More information than can comfortably fit in your pocket….

Agave Spirits Ice: Let’s Get This Clear Stocking Your Home Bar
Amari & Vermouth It’s a Small-Batch World Suburban Bourbon
The Bartender’s Bookshelf Organizing Your Home Bar Syrups & Liqueurs
Bitters: Your Bar’s Spice Rack Shaker Shakedown

Making your own syrups at home yields some amazing, fresh flavors for your cocktails. Plus, you get to tell the story of how you made it yourself when someone asks what’s in that mystery bottle you’re pouring into their drink!

whitesugarSIMPLE SYRUP

Simple Syrup really is simple. Over medium-low heat, mix one cup of white sugar with one cup of water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. For Rich Simple Syrup, use one cup of sugar to a half-cup of water. You might find the richness of turbinado or demerara sugar works better for certain drinks, where plain white sugar provides brightness and snap – experiment and see what you like. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.


Real pomegranate grenadine is miles above the common artificial kind and can be made easily at home. If pomegranates are in season (typically December through January), and you don’t mind a mess and a pain in the ass, you’ll get best results by using fresh. Cut pomegranates in half and break apart sections by hand, separating the juice-filled arils from their bitter white membrane. Place the arils in a small saucepan with a bit of water and simmer, covered, over medium-low heat until the arils burst and release their juice. You may need to crush some reluctant ones with the back of a spoon to get them to pop – you should get 1/4 to 1/2 cup of juice per pomegranate. Strain the juice and discard the arils. Mix one cup of fresh pomegranate juice (or 100% unsweetened pomegranate juice like POM brand in the off-season or when feeling lazy) with one cup of white sugar. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. When it’s cool, add one and a half teaspoons of orange flower water – easily found at Middle Eastern markets or online. Adding an ounce of 100-proof vodka will keep it from spoiling too fast. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.


In a heavyweight Ziploc, break up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – looking for large chunks, not powder. A rolling pin or muddler works well. Toast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 10 minutes, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let steep 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.


In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 50 cloves1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, and 1 whole nutmeg (crushed, not ground). Combine in an airtight container and add 8 oz 151 demerara rum, the peeled zest from 8 limes (being careful to not include any of the bitter white pith), and 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger. Infuse for 24 hours, then double-strain the infused rum to remove ingredients and small particles. Make a rich simple syrup of 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water and let cool. In an airtight container, combine the infused rum, the rich simple syrup, and 10 drops almond extract. Stir to combine. Let rest two weeks, refrigerated, for the ginger to mellow. Keep refrigerated. Will last about six months. (recipe adapted from Kaiser Penguin.)

pimentodramPIMENTO DRAM

Step One
Lightly toast 1/4 cup whole dried allspice berries just until fragrant then crush to break up, but not completely turn to powder. In an airtight container, combine the allspice with 1 1/8 cups 151 demerara rum (Lemon Hart). Let steep 10 days in a cool, dark place.

Step Two
After 10 days, strain the infused rum through cheesecloth, then a coffee filter, to remove allspice. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups water with 2 1/2 cups brown sugar. Stir to blend until sugar is completely dissolved. Let brown sugar syrup cool, then add the infused rum. Funnel into an airtight glass bottle or jar and let sit 30 days in the refrigerator. This will level out the heat of the allspice. Keep refrigerated. Will last about six months.


In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 3 cinnamon sticks, crushed lightly to expose more surface area to the heat. Crush again, but don’t pulverize. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups water, then simmer 10 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cool & let steep two hours, then double-strain through a couple layers of dampened cheesecloth into an airtight container. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.



Honey Syrup keeps honey from freezing and seizing when mixed in cocktails. Just mix 3/4 cup honey with 1/4 cup hot water over low heat and stir to combine. Keep refrigerated. Will last about three months.




Split 2 vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Over medium-low heat, mix 1 cup white sugar with 1 cup water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add vanilla seeds and bean pods, whisking to distribute evenly. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Cool, then pour into an airtight glass container and let steep, refrigerated, overnight. Strain through a couple layers of dampened cheesecloth to remove fine particles and store in an airtight container. Keep refrigerated. Will last about two months.

When a cocktail newcomer heads into a good-sized liquor store, the options can be overwhelming. It’s a sprawling, sometimes intimidating place. Choices are sometimes made for less-than-informed reasons: the design of the label, old habits, or advertising materials. In “Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics),” I recommend specific liquor brands with the clear purpose of making it easy for home bartenders to find the best quality among the racks at their local shops. Availability can vary state to state, so I did my best to focus on products with wide distribution and great value. All in keeping with the “Authentic – Practical – No Bullshit” tagline on the book cover.

But to completely focus on the big brands does a disservice to the hundreds of independent producers creating some truly stunning sips. These small-batch spirits, liqueurs, and other peripheral products like bitters are handmade and idiosyncratic. “Small Batch” is sometimes defined as a production of less than 20 barrels per year, but don’t hold me to that. Because of their small volume, producers can focus on doing things in a unique way, differentiating their character from the big guys. They’re made by people who put their heart and soul into every detail and are in it for the love of their craft, not market dominance. They don’t have huge marketing budgets (if at all), so any notice they get is just from enthusiastic word-of-mouth referrals and mentions in print or online. Oh, and all the awards they win don’t hurt.

To help build a list of recommendations, I recently sat down over burgers and Negronis with Forrest Cokely, spirits consultant and former Liquor Specialist at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, California. Since 1957, Hi-Time has been a local legend here in SoCal – a family-owned beer, wine, and spirits emporium that’ll do some serious damage to your pocketbook if you let it. Don’t get me wrong: their prices are fair, it’s the selection that’ll kill you. If it’s legal and available, odds are they have it. And odds are, Forrest has sampled it and can tell you if it’s any good or not. His blog has fascinating tasting notes (the guy loves language as much as he does spirits). Give Forrest a follow on Twitter to keep up with his discoveries.

The end result of our lively discussion are his favorite picks, listed below – spirits that are probably best enjoyed neat or with a splash of ice-cold water to open them up. But don’t let that stop you from trying them in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan! By trying out these products, you’ll be supporting independent companies and expanding your world – not a bad deal.

If you have a hard time finding them where you live, I’ve included links to buy these products at Hi-Time if they stock them online. Hi-Time ships to every state where it’s legal – and internationally. Forrest told me they ship pallets full of tequila over to Japan all the time. Go figure!