A few weeks ago, Dan’s sister Rachel asked for a cocktail lesson. Her reasoning was solid: cocktails are the perfect thing for a person who lives alone and will never finish a bottle of wine solo. And they’re fun! So true.
But Rachel’s request also came with a challenge. Because she’s starting from scratch and doesn’t want to spend a fortune stocking the bar, she wanted to pinpoint just five bottles that would give her lots of options—not to mention make her look like a cocktail genius.
The easy thing to do, of course, would have been to send her away to find vodka, gin, tequila, rum, and whiskey, along with the proportions for a sour. And hey—there’s nothing wrong with the basics. But that felt like a cop-out. I wanted to help her find her cocktail personality. And I wanted each of the five bottles to be worthy of drinking on their own.
So we embarked on an epic tasting journey.
Rachel tasted through dozens of spirits and fortified wines in our bar. We talked about how each family of spirits is made and why it tastes the way it does. We covered the basic distillation process. But mostly, we talked about what she liked and what she didn’t.
Complex, herbaceous gin (St. George Terroir) and mellow bourbon (Faultline) got the thumbs up; vodka, tequila, and pisco, not so much. This made my job easy, since gin and bourbon are the basis for most of my favorite cocktails.
After we made our way through all the usual base spirit suspects, we started looking for the right supporting players. Cocktails, at their most basic, are a base spirit plus sugar plus bitters. So we needed a sweet element. With bourbon as one of the anchors of the lineup, the obvious choice something in the sweet vermouth realm. After tasting through the Dolin range, we settled on the Dolin Rouge—a classic choice, full of herbal notes and only lightly sweet. The Dolin Blanc would also have worked here. Its fresh spiciness would pair beautifully with the gin and bring some lightness to bourbon-based drinks. Either one is lovely on its own as an aperitif, chilled with a twist of orange.
I also wanted to give Rachel some lighter elements that she could use to dial back the intensity of her spirits-based cocktails. It’s no secret that I’m a fool for sherry… so I poured her a taste of one of my favorite go-tos, the Fernando de Castilla Antique Amontillado. This is obviously spectacular on its own, or she can use it in place of the bourbon for a less intoxicating Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
To round out the bar, we turned to amari and bitters. I won’t lie, I was nervous. Some people just aren’t into bitter flavors. But without one, I think it would be difficult to make a five-bottle bar work for spirit-based cocktails. I also wanted to make sure everything in Rachel’s bar was something she would happily drink on its own, or with a splash of soda. Luckily, she loved Campari. It’s a very particular flavor, orangey and bitter and herbal all at once, and people either love it or they hate it. But if you love it, it’s great for a Negroni, an Americano, the bourbon-based analogues of those, or a good old Campari & Soda.
So. Five perfect bottles. What can you make with these? Here are just a few ideas, assuming you also have soda water, citrus fruits, simple syrup, and a bottle of Angostura bitters at your disposal:
2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce Dolin Rouge (dash of Angostura)
Modified sherry Manhattan
2.5 ounces sherry, 0.5 ounces Dolin Rouge (dash of Angostura)
Campari and soda (twist of orange)
1 ounce gin, 1 ounce Dolin Rouge, 1 ounce Campari
Bourbon-based Negroni (Boulevardier)
1 ounce bourbon, 1 ounce Dolin Rouge, 1 ounce Campari
1.5 ounces sherry, 0.75 ounce Dolin Rouge, 0.75 ounce Campari
2 ounces gin, 1 ounce Campari, soda water to taste
2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce Campari, soda water to taste
2.5 ounces sherry, 0.5 ounce Campari, soda water to taste
2 ounces gin, 1 ounce lime juice, 1 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce lemon juice, 1 ounce simple syrup