Build-A-Bar: The Basics

I've been fooling around with my Roasted-Banana-Infused Treaty Oak Rum for a week or so, trying to tweak it into a cocktail recipe worthy of actually serving to someone. It's gone through quite a few iterations, bringing many disparate spirits, liqueurs, and bitters into play. As I was stirring together my most recent effort (1.5oz rum, 1.5oz rye, 2dashes orange bitters - shows promise), it occurred to me that it's only because I've made a conscious effort to stock my bar over the last year or so that I had the ingredients on hand to be able to take the rum in a variety of directions.

It's taken a decent investment in both time and money, but it's been worth it for the fun I've had experimenting with different ingredients, and for the knowledge I've gained in the process. I didn't go about it all at once. Dropping a month's pay at Spec's can be an easy thing to do if you decide you're going to go all out and just buy everything right now. Instead, I pick up a new ingredient every so often - say once a month - and experiment with that before moving on.

I got the ball rolling using a method recommended by Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar and Refuge. Bobby suggests picking a drink you like and picking up the ingredients you need for that cocktail. It's a systematic approach that builds a solid base of spirits that have wide ranging use, plus a guided way to branch out into more specialized ingredients.

For this series, I'm going to take a similar, though slightly modified, approach. Each piece will focus on a particular ingredient, going into a bit of detail on its character and origin, and suggesting uses for it, including one spotlight cocktail.

Of course, in order to follow along, you're going to need some basic equipment. I suppose you could muddle through, MacGyvering various house-hold tools into service, and that's fine. I would recommend that you pick up at least a basic set of bar tools. They'll make everything simpler, and they're kind of cool to have. I would recommend the following:

  • Shaker: Of the two types, I prefer a Boston shaker, for both aesthetics and functionality. I find the three-piece cobbler shaker to be more cumbersome and less well-sealed.
  • Strainer: If you go with a Boston shaker, you're going to need something with which to strain your cocktails. Either a spoon-style Julep strainer or a pronged and coil-bound Hawthorn strainer will work just fine. A small, fine-mesh strainer is also useful when making cocktails that contain solid or semi-solid ingredients, like muddled herbs, fruit, or various purées.
  • Bar Spoon: The long, thin handle makes it useful in stirring and "swizzling" drinks, and many cocktail recipes use it as a unit of measure.
  • Measuring Tools: Speaking of measurement, a set of measuring tools is essential. Despite some common perceptions, free and generous pouring is not necessarily a good thing, especially when it comes to cocktails. A measured shot glass will work; a set of jiggers in various sizes is better; I prefer the mini angled measuring cup from OXO. It is incredibly easy to use, and measures from 1/4oz to 2 oz, in 1/4oz increments.
  • Muddler: You don't need anything fancy, here, just a small wooden bat-shaped tool for smashing and bruising ingredients like fruit and herbs.
  • There are certainly other things you can get to make your setup fancier, but if you have this small arsenal of tools, you've got what you need to make (just about) any drink there is. Next time, we'll move on to the good stuff. For now, check out your local bar or restaurant supply store, and get yourself some new toys.

    Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

    KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
    Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
    Contact: Nicholas L. Hall