TV shows and movies depicting the glamorous '60s have certainly helped us all feel more at home with the notion of having a full bar in the home. Thanks, Don Draper.
Yes, vodka, gin, rum, bourbon, Scotch, tequila — there's just something about offering a guest a glass of something beyond wine and beer that feels wonderfully grown up. It's a bit like wearing a well-cut suit instead of jeans and a hoodie. The result? Americans are setting up home bars and stocking up on spirits more than ever.
Still, most of us are a little out of our depth when it comes to buying our own booze. Go into any liquor store, and you're faced with a giant wall of alcohol, row upon row of bottles of varying shapes and sizes full of different distilled liquids in myriad colors. Even if you narrow things down to one spirit — say, gin — the choices can be overwhelming. So can the prices. A liter of gin could cost as little as $4.99 or as much as $700. Ouch.
Is it worth it? Are so-called "top shelf" brands (the term refers to the literal placement of bottles in store and bar displays) that much better than their less lofty, less expensive counterparts?
Ad agencies would certainly have us think so. According to the beautiful people in magazines and on TV, all that is standing between the rest of us and a more sophisticated, adventurous, sex-filled, and fulfilled life is the right brand of vodka. Since the people who make all those glossy ads can hardly be deemed impartial, we turned to author and professional bon vivant George Yatchisin, who, in his own words, "lives to eat and drink and write about the experience as a way to do it again."
What does George have to say about buying liquor for your home bar?
"Always buy the best — and this usually means the most expensive — brands you can afford," he responds. "Especially for a cocktail, since you and your guests won't be downing a dozen. When you're not going to be drinking more than two, you want those two to be perfectly delicious."
According to George, the elements that make certain liquors more expensive than others — such as purity and quality of base ingredients, artisanal craftsmanship, smaller batches, age, and number of distillations — are well worth the additional expense, particularly when the alcohol in question has nowhere to hide.
Take the classic martini: "At most you're mixing dry vermouth, the classic orange bitters, and your gin. That had better be good gin!"
Our expert is even more adamant when it comes to drinks usually served neat, such as Scotch and tequila. "If you want to sip, you'll have to spend." George recommends making friends with the proprietor of your local liquor store and asking his or her advice in seeking out the best brands within your budget. Often smaller, boutique distilleries offer a better value than the big-name brands.
George acknowledges that even the most sophisticated home bartender might occasionally overindulge. This, he points out, is yet another benefit to investing in pricier alcohol. "The more times a liquor is distilled — one of the factors that adds to cost — the less it will hurt you the next morning. So consider the expense a form of headache insurance."
Having made the case for quality, George acknowledges there are circumstances in which you don't have to pour from your best bottle.
"Mixed drinks are more forgiving. No one needs a top-of-the-line vodka, say, in a Bloody Mary, going mano a mano with tomato juice, horseradish, and hot sauce. You don't need anything better than a midline rum for a mojito, what with the sugar and mint and lime and lots of ice." That's another hint from George — melting ice dilutes whatever it's in, so you can get away with serving your cheaper booze on the rocks and saving the good stuff for enjoying straight up.
Asked for any last words of advice for the home bartender, George goes straight to something close to his heart: Vermouth. "You do not want to skimp here, even if you might think, 'The drink gets so little of this.' Good vermouths are rich in broad flavors, and make cocktails many-splendored things. Go get a bottle of Antica Carpano sweet vermouth, or some Noilly Prat if you prefer dry, and you will never go back to one of those $3.99 bottles. In fact, you might even start drinking it on the rocks as an aperitif!"
We'll drink to that. Cheers.
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