This is an adults-only post, so if you are not over 21 (and you know who you are) please move along, there is nothing for you here.
According to fourth generation New Orleans bartender Chris McMillan, "Southern bartenders need grace, decorum and a sense of theatricality," (Garden & Gun, February 2013) qualities which also come in handy when entertaining family and friends at home.
It isn't necessary or desirable to recreate the selection or atmosphere of a commercial establishment at home. A home bar should feel festive, like a party, and it should be warm and personal, which could be as simple as putting spirits and mixers in a basket on the kitchen counter.
Whether or not we choose to serve alcohol (and that is entirely a personal preference- it's not necessary to serve alcohol to have a good time) in the South, as anywhere else, entertaining is all about being a gracious host. With a little planning, a few nifty tools at the ready, and high quality ingredients on hand, graceful entertaining is a lot easier to accomplish on the spur of the moment. Check out Blackberry Farm's recipe for a refreshing Sorghum Mint Julep, here.
The Lewis bag is an essential tool for serving drinks in the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, because the bag keeps ice dry while you crush it. A carpenter's joiner mallet works fine- a flat striking head is much more effective at banging ice than a rounded one.
One might also consider a bar spoon, which is about the size of a teaspoon but has a long handle that can reach to the bottom of tall glasses. This one is especially nice with its perforated bowl.
A stainless steel muddler for mashing fruits or muddling the mint in your mojito,
and a jigger for measuring.
A cocktail shaker is a useful accessory. Among the possibilities are either a shaker with a strainer lid (personally I have not found one yet that does not leak around the cap and down my arm) or
a Boston shaker set, which has a separate strainer. This method is less likely to leak, but it does take a bit of practice to master.
This malachite bottle opener looks great.
Linen cocktail napkins feel special, if you use them, and since we monogram practically everything but the dog here in the South, these would be right at home on a Southern bar. Brights are especially festive for summer, and setting up a station for entertaining is all about fun.
The important thing is to remember to offer refreshments with a napkin, so if linen is (understandably) too much trouble, paper is a fine option. A trip to Charlottesville would not be complete without a visit to Caspari to see the new seasonal paper patterns. I love this appropriately named pattern, Endless Summer. Find it here.
Stocking a classic bar seems endlessly complicated with all of the spirits available, but once again, it isn't necessary to try to replicate a nightclub at home. The editors of Martha Stewart.com, here, suggest that it is far better to have fewer varieties of the highest quality.
You may love big, intensely flavored gin so filled with complex botanicals that it tastes like the floor of a forest, and there are gorgeous aged tequilas for $600 a bottle, but for simplicity's sake, the spirits reviewed below, while not avant-garde or wildly expensive, are generally noted for their quality, smooth taste for sipping, clean flavor in mixed drinks, and somewhat universal appeal.
One way to integrate trendy flavored liquors, if one feels one must, without investing a fortune in large bottles, is to create a basic bar, then pile a basket or crystal bowl with minis.
This is very important- In the classic bar manual American Bar, Charles Schuman cautions hosts that a good cocktail is not necessarily a large one, and it goes without saying that one should drink and serve responsibly, and never, ever drink and drive or allow guests to do so.
It is absolutely not necessary to serve alcohol to be a good host or to have a good time. There are thousands of articles on the internet that advise hosts how to recognize the limits of guests and prevent them from over-indulging, as well as when guests have had too much and what to do about it. It is important to check the regulations in your state for drinking and serving alcohol to guests. MADD reminds hosts not to rely on coffee to sober-up guests, and because only time can make someone sober, recommends closing the bar at least 90 minutes before the party ends. Read their excellent safe party guide by clicking here.
Vodka- Hangar 1 Straight vodka is distilled in small batches from Viognier grapes and wheat right here in the U.S. Ultra-smooth with no burn, it's sippable, and also makes a super martini. Note: We're keeping things simple but it would be a grave injustice not to mention Hangar 1's Fraser River Raspberry vodka. I don't normally like flavored vodkas because they usually taste weird and chemical to me, but this one tastes like fresh raspberries, albeit with a kick.
Rum- Do not skimp on rum, lower priced varieties do not taste good. The best rums will transport one (taste-wise anyway) to the islands. The cheap ones will transport one to a back alley. This Zaya 12-year old rum will make a rum and Coke that will knock one's socks off. A luscious blended rum with flavors of maple and vanilla. Smooth enough to drink straight.
Gin- The perfect gin and tonic should be clean, dry, crisp and fresh. Tanquery No. Ten is my favorite all-around gin. It makes a good dry martini and an excellent gin and tonic. And here's a little secret, if you normally make your G &T with 2 oz. of gin and 6 oz. of tonic, for a slightly drier, cleaner taste, try using half tonic and half club soda and see what you think. Rub the wedge of lime around the rim of the glass and give it a squeeze before you toss it in.
Tequila- Tequila lovers recommend that if one is going to buy Tequila, one should buy 100% blue agave, or just skip it. Tequila comes in four official aging categories, which are determined by how long the tequila is rested before bottling. Unlike some other spirits, a longer resting doesn't necessarily determine the quality. I choose a "Reposado," which is tequila aged from 60 days to year. This generally mellows the agave without obliterating the flavor with massive oak. Herradura Reposado has the color and slight flavor of butterscotch and is smooth enough to drink neat but clean enough to mix, at a reasonable price.
Whisky (or Whiskey)- Hard red winter wheat along with malted barley and yellow corn, with no rye, make this bourbon distinct. Delicious and smooth, Maker's Mark has a hint of spiciness and a mellow carmelly-vanilla, creme brûlée flavor without being too sweet. A classic bourbon for mixing or drinking neat. I also like Jack Daniels, a Tennessee whiskey.
Kahlua- Kahlua is a versatile liqueur. It makes several notable cocktails, a grown-up version of hot chocolate or adult's-only dessert-in-a-pinch over ice cream.
A bottle or two of something with a unique flavor for mixing your favorite "house" cocktail, perhaps Campari, St. Germain, Midori or Amaretto. Right now St. Germain is popular and the beautiful bottle looks quite stunning on a bar.
Additionally, one might consider bitters, a dry vermouth for martinis, small bottles of good club soda and tonic water, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Ginger-ale (Schweppes) and cranberry juice cocktail.
An ice bucket and pitcher will come in handy, whether one is serving mixed cocktails or simply lemonade and iced tea. This 18/10 stainlesss steel ice bucket from Calphalon is double-walled and keeps ice frozen for hours, has a plexi-glass top so it's easy to see when ice needs to be replaced, and the perforations on the scoop are a terrific innovation. Find it here. One might also stock good olives and fresh fruit (lemons, limes, and oranges) for fresh juices, beer, and red and white wine. Ina recommends keeping bottle of good champagne in the refrigerator.
How do you like to entertain? What are your bar basics? Do you have a favorite house cocktail? Recipes, as you know, are always welcome...