Building Your BourbonBar Wayne curti s When giants roamed the Earth, anyone could stock their home bar with a few handles of liquor — bourbon, gin, rum — and a few quarts of mixers. Throw in a bag of limes and — voilà! — you were the consummate cocktail party host. Those days are fading fast. The craft cocktail revolution has seeped out from dank subterranean bars and into well-lit homes everywhere. Your guests may well have been to a craft bar, their tastes in drink recalibrated and refined. Expectations have changed. But it’s not that hard to step up your cocktail game. Here’s how. Technique/Knowledge

Spirits Aim to build your spirits collection around your favorite drink — rum for Mai Tais, bourbon or rye for Old-Fashioneds or Manhattans, cognac for Sidecars. American bourbons are flourishing. One rule of thumb: Look for products bottled above the federal legal minimum of 80 proof, which suggests that the product is being controlled by the master distiller, not the distillery’s accounting department. Also look for “bottled in bond,” a style that dates to 1897 and has come back strong in recent years. It’s always at 100 proof, which helps it stand up to even the most bullying of mixers. Rye — made mostly from rye grain as opposed to bourbon’s corn — is also back on the shelves in force after years of exile. It has a more assertive, spicier flavor profile than bourbon and also works well in whiskey cocktails like the Sazerac. No spirit has returned with more raffish charm than rum , once the lubricant of frat boys. The better variations are now as eminently sippable as an aged cognac. Louisiana rums like Roulaison and Cane Land are doing a particularly good job of showcasing the state’s sugar bounty. Finally, vermouth : Upgrade your Martinis and Manhattans by tracking down some of the higher-quality versions. They cost about twice as much as the bottom-shelf vermouths, but makes each sip immeasurably more intriguing. Be sure to refrigerate after opening — it is wine based, and will oxidize over time.

Pick a specialty, then find a bar guide that will help you hone it, and stick with this until it’s muscle memory. Not even sure where to begin? There’s been a flood of outstanding books that lay out the basic topography of the cocktail landscape. These include Cocktail Codex, Spirits Sugar Water Bitters, Meehan’s Bartender Manual , and How to Cocktail from America’s Test Kitchen. For graduate-level cocktail education, New Orleans is home to a number of great resources, including the new Sazerac House on Canal Street downtown, and the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference held each July in the French Quarter, with a full roster of seminars and tasting sessions that draw thousands of bartenders from around the globe. Glassware The perfect drink deserves a perfect vessel. A solid, well-weighted rocks glass conveys quality in a way a thin-walled tumbler can only dream of. Martini glasses are iconic and suggest elegance, but are impractical for holding and sipping. Instead, look for more elegant and sensible coupes or glasses like the ones Nick and Nora used in The Thin Man . And think small when shopping for cocktail glasses — three to five ounces is plenty, which allows a drink to be served cold and finished cold. Those lap-pool-sized martini glasses are designed for the supersize culture. When guests pointedly remark on your stinginess in serving their drinks in less-than-epic glasses, note that two cold cocktails are better than one that’s tepid at the end. Feeling adventurous? Scout your local thrift shop for coupes and vintage stemware. Gear Cocktail making requires minimal gear: shaker, strainer, muddler, barspoon and jigger. A solidly made, three-piece cobbler shaker is best for a home bar — avoid those with rubber gaskets sold by some chains. There’s a top-notch selection at If there’s one essential extra, it’s a handheld citrus squeezer — which lets you add fresh lemon or lime juice with minimal effort but maximal improvement in taste. The OXO Good Grips Citrus Squeezer is a good pick. Oh, and a good vegetable peeler can do double duty for citrus twists. It’s often the simplest things that separate serious amateurs from weekend duffers. Like bar towels. Keep a big stack handy, and use them constantly to keep your bar area tidy and clean. has good, basic towels for $10 per dozen. Etcetera Attention to small details can help a home bar look professional. Keeping simple syrup (a 1:1 mix of sugar dissolved in water) on hand is a good place to start. Next step: Try an infused simple syrup made with something like strong and smoky lapsang souchong tea, or with fresh thyme. Use this to complicate your next bourbon cocktail. As you become comfortable in your role as bartender, try coming up with little additions to classic cocktails to make them more appealing. When it comes to mixing drinks, practice really does make perfect — so keep practicing, and in no time you’ll be creating crafty cocktails of your own.

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