Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Cocktail Culture

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  During the late '50s and early '60s, the home bar was the very icon of post-war joie de vivre. No suburban household was fully equipped without a well-stocked wet bar. The lunchtime martini, the after-work Scotch and soda and the weekly cocktail party were all ingrained elements of the American consciousness circa 1959. As the 1960s gave grudging way to the 1970s, though, alcohol was slowly replaced with mind-expanding drugs, canapés were supplanted by fondue pots and the "Playboy After Dark" cocktail party surrendered to wife-swapping, Tupperware and AA meetings. By the time the disco era hit, home entertaining had been permanently abandoned in favor of club hopping and drunken driving.

The late '90s, however, have seen a return of 1950s sensibilities. Frank Sinatra is once again recognized as Chairman of the Board; cigars and martinis are de riguer for any popular watering hole and trendy vintage stores compete to see who can charge the most for a cherry sharkskin suit. Cocktail Culture is back. While swingin' bachelors and bachelorettes engage in daily combat at the local Goodwill to snag the swankiest in yesteryear accessories (monogrammed bowling shirts, Esquivel records and Fiestaware casserole dishes), many have yet to achieve that paragon of lounge culture--the home bar.

Once your liquor bottles start crowding the Captain Crunch out of your kitchen cabinets, it's time to start thinking about building your own bar. With minimum expense, a little bit of planning and a lot of time browsing garage sales, thrift stores and flea markets, you can create a home saloon that fits within both your budget and your household.

Step one is deciding how much space you have. If you're lucky enough to have a den, basement or covered porch, you could go whole hog and get yourself a full-fledged bar. Pre-built bars can sometimes be found in thrift or vintage stores. Simple black vinyl models and tropical-flavored bamboo and rattan models are the most common. Formica-topped models run a close third, but are prized by collectors and hard to find in good condition. Stay away from the tile-topped ones if you can--they're a bitch to clean. Free-standing bars rarely have intact sets of bar stools (age, the elements and asses are hard on furniture). Stools are easy to find at modern furniture stores, however, and come in a pleasing array of retro styles (unfortunately you'll pay through the nose for them).

Few of us, though, have the room or the bank account for a full-on wet bar. A bookcase bar is one neat, inexpensive and space-saving alternative. A regular bookcase will work just fine, but a small china cabinet or an armoire with doors is even better. Shallow cabinets are the best, as they allow you to display everything without digging for it. I use a sturdy tea tray for my bar. The three levels are more than enough to store my cocktail accessories, the top lifts off as a separate tray (perfect for serving) and the whole assembly rolls (for ease of movement and storage).

Once you've got a bar, you've got free reign to start collecting groovy bar accessories. The first thing you'll need is your glassware. Although there are dozens of different styles, only a few basic ones will prove useful to the average tippler. I would suggest starting with a set (four to six depending on your needs) of old-fashioned glasses (also known as "on-the-rocks" glasses). These short glasses (ranging from 5 ounce to 8 ounce) are just right for undiluted liquor (Scotch, bourbon, what have you) served straight up or over ice. They can also be used for an assortment of "short" drinks (Scotch and soda, rum and coke). Next thing you'll need is a set of highball glasses. These tall, straight-sided glasses (8 to 12 ounce) are just the thing for mixed drinks with fruit juice and/or soda. I prefer the tallest, thinnest models (sometimes called stovepipes, chimney or collins glasses). These allow close intermingling of liquid and ice (making the whole assembly colder and reducing ice melt, which dilutes drinks). The thin design also means that carbonation will dissipate slowly and evenly. Ceramic tiki mugs follow the highball design and are just the thing for a well-dressed zombie. Proper martini glasses are also a must. Each piece of barware is designed to serve the specific needs of its individual cocktail. The long stem on a martini glass keeps your hand away from the drink (ensuring a cool temp without ice) and the wide lip facilitates slow, steady sipping action. If you're serving your martinis (or your Manhattans) in a jelly jar, you might as well pack it in. If you drink a lot of vino, you might want to invest in a set of wine glasses (the 8- to 11-ounce tulip shape is the most versatile, capable of doubling as a champagne flute or a water glass at a fancy dinner party). Although it may be tempting to shell out big bucks for that cool set of glasses with the hula girls painted on the side, keep in mind the number one rule of glassware: Sooner or later, it will break. Invest in some simple clear glass stuff for everyday use (a set of four can be found at most housewares stores for under 10 bucks).

After you've got your basic glassware, it's time to start sniffing out those cool cocktail accessories. While some retro items may be collectable for their weirdness factor alone (spring-loaded olive forks?), there are a few pieces that are essential to any home bar. First thing you'll need is a good cocktail shaker for those drinks that involve juice, eggs, cream or sugar (and despite what Mr. Bond says, martinis should always be stirred and never shaken--any clear alcohol will "cloud" if agitated). There are two schools of thought when it comes to shakers. Some say you'll need a metal tumbler and a pint glass. The two are locked lip-to-lip and shaken. The cocktail is then poured from the glass through a coil-rimmed strainer. Although this method is used in nearly every bar on Earth, I still prefer to use a fancy cocktail shaker. These metal or glass shakers have a fitted lid and a built-in strainer. There's less mess to clean up and they look really sharp sitting on your bar. In addition to a good shaker, you'll need a proper jigger (mixology is an exact science, and ingredients should always be measured to ensure that your last Tom Collins tastes the same as your first). The best is a simple stainless steel or aluminum double-sided model with a "jigger" on one side (1 and 1/2 ounces) and a "pony" on the other (1 ounce). Other basic tools that you'll always find a use for are: a bottle opener, toothpicks, ice tongs, an ice bucket (preferably with vacuum seal), swizzle sticks (plastic only, please--metal corrupts carbonated water), a long-handled spoon (for mixing), a small paring knife (for cutting fruit and zesting lemon/lime peels) and a corkscrew (go for one of the "wing"-types--they cost more, but always work with a minimum of effort). If you have a taste for margaritas or piña coladas, a sturdy blender (think Waring or Westinghouse) is in order. Some folks like to decant their liquors into fancy crystal carafes or whimsical musical flasks. I say nay. Decanting is only useful if you're buying Albertson's brand liquors and want to hide the fact.

In order to properly garnish those cocktails, you'll need lemons, limes, olives, maraschino cherries, Rose's lime juice, grenadine syrup, bitters (which isn't at all bitter), juice (small cans keep well), soda, tonic, sugar (the powdered kind is best) and plenty of ice. It's advisable to serve a little food with drinks, so I'd recommend keeping some mixed, salted nuts on hand--they're the perfect complement to any drink.

The last (and certainly most crucial) step in stocking your bar is adding the alcohol. Any liquor purchases must, of course, be made with your own personal tastes in mind--but a good cross-section will ensure happy drinking for all. Here's my suggested shopping list: 2 quarts vodka (it never hurts having an extra bottle of this most versatile mixer on hand), 1 quart whiskey (a blended Canadian is the best mixer, but if you've got the palate, you might want to stick with a nice bourbon), 1 quart Scotch (spring for something high tone--those who like it straight don't cotton to the cheap stuff), 1 quart gin (another highly versatile cocktail starter), 1 quart rum (perfect for those tropical creations--although you can substitute a bottle of tequila, a considerably more limited liquor, if you've got a taste for margaritas), 1 bottle dry vermouth (sometimes called "French vermouth") and 1 bottle sweet vermouth (sometimes called "Italian vermouth"). I'd also suggest investing in three bottles of assorted liqueurs. Your best bet is one almond, one coffee and one orange-flavored (Grand Marnier, Cointreau or triple sec). With those, you can whip up a dizzying array of cocktail choices. Enjoy!

A Primer on the Ultimate Cocktail

In the mythology of cocktail culture, the martini remains the most graven of images. What would an icon of St. (Dean) Martin be without a cigarette in one hand and a martini glass in the other? Would Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly look at all classy knocking back a frosty stein of beer? I think not. Even as cocktail culture rises from the (cigar) ashes of yesteryear, though, there remains some confusion about this most fundamental of drinks.

The two basic ingredients for a martini are gin and vermouth. Vermouth is an herb-flavored wine that comes in two varieties. Dry vermouth is made from white wine and sweet vermouth is made from red wine. The former is often referred to in older cocktail manuals as French vermouth, while the latter is called Italian vermouth--but the two are now manufactured all over the world and the distinctions no longer apply. Sweet vermouth has a slightly rounder, bolder flavor but is not necessarily "sweet." Your preference in vermouth will depend on your taste in wines. Dry vermouth is most commonly used in martinis and can be mixed anywhere from 1-to-2 to 1-to-12 with the gin. Some drinkers prefer as "dry" a martini as possible and will use an eye dropper or spray atomizer to impart the merest essence of vermouth. For my money, though, vermouth is a delicious drink and should be used generously in the creation of any martini, dry or sweet. As the Playboy Host and Bar Book (first published in 1955) points out: "It would be unfortunate if the use of vermouth in the martini became extinct, for its bite, however faint, is trenchant. It turns cold gin into a civilized cocktail." Amen.

Some people, however, don't care for the often pugnacious juniper flavor of gin. Many modern martini drinkers substitute vodka. The Bartender's Book (written in 1951 by the president of the Bartender's Union of New York) notes that, "Dashiell Hammett, who goes in for mystery anyway, has his mixed with vodka."

Despite James Bond's oft-repeated catch phrase, martinis should always be stirred and never shaken. Shaking is reserved for drinks that contain juice, cream or egg. Clear alcohol will "cloud" if agitated. In addition, Martinis should be served ice cold. Chilled glasses are optimal.

2 ounces gin (or vodka)
1/2 ounce dry vermouth

Stir with ice. Strain into martini glass. Decorate with olive. Substitute a pickled pearl onion for that olive, and you've got a Gibson (named after artist Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the "Gibson Girl"). According to The Bartender's Book, "The Gibson is among the favored drinks of celebrities." In fact, "it may be noted that when Frank Sinatra dines at the Colony he orders a Gibson."

Sweet Martini
2 ounces vodka (much better than gin in this creation)
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth

Stir with ice. Strain into martini glass. Decorate with a strip of lemon peel (an olive will clash badly in this case).

Bronx Cocktail
1 ounce gin (or vodka)
1 ounce orange juice
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth

Shake vigorously with cracked ice. Strain into martini glass. Garnish with orange slice.

3 ounces Gordon's gin
1 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Kina Lillet (a French apéritif similar to vermouth with a subtle orange flavor)

As per Mr. Bond's instructions: Shaken, not stirred. Garnish with lemon peel.

1 1/2 ounces bourbon (or blended whiskey or rye, depending on personal taste)
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash bitters (a slightly alcoholic mix of herbs and spices)

Stir with ice. Strain into martini glass. Garnish with maraschino cherry. Some recipes ask for Peychaud's or orange bitters (both of which have a slight citrus bent). Angostura bitters is the only kind you're likely to locate, however.

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