear, bright vodka with just the right amount of heft and heat. It’s cheaper, too, which means you can afford to be a little generous.

Look, man, vodka doesn’t come from America: Okay, fine. Try Russian Standard, produced more or less according to a recipe developed by Dmitri Mendeleev, he of the Periodic Table of Elements. There’s nothing harmonious about this one -- it’s a cold fire -- but it’s probably the vodka you’d take with you on a submarine journey, so...

You're out of: Tanqueray

Replace it with: Death’s Door Gin

Death’s Door Gin is from Wisconsin, and it’s made sustainably from local winter wheat and wild juniper berries. The former gives it a lovely bone-dryness, the latter are more distinctly aromatic, spicier and spikier than the commercial sort used by most distillers. It’s an incredibly simple drink (just three aromatics compared to upwards of 20 you might find in other gins!) but is all the lovelier for it. This is one you’d drink straight.

Seriously, is this a "Buy American" piece in disguise? Get Bulldog then. From the UK, but not quite old-hat. It’s far mellower in flavors than its compatriots, and it immediately makes you feel like everyone else has the volume set way to high. Juniper, botanicals and spices whisper to you as if across a clear icy lake.

You're out of: Captain Morgan

Replace it with: The Lash Spiced Rum

Spiced rum should be that, spiced. And rum should be a drink -- should conjure chanties, tattoos, overall saltiness and the desire to drink to forget. It should not be a liqueur, at its best when added to soda. The Lash is the former: nicely aged, filled to the brim with new world spices. The Captain was just for the guests: Go the other direction and try Oronoco White Rum. It hails from Brazil but is not Cachaça, as it’s distilled in part from molasses rather than purely sugar cane juice. Still, there’s something distinctly southern-hemisphere exotic about it. Oronoco straddles the line between a white and dark rum nicely. There’s a little vanilla, a little oak and char, but it’s light enough to make a good, if slightly off-center, original daiquiri.

You're out of: Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's

Replace it with: Evan Williams Single Barrel 2001

American whiskey is in an interesting place right now. We’re in the midst of an absolutely explosive renaissance, bourbon sales alone are up almost 40% in the last six years, and the variety of craft, small-batch, single barrel and special vintage selections on the market is joyfully overwhelming. Go to your local bar, though, and you’ll find new and interesting offerings in every other spirit category but only a handful of the most tried and true American whiskeys. I have nothing against the classics, it’s just you know where to find them. For your home, get something particular. The annually released Single Barrels from Evan Williams are consistently special and this year’s edition is no slouch: yes, it’s a tinge harder, less refined than previous years, but that’s a nice reminder that growing up doesn’t mean wearing down.

My Pappy was a McCoy, I ain’t drinkin’ nothin’ from Kentucky: How about New York? The whiskeys coming out of Tuthilltown Spirits -- the Empire State’s first distillery since Prohibition shut down a thriving Rye industry -- may be a glimpse into the future of craft distilling. Its Hudson Baby Bourbon is a standout: hugely drinkable, made from 100% New York corn, with a smoothness and palette simplicity that compares nicely to its genteel Tennessee cousins.

You're out of: Patrón

Replace it with: Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Blanco

Patrón gets by on its looks -- it was the first premium mass-market tequila phenomenon, due at least in part to a bottle that just screams top shelf. But it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, still very much the sort of tequila you knock back and grunt afterwards. Milagro's small batch blanco is tequila for drinking, not shooting. Just slightly aged in vanilla-imparting French oak, it comes across fresh and clean and soothing. Instead of alcohol, your mouth gets linen and herbs and faint citrus, like a just-cleaned ocean-side hotel room. Oh, yeah, it’s prettier, too: Milagro’s hand-blown crystal bottles -- with their negative-space agave plant sculptures “growing” magically inside -- are impossibly beautiful. I don’t usually go in for this kind of thing, but style and substance…

Wait, you’re taking all the hombre out of my tequila: Get yourself some mezcal, maybe even con gusano, that erroneously famous tequila worm. Erroneous because it never belongs in tequila (the agave-based spirit that comes from the state of Jalisco) only mezcal (which comes from Oaxaca), and also because it’s not a worm, it’s an agave-loving moth larva. Comforting? Great mezcals -- and there are great mezcals -- are still tough to find in the States but Del Maguey is one that that’s gaining a foothold. And they spare you the larva.

You're out of: Scotch

Replace it with: More of your Scotch

Seriously, I’m not going to stand in the way, it’s too personal a thing. But if the bottle was a dust-gathering Glen-someone you got as a gift, this could be your chance to open a new door. The truest thing I know how to say: you can’t go wrong with a Highland Park 12.

Chris Koch is a spirits journalist based in St. Louis, where he writes about scotch, whisky, and anything that's ever been bottled or bartended. To read more of Chris Koch's articles, go to The Idiot Proof.

Stocking a Home Bar 1.0

To read more about stocking your home bar, or setting up one, go to Stocking a Home Bar 1.0. Check out Set the Bar for the Party Season for a list of all the essential tools for your home bar.
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  • Snooth User: Dudell
    84489 4

    Bulldog Gin is my favorite. Great gin and looks really cool on a bar.

    Jan 20, 2011 at 3:23 PM

  • Snooth User: ortizlife
    391698 1

    GREAT piece... while you're at it, take some of those and put it into elegant decanters for a little more of a classy look and less of a 'corner pub' one...


    Jan 21, 2011 at 11:08 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    ortizlife: so glad you like the article, and nice rec on the decanters. here's to drinking better AND more stylishly in 2011!


    Jan 21, 2011 at 3:51 PM

  • Thanks for the Death's Door Gin shout out! We appreciate it!

    Benjamin Webb
    Madison, WI

    Jan 21, 2011 at 5:39 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Benjamin: so happy to give the shout out, it's really such an exceptional gin. One of my favorite bartenders uses it for a signature Last Word, any recommendations from you guys (or anyone else here) for a fresh, spring, gin-based cocktail?

    Keep up the great work. Hoping to make it up to Washington Island eventually to see you guys in action.

    Jan 22, 2011 at 5:20 PM

  • Snooth User: malcedor
    607608 49

    hmmm... a gin-based spring cocktail? lately i've been experimenting with my own take on the "cherub's cup" (muddled strawberries, hendrick's, st. germain's, lemon juice and simple syrup, topped with champagne or brut rose).

    my version - for the moment - consists of muddled blueberries and raspberries, junipero gin (although i may try death's door after reading your description), st. germain, and fresh lemon juice. my girlfriend likes it topped with ginger beer, i prefer a splash of club soda or nothing.

    personally i've been pretty damn satisfied, and it certainly is a fresh-tasting beverage. give it a try and let me know what you all think...

    Jan 23, 2011 at 1:36 PM

  • Snooth User: R3353
    666109 3

    Canadian Hunter is a very cheap Cown alternative for those that mix with cola or ginger ale. And by very cheap I mean plastic bottle. But you have fancy decanters by now, right?

    Jan 24, 2011 at 3:28 PM

  • Chris -

    A cocktail that's gaining popularity in Madison is the Death's Door Gin Old Fashioned (classic style - brandied cherries are a must).

    Here are a few others:

    Basil Cucumber Gimlet

    2 oz Death's Door Gin
    3/4 oz Cucumber Syrup (equal parts cucumber juice and sugar)
    3/4 oz Fresh lime juice
    2 oz double strength Jasmine Tea
    2 fresh basil leaves

    Add slapped basil leaves to bottom of shaker tin. Fill with ice and build drink with remaining ingredients. Cap and shake with vigor. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. No Garnish.

    Seventh Heaven

    2 oz. Death’s Door gin
    ¾ oz. maraschino liqueur
    1 ½ oz. grapefruit juice
    1 mint leaf

    GARNISH: mint leaf

    Shake all ingredients in iced cocktail shaker. Strain into chilled cocktail/martini glass and garnish with mint leaf.

    Jan 25, 2011 at 2:23 PM

  • Martin Miller London gin taught me to love gin. It has all the herbal goodness of Bombay Sapphire but I like this better. It's sweet and aromatic, tickles the tongue, and cries out to you "Taste Me", preferably chilled.

    Jan 27, 2011 at 2:38 PM

  • Snooth User: revolgnad
    323713 10

    That's a bottle of Evan Williams Black Label in the picture, not the single barrel (in case anyone wants to pick some up). The EV single barrel is a great whiskey, but for a Beam/Daniel's replacement I'd suggest Buffalo Trace as closer to the price point.

    Feb 04, 2011 at 2:07 PM

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