Bar Staples

What are the workhorse spirits for a basic cocktail bar? What can you buy inexpensively enough to drink in quantity, that will reliably make decent cocktails?

I've flirted with the idea of a blog series dedicated to this problem, but that's as far as I've gotten with it. My own bar is very idiosyncratic these days, a combination of my poor self-control when faced with a truly novel beverage, my desire to stay on top of local spirits production, and my friends' assumption that unusual spirits are the best gift to bring to any social gathering at my house (they're not wrong, but it means I can find myself with, say, three Maine gins with weird botanicals in my house at once, and no bourbon).

There's also my love of rum, which I've allowed myself to indulge in appropriate disproportion for the last year or two. I've probably got ten or so different kinds on hand right now, depending on how you count it. I could actually tally them up right now, but that might discourage me from getting other rums in the future, and we can't have that.

In any case, I've come back to the idea of a series on workhorse spirits because my own personal list is outdated. I can remember a time when Bulleit and Bully Boy were reasonable choices for general-purpose whiskey mixing: pretty darn good and reliably available for thirty bucks, sometimes less. Not so anymore.

Whiskey, in particular, has gotten a lot more expensive in a relatively short time. I don't begrudge the distillers their success one bit, mind you. I adore sipping a nice glass of Whistlepig or Gunpowder, and I believe they're worth every one of the many pennies they cost. But sometimes you want to throw a party, and for that, you need a decent knockaround base spirit that isn't chasing the high-end sipping market.

To that end, I'll be doing a series on spirits that hit the sweet spot for me. How actionable this intelligence is will depend very much on your tastes and where you live. I'll try to stick to brands that are at least theoretically available outside of greater Boston, but there are weird local price fluctuations that may make my recommendations unreasonable (or unnecessary) in other parts of the country. Myers's rum, for instance, is pretty reliably more expensive than Gosling's or Rhum Barbancourt at liquor stores near me, which has to be some kind of Cambridge Triangle effect.

I'll try to incorporate general advice as well, since the particular contents of any list like this will change over time. I'm also creating a new sub-page under "Spirits" where I'll be keeping track of the most reliable workhorses I come up with. Happy drinking!

(This is, incidentally, not the exciting announcement I teased in the Patriots' Day post. It is merely an exciting announcement, and quite unrelated to that one, which is still pending.)

"Funky" Rum

Personally, I'm a dark rum guy. There-is-rum-in-my-veins is a distinct feeling, simultaneous with ordinary intoxication but quite different from it - almost as if rum and alcohol were separate drugs entirely. It is a reset for the mind, a brief detachment from the body followed by a hurtling-back-into-it that heightens your sense of everything around you; a glimpse, perhaps, of the sublime.

People who drink at a certain level often acquire these kinds of tastes. Most of my friends who are anything-people are whiskey-people, some are gin-people, and all of them are surprised to find out that I'm a rum-person. There aren't a lot of rum-people, at least not around here, and finding one is always a bit like meeting another Red Sox fan in New York City: you're friends right away, regardless of everything else about you.

If you're into dark rums, at some point you've probably heard the siren song of so-called "funkiness," a trait associated with Jamaican rums in particular. I'll be honest, I kind of like this description. For me, a funky rum is one with a bunch of unexpected and hard-to-place notes: floral maybe, or fruity, but not perfectly either of those; still somehow clearly organic. It's at once fun to play the what-is-this game, and liberating to know you'll never have all the answers. Like going to a conceptual party at an artistic stranger's house. Funky.

There is, however, a more technically-appropriate word available for this trait, "hogo," which I've just learned today. Paul, of The Cocktail Chronicles (and founder of Mixology Monday before handing it off to our local friend Fred Yarm), has an old post about it that I happened to stumble upon.

And what a post! With a call-out to Boston's own contemporary classic, the Periodista; an old recipe from Eastern Standard that uses four of my favorite ingredients; and a (fond) description of the rum I keep for sipping purposes, Smith and Cross Jamaican, as "cane-spirit fetish porn where hogo is concerned." Honestly, this post is mostly an excuse to reprint that line - I started writing it before I'd even finished reading Paul's.

So what is hogo, really? Apparently, it's a corruption of "haut goût," an old French cooking term for the distinctive flavor of a game meat that has been slightly and deliberately decomposed. (This, by the way, is me citing Paul citing David Wondrich's Punch, in which he quotes a West Indian planter character from a nineteenth-century novel by Grant Allen. So if you repeat this information, y'know, be sure to cite your sources.)

Why would we want our rum to taste like rotting meat, then? Well, we wouldn't, exactly. At least, I assume we wouldn't - I've never had any sort of haut goût meat, to the best of my knowledge, and I can't say for sure what it tastes like. But human beings have gotten pretty good at massaging the decomposition process to produce desirable results. That is literally what fermentation is, and we wouldn't have yogurt, vinegar, leavened bread, or any kind of alcohol without it.

In other words, "hogo" seems to be that set of flavor notes best described as the taste of fermentation itself, rather than the notes we'd pick out by association as banana or violet. In practice, the yeast is responsible for all of these, but it's those flavors most unapologetically its own - the "gamey, squirrelly, glandular musk," to borrow one more phrase from Paul - that come through as the hogo or funky notes.

Why on earth have I been looking into all this today, in particular? Because I'm gearing up for a special Patriots' Day lesson on Boston cocktails, including the Periodista, and boning up on my rum facts. If you'd like to hear more rum facts, whiskey facts, or Boston facts, come to the lesson!