We seek expert advice on many things. When buying a home, you talk to a realtor. When choosing a car, you ask a car salesman friend if you're getting a good deal. So why not ask a bartender for help when stocking the home bar?
What with family visits, holiday party-hosting, and the ever-boozy celebration of the new year, my personal liquor supply had gotten a little scant as I drank my way through the holidays. But navigating a beverage warehouse can be like four-leaf clover-hunting: difficult, time-consuming, and often fruitless. Thankfully, I know plenty of bartenders who'd happily act as my Sherpa, guiding me through the daunting task of picking the right bottles -- at a modest price -- that will keep me in cocktail-sipping business well into the summer.
My strategy: hand over $150 of my hard-earned cash to a bartender and give him free reign to stock my home bar. I employed the services of Rich Heider II, who used to train bartenders for Dave & Buster's, worked at J&G Steakhouse and BLT Steak, and currently bartender and manages at Casablanca Lounge, where he hand-picked every one of the bar's close to 300 bottles. The man knows his liquor.
After arriving at the store, Heider asked a few questions and got right to work. You could see his mind churning, working over different equations like Will Hunting at the hallway chalkboard. Half an hour later, we had our list:
Maker's 46 bourbon - $29.99
Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur - $29.99
Tanqueray Gin - $18.99
Mathilde Cassis Liqueur - $17.99
Cruzan Black Strap Rum - $13.99
Sauza Silver Tequila - $11.99
Hiram Walker Triple Sec - $6.99
Peychaud Bitters - $6.99
Cinzano Sweet Vermouth - $6.69
AJ Stephans Ginger Beer @$1.69x2 - $3.38
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The grand total: $146.99. Allowing Heider to play with my money seemed to make him very happy -- I imagine it was like parents telling their kid to pick out whatever toys he wanted -- but he approached the selections as a discerning shopper. Some thoughts as I watched the master work:
- It's not about grabbing every bottle and type of liquor imaginable. Try to approach the liquor run as you would clothes shopping: think of items that work well together and that you can get the most use out of. "I'm trying to find bottles that will fill in a couple different aspects," Heider says. "The idea is to buy 10 bottles and be able to make 10 drinks with it, rather than buying 10 bottles to make just one drink."
- Start basic, then expand. "Try to get some basic stuff to start it out, then get a few unique ingredients to branch out and make the drinks people will remember," Heider says.
- Price does not equal quality. Heider has strong views about several "top-shelf" liquors for which the marketing is more important than the flavor. A brand name may impress, but it needs flavor to back it up. To that end, Heider bounced around the aisles, comparing bottles the way someone on a diet might scrutinize the nutrition information. "If I'm not very familiar with a product, I'm looking at the proof, where it's from, other info on the label that might clue me in to the quality." A smartphone and a little online research will also do wonders.
I'm ecstatic about my new bottle collection (and the drinks I'll be able to make with them, some of which I'll share with you tomorrow), but in the end, it's about what you like. "My home bar and the average person's home bar are two totally different worlds," Heider says. "I have a Chartreuse tattoo -- how many people are out there who love Chartreuse that much?" The bottles we chose will serve as a good template, but mix it up according to your own tastes. It is your bar, after all.