At the moment, my home inventory holds 50+ bottles of esoterica the likes of Aperol, St. Germain, Laird’s Apple Brandy, Canton Ginger, Bärenjäger, and Mandarine Napoleon — things the average bar-goer will not only never hear of but, more to the point, never care about. I love them to death, honestly, but their importance and value to the greater pub-going public is close to none. I realized this after attempting to drag several friends into the dark alleyways that lead to the current speakeasy renaissance.
A particular example comes to mind — one which meanders off the path a bit at first, but if you’ll trust me, comes back home in the end: In 2006, my wife and I were lucky enough to have reservations at Spain’s El Bulli, the Mecca for food science and, arguably, the hardest-to-get-into restaurant in the world. Dinner at El Bulli is thirty courses of inexplicable things that would make Willy Wonka smile. Our first “course” of the evening was a spherical olive. Explaining this one item will explain pretty much what the other 29 courses were like and, in turn, the whole food science movement (started, not surprisingly, at El Bulli). Unlike a regular, perfectly-good olive, the spherical olive is, simply put, something that resembles an olive and taste like an olive but isn’t an olive at all. It’s an “egg” of olive puree trapped inside a gelatin membrane. Again, it looks like an olive, but when you bite in (and one bite is all you get), the whole thing explodes like a savory water balloon of joy.
Now, I LOVE these little guys. So much so, that I spent the following years chasing down the recipe, and once I got it, spent several days attempting to master the technique (like all good magic, there’s a bit of skill involved). So, how overjoyed was I to learn that El Bulli disciple and brilliant Washington D.C.-based chef Jose Andres would be bringing the spherical olives to his new Bazaar at the SLS hotel in my Los Angeles backyard? Rounding up some friends that I knew would share my enthusiasm for Wonka-esque festivities, off I went to SLS and dreams of small, green awakening.
The first disappointment came when the waiter had to go out of his way to explain what the olives were. Apparently, a lot of customers had complained or been confused. So much for surprise and revelation. Still, we were a select group, not typical Hollywood rabble, right? The second and killing blow came when each of my companions were, in turn, unimpressed or disgusted by the same little treasures that I held so dear. It didn’t matter that these were plunder stolen from the greatest kitchen on Earth. It didn’t matter that they represented the pinnacle of molecular gastronomy — that melding of food and science, of soul and of mind. No, they just didn’t like them, and that was the end of the discussion.
As much as I adore my esoteric spirits, I’ve watched as others (lots of them) have scoffed at a Sazerac. Sure, sitting in the half-light at The Varnish, they appreciate a well-made drink, but the wild, the wicked, the woolly — it’s not that it goes over their heads, it’s that it just doesn’t matter. Really. I’ve seen this too, mixing drinks at home. One in ten guests may become a convert — that secret, split-apart conspirator we all long to meet — but most will range somewhere from “meh” to “that was nice, where can I order it?” And “You can’t, no bar within 50 miles stocks Averna” just doesn’t satisfy or keep them coming back for more.
So, the question begged to be asked: is there a way to bring classic cocktails to my other nine friends in a way that they could appreciate and embrace? Things they could learn and mix at home. The first obvious decision was to lose the esoterica from the menu, and ultimately whittle the inventory down to 12 bottles. Why 12? 12 apostles, 12 steps to rehab, 12 Cylon models. 12 just seemed fitting. I knew I couldn’t talk most of my peers into laying out the serious money needed to cover the Jerry Thomas-Savoy-DeGroff playlist, but $400 to be the best bartender any of their friends know. It seemed worth a try.
So, here’s the plan: we start by identifying the 12. I have my list (which I’ll be presenting here, bottle by bottle), but I’m certainly open to differing opinions — really, that’s the point and the fun of it. Whereas most cocktail guides present the reader with hundreds of delicious sounding recipes made from a countless assortment of ingredients (a good portion of my alcohol collection was probably bought because one specific drink couldn’t be made without a certain $60 bottle), the goal here is to give home bartenders an easy palette with which they can shine. 12 bottles but hundreds of tasty concoctions. Once the bottles are on the shelf, then we explore those aforementioned concoctions — 12 ingredients plus an allowed assortment of to-be-discussed mixers.
It should be mentioned up-front that I am, in no way, a professional bartender. Anyone who has bagged a six-pack at the local Safeway has more official experience serving drinks than me. Nothing herein is meant, in any way whatsoever, to belittle the skills of bartenders great or small, and I shall continue to seek them out and enjoy their “dealer’s choices” much as I anxiously seek out the next Batavia-Arrack or St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.
I am, however, an avid student that’s poured over dozens of the classic cocktail guides and, more importantly, had one-too-many at many of the country’s best bars. What’ll be contained in the posts to come won’t be my ranting or pulpitting so much as it will be a (unintentional but appropriate pun forthcoming) distillation of simple research and the truth that hundreds of tasty, classic cocktails can be enjoyed with a simple 12 Bottle Bar (and some mixers).
So, if you’re with me, sidle up to the bar, and let’s get shakin’.