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Getting into the spirits: How to stock the best home bar for the holidays

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December is the most libatious time of the year. Between the parties and holiday-themed bars, the cocktails, eggnog and mulled wine will all be flowing until “Sober January”—maybe even at your house.

Whether you plan to host people over the holidays or throw a New Year’s party, or just want to upgrade your home bar, this is a perfect time to invest in a better booze selection and barware that you can use throughout the year, or give to someone as the perfect, last-minute gift.

Drawing on advice from the owner of Williamsburg wine and spirits shop Vine Wine, a cocktail expert at Chelsea’s Cocktail Kingdom, and the founder of Brooklyn-made mixers, Morris Kitchen, here are the best ways to get into the spirits at home.

Assemble a celebratory bar

First, a reality check. Quality spirits are not cheap and to stock a bar from scratch quickly adds up. So first determine the kinds of drinks you want to make, the ones your guests will probably want to drink, and then crunch the numbers. Set a limit on how much you want to spend total or per bottle, and then run by your budget and cocktail menu with the staff of your favorite liquor store.

We asked Talitha Whidbee, owner of Vine Wine in Williamsburg, for her recommendations on five bottles for a holiday home bar, each no more than $50, that would look pretty assembled on a bar cart, and make a number of classic drinks. Her picks:

Jensen’s Gin: A very classic dry gin that works either savory or sweet; Negroni or martini.

Mezcal Union: Every bar needs a good mezcal, you can use it for a margarita if you want but also drink it on the rocks and make some amazing cocktails.

Medley Brothers Bourbon: This incredibly economical bourbon is high proof, so it’s great in cocktails, and tastes like a classic bourbon but is great a little diluted for the nights you want to sip some bourbon.

Cappelletti Aperitivo: This all-purpose delicious bitter liqueur is great in a Negroni, perfect in a spritz (for those afternoon cocktails) and an excellent way to wake the palate for dinner.

Braulio Amaro: This one is right around $50 but worth every penny, a lighter more well-structured amaro with some bitterness, could be used in place of gin in a Negroni, or whiskey in an Old Fashioned, a true stunner.

If you’re starting from zero, you’ll want to stick to the basics, though. Cocktail Kingdom’s Scott Stierwalt recommends a rye whiskey, a London dry gin, dry and sweet vermouth, orange bitters and aromatic bitters, and a couple of either fruit liqueurs or light, herbal liqueurs. He suggests adding just a teaspoon or two of these special spirits to classic cocktails like martinis and Manhattans to put your own spin on them. If your preference is toward the herbal side, you could opt for Pasubio, a wine-based amaro that’s light and bitter. If you’re leaning toward fruit, the French brand Giffard makes many premium liqueurs that look beautiful on the bar, too.

Batch at least 1 drink

The next best thing to springing for someone to serve drinks at your party is pre-mixing a cocktail or punch. Last year, we interviewed Kari Morris of Morris Kitchen for With Love from Brooklyn, and she shared two recipes she used at her own holiday party. If you’ve never tried one of Morris Kitchen’s mixers or syrups, available at markets like Whole Foods and Fairway, they truly do make it easy to make a delicious cocktail. (I actually bought multiple bottles this year for gifts, to add to seltzer or spirits.)

To ice a punch, she freezes a block of ice in a bundt cake pan with festive aromatics and herbs like cranberries or rosemary, or even pine needles(!) from a garland purchased at a greenmarket, then lets it sit in the punch bowl until it releases from the pan, and pours the punch on top of it. (That’s her pine-y punch, pictured.)

Here are her recipes, only one of which calls for one of her readymade syrups:

Lemon Cocktail, served in a coupe glass

Bourbon Cocktail, served in a rocks glass

  • 1 part Bourbon
  • .5  part Amaro, such as Nonino  
  • .5  part Aperol
  • 1  Orange Peel
  • 2  Rocks

Invest in better barware

Cocktail Kingdom is like a candy store for your holiday bar. Photo: Nicole Davis

If you are finally ready for an upgrade from those plastic cups that you throw away at the end of the night, Cocktail Kingdom is your best friend. I recently paid a visit to their shop, located on the fifth floor of an office building in Chelsea (so it feels like you’re going to the wrong place, but you’re not) and it’s a treasure trove of professional tools. You can buy jiggers and strainers and bar spoons and juicers in all sizes and metallic finishes, in person or online. Sales manager Scott Stierwalt likes the David Wondrich Stirred Selection with a Leopold Jigger. For something more straightforward he suggests the Cocktail Kingdom Essential Cocktail Set. Anything here would make a great host or hostess gift, any time of year.

They stock glassware for all styles of drinks, too, available in sets of 6 or by the case. But if you don’t have room to store glassware, they also sell acrylic glasses that look sharp, won’t break, and can be easily packed away in a tote and stuffed into a closet until 20 of your closest friends come over again. That’s how I store these reusable, recyclable plastic wine glasses, which have traveled with me on numerous car camping trips. Just imagine if you brought out acrylic rocks glasses for the campfire! But back to your holiday party…

Cocktail Kingdom, 36 West 25th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10010. Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Years. Otherwise open weekdays 10:30am-5pm, and till 6pm on Friday, December 21.

Peak Ice Works’ Everyday Tray

Ice, Ice, Baby

Bars go to great lengths to serve drinks with “big ice,” so your drink stays cold without becoming quickly watered down. You can attempt the same by freezing your rocks ahead of time using silicone ice trays, but you’ll want to start well in advance of your party. (Hosting New Year’s Eve? Start now.)

Morris likes W & P Design’s Peak Ice Works trays because the internal steel frame releases ice easily. Or, if you’re pulling out all the stops for your party, you can get big ice delivered from Hundred Weight Ice.

Wine and Bubbly

Most likely your guests will bring a bottle of wine or bubbly as thanks for hosting. To round out the offerings without breaking the bank, Whidbee recommends wines from Portugal. “It is so hard to beat the values there, many of the wines are still made in a traditional way and over deliver for their price point.” And rather than Prosecco, everyone’s favorite Champagne substitute, she likes Cava. “So often inexpensive prosecco is force carbonated and full of sugar and additives, but great values can still be found in Cava,” she said.  

Pick your poison

Now comes the hard part. What signature punch or cocktail are you going to serve? Rosie Schaap’s recipes are always super simple and straightforward. 3-Ingredient Cocktails is another great resource we recommendImbibe magazine also sends a PDF of its favorite holiday drink recipes when you sign up for their email, and the first few are relatively easy and festive. 

Cheers!



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