How to Expertly Upgrade Your Home Bar for the Holidays
There’s still time to become a master mixologist before the New Year–here’s how to do it.
“In this new age of virtual experiences and dining at home, when all of us are craving authentic human interaction, hospitality has never been more important.” So says spirits writer and sommelier Adrienne Stillman, author of Spirited: Cocktails from Around the World, published by Phaidon—and this holiday season we’re taking her words to heart, stocking up our home bar, laying in plenty of firewood, and perfecting our mixology skills.
While large gatherings are (for the moment) out in favor of immediate family and intimate friends, there is no constraint against having just as good a time, albeit on a smaller scale, and even better drinks.
And as Stillman notes in her book, “In many ways, it has never been a better time to be a discerning cocktail drinker. Small and craft distilleries have opened up the variety of spirits available, resurrecting products that had disappeared for decades like Old Tom gin, crème de violette, and true dry curaçao, as well as creating new ones.”
She adds that, “Historic Italian amaro, which once struggled to find an export market, is selling all over the world. And high-quality mixers and syrups have entered what used to be the realm of high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors.”
That said, “it can [still] be intimidating to mix cocktails at home,” she notes. A fresh Daiquiri—which contains rum (we prefer ours with Mount Gay Eclipse), lime, and sugar, and takes about two minutes to make—“still seems daunting to some,” she notes. “But this need not be the case.” Especially with extra time at home to practice, and fewer people to make drinks for. In any case, most classic cocktail recipes “contain only three or four ingredients,” she points out, and do not require a lot of fancy accessories to concoct.
Of equal importance when entertaining is hospitality, Stillman opines, a precept that holds true no matter how many guests you have. “This is perhaps the secret of all great bars: the warmth and camaraderie that you feel immediately upon entering [a space],” she writes. “Without it, a drink is just a beverage. With it, the beauty and timelessness of a well-crafted cocktail elevate the experience to another level.”
Just ask Claudia Taittinger, of the famed Taittinger Champagne family, a consummate entertainer who has played host to tastemakers from New York to Paris. In her own beautiful new book, Entertaining Chic!, published by Rizzoli, “When entertaining at home it is the ‘where’ and the ‘who’ that become the pillars upon which a host, or hostess, can build a truly memorable [occasion].”
She points out that, “Each home’s location, and the guests that are expected, provide the inspiration for the host to create a one-of-a-kind performance, where both stagecraft and culinary”—and we’d add mixology—“adventures play a part. Whether hosting a larger get together or an intimate dinner over the flickering light of candles, it all comes down to a harmonious mood and the excitement of surprises, created by the chosen elements as devised by the host.”
There is no better way to kick things off than with a perfectly-crafted cocktail. Just make sure you have carefully prepped your home bar. Even if you lack experience making drinks, it’s easy enough to impress more seasoned cocktail quaffers with a perfectly-executed classic such as an Old Fashioned.
And while the type of whiskey you use is open to interpretation—some prefer bourbon, others rye— bitters are non-negotiable. In fact, as master mixologist Dale DeGroff points out in The New Craft of the Cocktail, published by Clarkson Potter, when the cocktail was first described in print in 1806, “the addition of bitters” to liquor was its defining characteristic.
In 1824, when Dr. Johann Siegert first produced aromatic bitters as a medicinal tincture designed to alleviate stomach ailments, few could have foreseen that his Angostura brand would go on to have such a profound impact on the world of cocktails; and especially the Old Fashioned, which dates from the late 1800s. “While a few dashes of bitters may seem insignificant, the transformation imbued within this cocktail by Angostura is palpable and truly astounding,” points out Carol Homer Caesar, the House of Angostura’s Master Blender. “It’s simply not an Old Fashioned without it.”
What’s more, “the sweet and spiced profile signature of the Old Fashioned pairs perfectly with the holiday sentiments of nostalgia, tradition and age-old comfort,” she says. “With just four ingredients—spirit, sugar, ice, and Angostura bitters, garnished with a citrus peel—this simple but delicious classic is quick to perfect and easy to batch or prepare on the spot for holiday gatherings.”
If you’re unfamiliar with batching, there’s no time like the present to brush up on the technique of preparing drinks in advance in a quantity sufficient for the number of guests you’re expecting. While not every cocktail lends itself to being batched, icons like the Old Fashioned and Negroni work perfectly, as Andrew and Briana Volk, owners of the James Beard-nominated bar Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Maine write in their book (and now newsletter) Northern Hospitality.
“We’ve hosted big, messy ragers where the night didn’t end until someone was lying on our dining table with a new friend pouring Chartreuse into their mouth,” they note. “We’ve also hosted mellow, secret, invite-only cocktail hours in our former apartment, turning it into a sort of speakeasy. This experience, plus over a dozen years behind the bar, has taught us that we can’t do everything in the moment and still have fun. That’s where advance preparation comes in.”
When done correctly, batching lets you get drinks in your guests’ hands and ensures you yourself will enjoy the gathering as well. “At home, we make sure that drinks are easy to assemble, pour, or serve so we aren’t wasting time mixing drinks when we would rather be spending time with our friends,” the couple notes.
While the Volks advocate using washed wine bottles for batching drinks, Mickaël Bellec, head barman at the iconic Hotel Métropole Monte-Carlo suggests buying a small wooden barrel of the type sold at specialty shops.
His holiday tipple of choice is the Negroni, typically made with gin, vermouth, and Campari, but open to interpretation. “Start barreling your Negroni around Thanksgiving and then enjoy the fruits of your labor during the holidays,” Bellec advises us. “This warming aperitif cocktail is ideal for the holidays and chilly winter months. It pairs best with foie gras and toast as well as Iberico ham and is best enjoyed with friends and family during the holiday season….The longer the preparation is aged in the barrel, the better the Negroni will be.”
If even that sounds daunting, there are a couple of other foolproof ways to inject instant holiday bonhomie into any gathering, regardless of size: a great bottle of whiskey or champagne.
“Lots of whiskies are produced every year as a limited release,” notes David Vitale, founder of Australian cult whiskey brand Starward. “Quite often they end up on the top shelf waiting for an occasion to open them. I’m going to let you in on a secret—there’ll be another amazing limited release next year, so when you buy the whisky, have an occasion in mind to share it.”
As he puts it, “The holidays are a perfect opportunity to do just that and for me there’s no better way to start or end a meal than with a toast with a whisky.”
Starward’s Nova is an award-winning single malt matured in Australian wine barrels. It’s one of our holiday tipples of choice alongside other top shelf whiskies like Dewar’s Double Double 21 Year. To create the latter, the iconic brand’s smoothest blend to date, Dewar’s master blender Stephanie MacLeod employed a unique four-stage aging process created in 1901. All of the whiskies used in its creation were married in casks multiple times leading to an incredibly smooth spirit.
Dewar’s Double Double 21 Year Old has subtle notes of cinnamon and ripe vine fruits and is finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks. The Double Double 27 Year Old meanwhile is finished in Palo Cortado sherry casks, which delivers heady, floral notes with honeyed fruits and spices. Last but not least, the 32 Year Old has rich, ripe, treacle notes with a hint of smokiness, finished in Pedro Ximenez Sherry Casks.
Want to really let your friends know how highly you value their company? Open a bottle of The Balvenie Fifty: Marriage 0614, the third and final expression in the single malt distillery’s series of highly-rare liquids aged 50 years or more, selected by Malt Master David Stewart MBE from some of the brand’s most precious and mature stocks. It costs a little over $40,000 and is said to be worth every penny, which all but guarantees you’ll remember each sip forever.
Even that isn’t quite as impressive as the new Bond-worthy Black Bowmore DB5 1964, the first collaboration from Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Aston Martin. Only 25 bottles are being produced at about $65,000 apiece, and each comes in a custom case complete with a genuine piston from an Aston Martin DB5. You might think it should be kept under lock and key instead of passed around the table, especially as each pour costs roughly $5,000. But that’s hardly in the holiday spirit.
As for champagne, “It makes music sound better, clothes feel sexier, people look sexier, big ideas seem possible,” writes Ariel Arce in her effervescent new book Champagne: Better with Bubbles, published by Universe. “It’s a legal drug—one that lets you get a little loose, fly high on effervescence, dance a little too close, jump into pools naked.”
In other words the perfect choice for the holidays—”a mischievous potion that can allow you to make some silly mistakes— and sometimes a mistake is not a mistake at all, but rather a moment that will change the course of your life.” Amen.
This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Maxim magazine