Episode 004 - Bar Cart Software

Hello, and WELCOME to the Modern Bar Cart Podcast—the cocktail podcast where we demystify the tools and techniques that make great drinks.

I’m your host, Eric Kozlik, and I’m glad you’ve decided to join me for what may be one of the most crucial early episodes you’ll listen to on this podcast. In Episode 2, I broke down the essential cocktail-related tools you’ll need to build your home bar or bar cart, and if you recall, I used a computer analogy that compared hardware and software to cocktail tools (like shakers and bar spoons) and consumables (like spirits and mixers).

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into our metaphorical cocktail software—the literal spirits and cocktail mixers you’ll need on hand if you want to start learning how to mix delicious drinks.

Because this episode follows more of an audio essay format, I’m going to include a complete transcript of this episode (including links) in the show notes at modernbarcart.com/podcast. This is going to be a fairly BRAND-DRIVEN episode (at least toward the end) where I make a TON of brand recommendations at different price points. So please do check out the show notes or email podcast@modernbarcart.com if you have any lingering questions.

Now, to kick things off, I’m going to identify  a strong literary resource in respect to building your spirits and mixers collection, and that resource is The 12 Bottle Bar  by David Solomonson and Lesley Jacobs Solomonson, originally published not too long ago in 2014.

I will admit that I DO NOT OWN THIS BOOK—Seen it a few times, flipped through it, but don’t personally own it. And if I were in your position right now, I’d be like,

Why is this dude trying to sell me a book he doesn’t personally own?

Here’s why:

I’m going to make my own recommendations here today, and so I want you to have at least one resource to test my recommendations against. I’d absolutely love it if you just accepted all my advice and help me up as the end-all be-all of cocktail advice. But the truth is, everybody’s got a different palate and different priorities, and I want you to have options.

So, jumping right in, I’m gonna rattle through the bottles that the authors of the 12 Bottle Bar think you should have on your shelf, and then I’m going to give you the EJK UPDATED 12 Bottle Bar, where I keep the good and swap out what I think are weaker bottles for things that might be more fun or useful.

Ready, here we go. The original 12 Bottle Bar consists of:

  1. Brandy
  2. Dry Gin
  3. Genever (Also known as Hollands Gin)
  4. Amber Rum
  5. White Rum
  6. Rye Whiskey
  7. Vodka
  8. Orange Liqueur
  9. Dry Vermouth
  10. Sweet Vermouth
  11. Aromatic Bitters
  12. Orange Bitters

Definitely a strong list of recommendations, and if I had to list 20 bottles that should be on every bar, then all (or almost all) of these would make my cut. And the goal here is obviously to be able to make the most and most interesting cocktails with the most flexible assortment of spirits.

Instead of quibbling item-by-item, I’m just gonna identify and quickly run through the three bottles I swapped out in my 12-Bottle bar, and those bottles are Genever, Dry Vermouth, and Amber Rum.

Genever is a type of gin, produced in an off-dry style, just like it was in Holland when that spirit was a particularly popular import into the U.S. This was during the Mid-1800s when cocktail culture was still ramping up, and as David Wondrich notes in his book, Imbibe! it was replaced dramatically in popularity by English style dry gin around the turn of the 20th century (and this is traceable by import records).

Now, why am I picking on Genever? It’s because there are so many great types of gins out there today, that you shouldn’t really be focusing on a certain STYLE, per se, but rather tasting your way around to determine which gins you enjoy, and which mix well with certain vermouths, bitters, and other mixers.

Now my choice to eliminate Dry Vermouth also comes into the discussion here because Wondrich notes that the switch in popularity was at least partly due to the fact that dry vermouth was also becoming a popular cocktail ingredient at that time and IT mixed well with dry gin, but not with Genever. So why am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? If I get rid of Genever, shouldn’t the dry vermouth be allowed to stay? The answer: in just a few minutes.

Finally, we’ve got amber rum, which, in my opinion has a bit of an identity crisis. It’s not dark, but it’s got too much caramel flavoring and coloring to be considered “white.” Don’t start your bar with bottles that are straddling a middle ground between two other products. There are a lot of great cocktails that can be made with either dark rum or light rum, and so my advice would be to pick up a bottle of whichever one you prefer most, and then work your way out from there.

So, now that I’ve gutted the premise of a really well respected book, probably alienated some people, and maybe had some eyes glaze over on my dive into the history books there, let’s take a look at my new and (I think) slightly improved 12 Bottle Bar.

And I’m gonna go through these items a bit more slowly so they stick, so without further ado…

American Whiskey (Bourbon or Rye)

With a bottle of American whiskey, you’ve got a ton of options. Most American Whiskey cocktails out there will DESIGNATE which type is supposed to be included in the recipe, but there are almost as many exceptions as there are rules – two classic exceptions being the Bourbon Manhattan and the Rye Old Fashioned. Typically the spirits in those two cocktails are flip-flopped (at least on today’s cocktail menus), so as long as you can find a bottle of some type of American Whiskey, you can start experimenting with the basic flavor combinations in a lot of famous cocktails.

For what it’s worth, the original 12 Bottle bar only recommends a bottle of Rye Whiskey, and this is probably because Rye is the spirit that was available when a lot of the truly epic American cocktails were being invented. So, in their defense, not a bad recommendation, but I think Bourbon is so popular these days, and so easily-switched-out, that you can feel confident opting for either.

Scotch Whisky

This is one of my replacements—let’s say for Genever. I think it’s safe to say that contemporary cocktail trends are erring in the direction of smoky, complex, and even savory in some instances, and that’s why I think it’s important to have a bottle of Scotch on your bar.

Now, Scotch isn’t for everyone. I remember back when I first started experimenting with cocktails, I had a friend who had CONVINCED himself he needed to learn how to drink Scotch—you know, because that’s what classy adult men are into. And he had this one bottle of Johnny Walker Black that just WOULD NOT GO AWAY FAST ENOUGH.

Scotch is one of those acquired tastes that people tend to like more after their taste perception fully matures, which is actually (in my opinion) facilitated by a curiosity in cocktails. So if you’re on the younger (but still legal) side, maybe this is the last bottle you pick up. Maybe start with Bourbon, and then work your way up through Rye and Scotch.

Interestingly enough, that friend I just mentioned is now a HUGE Scotch fan, so there is hope that your taste preferences can change. And I firmly believe that Scotch is an incredibly versatile cocktail spirit, and I think it’s going to give you a lot more flexibility than a bottle of Genever will, especially in today’s scene.

Bottle #3: Gin (Your Flavor Preference)

Gin

If you’re listening to this episode, you’re probably here because you WANT advice, and so I can see how it might be frustrating that I took all specificity out of my gin recommendation and dumped the burden on you.

Here’s why:

I listed gin right after whiskey because I personally believe that these two spirits are the most interesting, complex, and delicious to experiment with. There are so many versions and styles to choose from, and with today’s distilling knowledge and technology, it’s really difficult to find a bad bottle above $15-$20. So, when the experimental stakes are low, I encourage you to experiment. And if you’re TRULY experimenting and testing what’s available to you, I‘d say you could go ten bottles before settling in on your “House” specialty.

Now, the flavor profiles in today’s gins can range from extremely dry (meaning a lot of juniper), to extremely bright (meaning a lot of citrus peel), to extremely floral (meaning a lot of herbs and flowers). And almost every gin distiller on the market has their own botanical recipe that triangulates them between these extremes. So, go out, ask for tastes, figure out what you like, and then bring it home.

Moving on now to bottle #4: Brandy or Cognac

Brandy or Cognac

Brandy is a type of spirit distilled from grapes (as opposed to grains like corn, rye, or barley), and Cognac is just a fancy French brandy that comes from a specific region. So all Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are cognacs.

An inexpensive bottle of brandy is great to have on the bar because it’s called for in a lot of the older cocktails and punches that were developed before the late 1800’s. It’s got a very sweet, mellow, and perfumed flavor profile in most cases, and it pairs well with most orange liqueurs, which we’ll talk about further down the list.

Not much to say about brandy until we get to the brand recommendations part of the episode, but I will mention that there is an abbreviation system on brandy (and especially Cognac) labels that can help you to approximate its quality. If you see “VS,” it means you’re buying a very basic brandy, whereas VSO and VSOP (which stands for Very Special Old Pale) are a bit more refined. And anything that says XO is going to be the oldest, most distinguished, and generally most expensive bottle on the shelf.

And that’s all for now on Brandy

Rum (White or Dark)

This bottle is a great opportunity to “choose your own adventure” based on your flavor preferences, or perhaps some other variable. For example, I tend to like white rum in the summer and dark or spiced rum in the winter months.

The reason why I think your choice of rum matters less than your choice of gin or whiskey is because the best and most anthologized classic cocktails out there usually stray away from rum. There are a LOT of notable exceptions to this, of course. There is the institution that is “TIKI COCKTAILS,” almost all of which use some type of rum. There’s the stunning Daiquiri cocktail, which uses white rum.

In the end, though, here’s my advice: while you’re working on your Whiskey and Gin cocktails, use your rum and your brandy for flavor breaks. Mess around with them in the background and use these two (generally sweeter) spirits to learn more about your palate and zero in on the types of classic cocktails you like to make. Developing your palate is very much a trial and error project, and that’s precisely why I think having a bottle or rum is important for someone just starting to build their bar. But I don’t think the STYLE of rum matters all that much in the beginning.

Now, for our final spirit, we have bottle #6: Vodka

Vodka

Poor Vodka. It’s been sort of the whipping boy of cocktail snobs for a long time now. And there’s one primary reason for this—it doesn’t taste like much. And there’s a positive and a negative way to look at that.

The positive way would be to say that having a spirit that is a “BLANK SLATE,” is a great opportunity to see how other flavors shine through in certain drinks. In this sense, vodka offers a lot of flexibility and isn’t as likely to “CLASH” with the other ingredients in a cocktail recipe. In other words, it plays well with others.

The negative way to approach vodka would be to say, “what’s the point?” Why drink something that is, by definition, tasteless?

I’m not going to get into the weeds on this debate here. Instead, I’m going to give you two GOOD reasons to have a bottle of vodka on the bar.

Reason 1: There are some great cocktails, including the Moscow Mule, the Caipiroska, and the Vodka Martini. They’re easy to make, and they are definitely crowd favorites.

Reason 2: Sometimes, you end up entertaining people with sensitive palates, and they want to participate in the delicious cocktails you’re making, but they maybe can’t handle whiskey or gin. This is where vodka saves the day. It’s all-but-invisible in fruit juice and/or sparkling water, and it’s extremely easy to improvise something for your pickier guests that will delight them and make you feel like a great host.

That does it for our base spirits, so now we’ll move on to the lower-ABV accompaniments with Bottle #7: Sweet Vermouth

Sweet Vermouth

This cocktail ingredient is INCREDIBLY important. I cannot overstate that. Sweet Vermouth, as we mentioned briefly in episode 1, is a type of fortified wine that is infused with the flavor of other herbs, roots, and spices to become sweet and complex.

Some of my personal favorite cocktails call for sweet vermouth. The Manhattan, the Negroni, the Boulevardier, the Vieux Carre, the Martinez, and many, many more.

I’ll make brand recommendations in a bit, but the most important thing to note here…and I’m sure I’ll say this many more times in future episodes…is REFRIGERATE YOUR VERMOUTH. If you leave it on the bar after you open it, it will oxidize and taste nasty.

The end.

Moving on to Bottle #8: Blanc (or White) Vermouth

 Blanc (White) Vermouth

This is perhaps my most controversial bottle. And as you’ll recall, I never really gave a good answer for why I cut dry vermouth from my 12 bottle bar.

To tell the truth, I just think Blanc vermouth tastes better across the board. It’s mellower, more floral, and a bit sweeter than dry vermouth, which is going to complement most gins quite nicely, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, I think its flexibility will encourage you to experiment more than a dry vermouth will.

Part of building your bar and learning about cocktails is developing the bravery to go “Off-Recipe,” kind of like taking a scenic detour. Taking the road less traveled. I know that, starting out, you’ll probably cling to those recipes pretty hard—and that’s great! The recipe is the recipe for a reason—because it’s tastes good. But then gradually, the “what ifs” will start to creep in.

What if I change the ratio of whiskey to vermouth? What if I shake instead of stir? What about lemon juice instead of lime juice? And if you pursue some of these “what ifs,” you’re going to make some nasty drinks.

This is all a long way of saying, I think Blanc vermouth is going to result in LESS of these duds, and therefore will encourage you to keep experimenting and keep trying to put your own spin on the classics, which is one of the great joys of bartending.

Brand recommendations to come, moving on now to bottle #9: Orange Liqueur

Orange Liqueur

Starting with the most basic definition, liqueurs are sweetened cocktail mixers that generally contain less alcohol by volume than spirits, but more alcohol than vermouths or fortified wines. They sort of inhabit that middle ground between wine and liquor.

Orange liqueur is exactly what it seems to be. It’s sweet, it’s orangie, and it’s delicious. The three major types are Triple Sec, Curacao, and Aged Stuff. Now, again, it’s VERY easy to get into the weeds here. But I’ll save that for another episode and say that you should probably start with an inexpensive bottle and work your way up, tasting at bars whenever you find a bartender who’s willing to pour you a little sample.

Turning our attention now to bottle #10, we’ll find our second liqueur, and that’s Amaro.

Amaro/Amari

Now, if you think there are a lot of orange liqueurs on the market, the world of Amari (which is the plural of Amaro) will make your head spin. I was lucky enough to take a seminar on classic and modern Amari at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference, and I was simply blown away by the sheer variety and complexity of these products on today’s market.

By definition, an Amaro is a bitter liqueur or Aperitif. And in fact, our three final bottles all have something directly bitter about them. And that’s okay. Bitterness actually plays a really important role in cocktails, and actually serves to balance them out in many cases, instead of making them unpalatable in any way.

I’d recommend starting your adventure in the world of Amari after tasting a cocktail that someone more experienced has made using a particular amaro. You’re either going to like it, or you won’t, but once you find one you like, you’re probably going to get the itch to run to the liquor store and pick up a bottle.

So, again here, maybe not one of the first bottles you pick up, but Amaro is going to be a force multiplier in the number of cocktails you can make with the other bottles on your bar. Whereas Gold Rum, for example, on the original 12 Bottle Bar list, wasn’t really going to give you too many more options.

Bitters

Finally, I’m going to speak about our final two bottles (#11 and #12) in the same breath here. And those are Aromatic and Orange Bitters.

Bitters are a flavor extract, and they contain something known as a bittering agent, which is just one or more ingredients in that extract that make it taste bitter. These are some of the same ingredients used in Vermouths and Amari, but perhaps at a more potent concentration.

Aromatic Bitters are going to be spicy, dark, and complex. Whereas Orange bitters are going to be lighter, brighter and just primed for use with gin. I’ll get into brand recommendations in just a second here.

So. To Review:

The goal of putting together a basic 10 or 12 bottle bar is to be able to make the most different and delicious cocktails with the most trimmed down and versatile collection of spirits and mixers. And the nice thing is, if you’re smart about your purchases, you certainly don’t need to pick up all of these ingredients at once.

So IF you’re looking to ease your way in, here are my recommendations of the five bottles to pick up first. My essential 5-bottle bar would be:

  1. Whiskey (Bourbon or Rye)
  2. Gin
  3. Bitters (Aromatic and/or Orange)
  4. Orange Liqueur
  5. Sweet Vermouth

You can go a long way using those ingredients, and what will happen is, as time goes on, you’ll come across a recipe that sounds amazing, and then you’ll realize you can’t make it with what you currently have on your bar…but you only need to go out and pick up a SINGLE ingredient, as opposed to multiple ingredients. So, instead of making a whole production out of it, you’ve got one stop to make on your way home from work tomorrow, and then you’re ready to rock and roll.

So, listen everybody, I know that was a LOT of information. I’m throwing all these recommendations and flavor notes at you, and it’s hard sometimes to figure out where to actually start building your bar or bar cart. Just know that you can always email podcast@modernbarcart.com if you have any particular questions, and we’ll do our best to steer you in the right direction.


To close out this episode, I’m going to rattle through some brand recommendations so that you can make informed decisions as you stock up your own 12 Bottle bar. And I’ll try and hit 3 price points (inexpensive, middle of the road, and premium), which I’ll refer to as “Bottom Shelf, Middle Shelf, and Top Shelf,” respectively.

For American whiskey, a great (and very approachable) bottom shelf rye is Old Overholt, and a good bottom shelf bourbon would be either Jim Beam or Evan Williams. For the middle shelf, I’d go with the Bulleit brand, and they make a really nice rye and Bourbon. Rye is the green label, and bourbon is the orange label for them. And for top shelf, I’d go with Michter’s Rye, and maybe a nice high-proof bourbon like Booker’s or Noah’s Mill.

For Scotch Whisky, bottom shelf would be a Johnny Walker Red, or a Cutty Sark. Both are blended scotches. Middle shelf, would probably again be blended scotch—this time either a Famous Grouse or a Monkey Shoulder. And for top shelf, you’ll want to get into Single Malts, which requires a working knowledge of scotch. Have your friendly local bartender or that one guy you know who loves Scotch teach you the basics. Personally, Laphroiag and MaCallan are my go-to top shelf brands.

For Gins, you’ve got a lot of options. Bottom Shelf, I’d go with New Amsterdam gin. It’s inexpensive and a great starter gin for pretty much any classic cocktail. For your middle shelf, I’d go with Bombay Sapphire for similar reasons, and because you can get a great deal on a handle of it if you live in a state where Costco is licensed to sell spirits. Finally, for the Top Shelf, I’m going to recommend my absolute FAVORITE gin, and that is the Botanist, which comes to us from Scotland, interestingly enough.

For Brandies and Cognacs, I’ll recommend E&J as your bottom shelf. Very inexpensive, and very consistent. For your middle shelf, I’ll recommend a brand I’ve found and fallen in love with called “Maison Rouge” – French for Red House. This is actually a VSOP Cognac, so very high quality, and it sells for less than $30 a bottle here in Washington, D.C. For top shelf here, you can’t really go wrong with a nice Courvoisier VSOP or XO, but there are a lot of less-well-known names that might actually be better at the same price. See if you can find someone knowledgeable to walk you through the brands, but only if you’re really confident in the quality of your liquor store.

For Rum, Cruzan is a good bottom shelf white option, and Bacardi Black is fairly inexpensive. For your middle shelf, I’d go with anything from Mount Gay, OR, if you’re looking for spiced rum, Sailor Jerry’s. If you want to spend a lot of money on Rum, most whites aren’t going to be all that expensive, but some of the longer-aged dark rums can cost a pretty penny. This is again an area where you’ll want to either do your research beforehand, or see if you can find someone knowledgeable to help you make your expensive selection.

For Vodka, bottom shelf doesn’t mean it has to come in a plastic handle. Again here, go with New Amsterdam. Middle Shelf would be something like a Svedka or a Ketel One. And Top Shelf would be a Belvedere or Grey Goose…I guess. Vodka’s one of those spirits where you get drastically diminishing returns after the middle shelf, so especially if you’re mixing, don’t bother with the expensive imported stuff. If you want to buy an expensive bottle of vodka, at least try to find something local and help support your local distillers.

For vermouths, Martini & Rossi is going to be your bottom shelf option across the board. Your middle shelf option is going to be Dolin, and this is the brand of sweet and blanc vermouth that I have most commonly on my bar. And for top shelf vermouth, I’d recommend Carpano Antica as your sweet vermouth and Lillet Blanc as your white vermouth.

For Orange Liqueur, bottom shelf would be Bols or Dekuyper. For middle shelf, I’d recommend Cointreau or Gran Gala. And for top shelf, go with my favorite – Grand Marnier – or splurge on a bottle of real Curacao (not the blue stuff).

For your Amaro, there are no real bottom shelf options. Most of these are imported and don’t get cheaper than $30. If you want to start with a nice mild amaro, go with an Amaro Montenegro, or a bottle of Aperol. If you want a middle-of-the-road Amaro, go with a bottle of Campari, which is used in two really excellent cocktails—the Negroni and the Boulevardier—or a bottle of Cynar (CHEE-nar). You’ll really impress people if you pronounce that one correctly. Finally, if you really want a challenge, pick up a bottle of Fernet, which is one of the most bracingly bitter flavors out there, but it has a really strong cult following, especially within the beverage industry.

Finally, for bitters, you probably know I’m a bit biased on this front, since I’m responsible for a cocktail bitters brand called Embitterment. BUT, I’ll try to stay objective here. For bottom shelf aromatic bitters, go with Angostura or Peychaud’s. These are solid bitters, inexpensive, and many classic cocktails actually call for them by Name. For bottom shelf Orange bitters, go with Regan’s. For your middle shelf, I’d recommend Embitterment, which you can pick up on modernbarcart.com. Full disclosure, I make these bitters. We have a creole-style Aromatic bitters, which is similar in flavor profile to Peychaud’s and is great for those classic New Orleans cocktails, as well as for your Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. And we make a really great Orange bitters using fresh orange peel, dried orange peel, and a TON of fresh ginger, which really accentuates those essential oils extracted from the peel. Embitterment’s goal is to offer top-shelf quality at a middle-shelf price, and that’s why it’s my middle shelf recommendation. For Top Shelf, you’re not going to find too many traditional Aromatic or Orange bitters, so feel free to experiment with flavors that may be Barrel-aged or slightly experimental. Changing your bitters around is a simple and effective way to learn the nuances of your favorite cocktails and spirits.

Did I mention that our bitters are now USDA Organic certified?

So, there you have it. The 12 bottles I think everyone should have on their bar or bar cart, complete with brand recommendations across three price points.

I hope this information has been helpful, and I hope it’s not intimidating to you that we’re just scratching the surface. We’ve got a ton more to talk about, and the bottles in this episode are going to come back again and again as we become more familiar with cocktails and start to build our bar carts.

A few quick things before I take off:

  1. Be sure to check out our show notes for links to resources like the 12 Bottle Bar that were mentioned today. Just visit modernbarcart.com/podcast and search for this episode.

  2. As you build out your bar, tag us on social media and show off your boozy purchases. We always love to hear from you, so you can either tag or mention @modernbarcart on Instagram, or if you’d like to stalk me personally, you can to follow and tag @quixologist. We’re also, of course, on Facebook as well, so search for us there and maybe throw a “Like” our way.

  3. Three, if you like what you’ve heard so far, please let me know! Go to wherever you listen to podcasts and send us your thoughts. A nice five-star rating never hurts, but that’s for you to decide.

  4. If you have any questions about this topic, or any other cocktail-related topic, please send them my way be emailing podcast@modernbarcart.com. In some cases, I may even follow up with you and ask your permission to use your question on the show.

So, that’s all I have for you today. Until next time, drink responsibly, and experiment boldly.