As we return to the home once again for office Zoom calls, homework clubs, sporting activities, restaurant scenes and Friday night drinks, Nathalie Marquez Courtney looks into the essentials of a well-stocked drinks bar cart.
A drinks trolley is a highly personal thing. We might have fantasised about hosting cocktail parties, where the glassware is perfectly chilled and martinis are expertly garnished. But before you resign yourself to making a glass or two your usual yet again, help is at hand.
A Don Draper-worthy bar set-up at home is easier than it seems – you don’t need trays of obscure ingredients, flavoured salts or even a lot of alcohol. Get the basics right, and, with some insider advice, you’ll be well on your way to happy hour.
Building a Base
At their most basic, cocktails are essentially alcohol, sugar syrup and some sort of mixer, so it helps to think of your bar in layers. There are bases, in the form of spirits like gin and vodka. Then you have flavours, from syrups (either homemade or shop-bought), bitters and liqueurs, like Cointreau and triple sec. Finally, there are mixers, such as tonic water or ginger ale, and garnishes.
Check your stock levels and invest in the items that will form the base of most of your cocktails. Look up the recipes for a few classic cocktails you like and stock up on the core ingredients for those – a good rule of thumb is to use ingredients you know and understand.
As you grow more adventurous and experienced, you can play with new infusions or flavours, but the classics will get you a long way; they are built on simple principles that, once mastered, lend themselves well to experimentation.
Alternatively, you could decide to test out a signature drink so you can practise and prepare key ingredients and garnishes. In general, vodka, gin and whiskey are good places to start, and instead of splashing out in your nearest off-licence, invest in quality products and start small, growing your collection over time.
Next up are the flavours, which is where a lot of people can feel intimidated. “Syrups are actually very easy to make, because it’s basically sugar and water and another ingredient,” says Mick Jennings, from Dublin’s Drop Dead Twice. And he should know, as he spends a lot of time mixing up bespoke flavoured syrups. Mick is head bartender at the hip Dublin 8 BYOC (bring you own cocktail) bar, where guests bring their own favourite spirit and he takes care of the rest. No night – and no cocktail – is the same, meaning he has to have an inventive and surprising roster of flavours and ingredients on hand at all times. “There are a lot of bartenders on the waiting list to come and guest bartend here on a Saturday night,” he laughs. “They enjoy the challenge of having to make a massive gamut of cocktails, as most bars only change their menu a few times a year.”
Mick recommends starting out with a simple syrup using a flavour you know you like, and then experimenting with new infusions. He regularly hits up his local Asian markets on the hunt for new taste bud ticklers. “Don’t be afraid to make stuff up – pop a bit of star anise into a pot with some sugar and water, and you have a really simple wintery syrup.”
Neptune Ardingly drinks cabinet
A Quick Flavour Fix
No drink is better than its worst ingredient, so avoid the trap of pairing expensive alcohol with cheap, artificial flavours. If DIY-syrup making seems a bit daunting, or if you want to add to your growing library, there are lots of great Irish brands producing home-grown, handmade syrups. One of these is Wild About, based in Co Wexford. There, husband and wife team Fiona and Malcolm Falconer produce a diverse range of products using native wild ingredients that don’t contain the same tooth-achingly high levels of sugar as supermarket buys.
These can add a fun, unique twist to cocktail night. Fiona uses their nettle syrup in margaritas or adds a dash of rhubarb syrup to a classic gin and tonic. “The quinine in the tonic and the rhubarb spin together really nicely,” she says. A splash of raspberry syrup can quickly dress up a flute of prosecco (“great if you’re caught short by surprise visitors,” laughs Fiona) or can be a great way of serving something special and alcohol-free. “Non-drinkers get fed up of tea and soft drinks, so flavoured syrups and sparkling water are a great way of offering something different and non-alcoholic,” she says.
Leave it to the Pros
Bitters, made from an infusion of herbs and alcohol, can be trickier to master. Mick recommends outsourcing this – he’s a fan of Irish brand Off the Cuffe (available at Dublin’s L. Mulligan Grocer and Celtic Whiskey Shop), who create aromatic and citrus bitters. “Bitters can be expensive, but a few dashes go a long way, so they’ll last,” says Mick.
A bottle of Angostura should always be close to hand too – as cocktail guru Richard Godwin says, a bar cart without this is “like a kitchen without salt and pepper”.
When it comes to garnishes, keep it simple with pieces inspired by the seasons. A simple sprig of rosemary or dried orange slice will suffice at this tiem of year, and they’ll store well between two sheets of damp kitchen towel in a storage container.
The final piece of your home bar puzzle lies in one or two standout buys, something you’d be happy to sip neat or break out on special occasions. Luckily, there is no shortage of remarkable produce being made in Ireland. One of the new kids on the block is Slane Irish Whiskey, a smooth triple casked blend that’s flavourful and robust.
“I have a silly amount of whiskey in both my office and my house,” says co-founder Alex Conyngham. “No one comes into the house without being offered a whiskey.” For an autumnal twist, he uses berries grown on his own farm to create a blackberry-infused whiskey, but also likes stirring up an Old Fashioned. “It’s not too complicated to make and quick to serve,” he says. “You can’t go wrong with a classic.”
Featured image: Neptune Coniston drinks trolley
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