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In any case, I've come back to the idea of a series on workhorse spirits because my own personal list is outdated.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.)



Combine equal parts Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey and Moxie in a rocks glass, with ice. Stir in a drizzle of fresh rhubarb syrup.

The drink is named in honor of Ted Williams, who, like E.B. White and Calvin Coolidge, loved him some Moxie.

Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey isn’t quite a bourbon or a rye, being 40% corn, 40% rye, and 20% barley, last I heard. What it is, is delicious. It stands up against other flavors like a rye but is smoother drinking than most bourbons are. It’s one of the few whiskies I’d be prepared to pair with Moxie and rhubarb, simultaneously; most others would either taste foul (hello, Scotch) or get drowned out completely.

Bully Boy makes a whole line of spirits right here in Boston. The skinny is here:

Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

2 oz. Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey
1/2 or so tsp Demerara simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

The Old Fashioned is the original cocktail. When the word “cocktail” was coined, it referred to a combination of a spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. In the way that Sour, Flip, Fizz, Daisy, Fix, Crusta, and so on are drink categories characterized by particular formulas, so, originally, was Cocktail.

Ordinarily, I encourage the shaking of drinks that feature syrups, but the Old Fashioned has been around longer than cocktail shakers, I say stir. It’s a rough drink, rough in the sense that Teddy Roosevelt was rough. It’s nearly all whiskey. Careful measurements and advanced mixological techniques don’t belong here.

Old Fashioneds historically were made with rye, then with bourbon for many years, and now with rye again. Rye is more complex nine times out of ten, which matters a lot when the flavor palate you’re working with comes 85% or so from the whiskey. I used Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey (distilled in Boston!), which is made from a mash halfway between a bourbon and a rye mash. The result is very interesting and very smooth - smoother even than a lot of bourbons, which are allegedly the sweeter American whiskey. Whatever you use to mix these, be sure it’s of decent quality, and you enjoy it. Your particular whiskey selection should be one you would sip on its own.

There is a newer school of Old Fashioneds that involves muddled fruit. These can be enjoyable, but yield a distinctly different drinking experience. I’ll cover them some other time. For now, our foray into Embury’s basic/classic cocktails is concluded. The Daiquiri and the Jack Rose will follow eventually.

Finally, a shout-out to Jon, whose Demerara simple syrup was the sugar I had on hand for this. Demerara has a rich flavor, and makes a syrup that’s almost black. It blends very well with aged liquors.