Living in San Francisco, where Prohibition-era-style bars reign supreme, I developed a deep appreciation for the art of the cocktail. Somewhere along the line, drinking negronis and gimlets turned into consuming every type of mixology literature possible. I read The Savoy and Imbibe and The American Bar and How to Mix Drinks. I started making homemade bitters and began brewing ginger beer. I talked to bartenders about their secret recipes, their favorite haunts, and the best resources for weird ingredients like gentian root (used for making bitters). But more importantly, I started making cocktails. Lots and lots of cocktails.While I've built a fairly well-represented bar with small-batch spirits, like St. George Spirits' Botanivore Gin, and strange liqueurs/digestifs, like green Chartreuse and Underberg, I credit a few other pantry and bar essentials for not only giving me cocktail cred, but also making the most of more basic spirits. Adding these items to your arsenal will make concocting delicious and impressive drinks on the fly a cinch -- and it won't cost an arm and a leg.
|[caption id="attachment_46443" align="aligncenter" width="200"] Domino Sugar Cubes, $4, Harrisburg Store[/caption]||
1. Sugar Cubes
I rarely take my coffee with sugar cubes, but champagne, however, is another story. A champagne cocktail, one of the world's oldest classic drinks, is made by soaking a sugar cube with a few drops of Angostura bitters and then filling the flute with champagne. It's as simple as can be and practically foolproof, but as it excitedly bubbles away, the spiked sugar cube packs a major visual punch. The best thing about this drink is that it turns sparkling wine -- which is inherently celebratory -- into something even more festive. Sugar cubes are useful in dozens of cocktails; try a few below.TO TRY: Old-Fashioned, Sazerac, Lillet Cocktail, The Lady Chesdin, Aztec Old-Fashioned
|[caption id="attachment_46448" align="aligncenter" width="200"] Tomr's Tonic, $11, Cocktail Kingdom[/caption]||
2. Tomr's Tonic
I've never been a fan of tonic water (soda flavored with quinine, used for malaria prevention in the 18th century), and that's probably because the original recipe has been cheapened by the sticky sweet stuff sold in grocery stories, which is made with high-fructose corn syrup and synthetic quinine. When I discovered Tomr's Tonic, I changed my tune. Made from cinchona bark (quinine), citrus, herbs, and cane sugar, this organic product is as real as it gets, and better yet, it's a syrup concentrate, so it never goes flat, and it stores compactly in a small bottle in your bar.TO TRY: A simple gin and tonic includes 1 oz. of Tomr's Tonic, 2 oz. of gin, and 3 oz. of seltzer, but there are numerous uses for Tomr's Tonic, from a classic Tom Collins to a refreshing cucumber gimlet.
|[caption id="attachment_46451" align="aligncenter" width="200"] Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves, $5, Soap.com[/caption]||
3. Fruit Preserves
What pairs well with peanut butter and English muffins is also a match made in heaven for spirits like tequila and bourbon. That's right: fruit preserves, jams, and marmalades make delicious additions to cocktails, adding sweetness, texture, and bitterness, depending. Bourbon and apricot are a Hallmark couple -- and mixologist Jeffrey Morganthaler's Kentucky Breakfast, made with bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, and apricot preserves, is one of my all-time favorites. Experiment with whatever you have on-hand in your refrigerator; if all else fails, you can't go wrong with juice + jam + your favorite base spirit.TO TRY: Paddington, Knicker Twist, Orange Whiskey Sour, Rose Noir
|[caption id="attachment_46452" align="aligncenter" width="200"] iSi Soda Siphon, $51, Amazon[/caption]||4. A Soda Siphon
You can plan a cocktail party complete with letterpress invites and gourmet appetizers weeks in advance, but the best way to enjoy a drink is spontaneously. There's nothing like shaking up a drink for a friend on a whim. That's why I keep my bar ready and raring to go. To that end, a soda siphon is a life-changing purchase, making it possible to always have fresh soda water on hand and eliminating the need to stock up on "mixers" which hog your cabinet space. If you love drinks made with ginger beer, like the sailor-favorite Dark & Stormy, you can even use your soda siphon to make ginger beer with just ginger juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, and water. I use the iSi Soda Siphon, $51, and I always keep a box of CO2 chargers, $28 for 100, in a drawer.
|[caption id="attachment_46453" align="aligncenter" width="200"] Bitters Bottle, $2, The Boston Shaker[/caption]||
5. Bitters Bottles With Dashers
If you've never made simple syrup, stop what you're doing and go into the kitchen. Turn on the stove, and bring one part water and one part sugar to a boil, then simmer until the sugar dissolves. It's as simple as that. Simple syrup is essential to many cocktails, but some of my favorites are made with infused syrups. All they require is adding an herbal or aromatic ingredient, like lavender, ginger, mint, or lemon zest, to your simple syrup after the sugar dissolves and letting it steep.
So where do these bitters bottles come into play? They're the perfect container for infused syrups. The five-ounce bottles with dashers keep your syrups fresh for up to one month, making pouring super easy, and are ideal for experimentation. Instead of committing to, say, a whole mason jar of liquid, I'll make a just few ounces of an infusion at a time, which means plenty of room in the fridge to store multiple syrups at once.