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!

BOURBON WHISKEY
RYE WHISKEY
SINGLE MALT WHISKEY
WHITE DOG WHISKEY
GIN
RUM
BRANDY
TEQUILA
MEZCAL
AQUAVIT
VODKA
APERITIFS , DIGESTIFS, & LIQUEURS
BITTERS
 

Recently, I shared a taste of the amaro Ramazzotti with a friend. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh my God. What is this stuff and why didn’t I know about it?” There’ve been a lot of those reactions over the last few years as bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts fell in love with the sprawling world of amari, those rich, herbal liqueurs Italians have been enjoying since the early 1800s as health tonics and companions for food.

WHAT ARE AMARI?

For untold years before the rise of modern pharmaceuticals, people used plants as medicine through (sometimes fatal) trial-and-error experimentation. Simply put, amari (plural of amaro, Italian for “bitter”) are booze with sugar and a range of health-specific botanicals added, but always with a bitter component – usually Gentian. The root of the flowering Yellow Gentian was used as an anti-inflammatory stomach tonic to help stimulate appetite and ease digestion. Now, when you hear “bitter,” don’t think it’s going to be nasty and disgusting. If you like good chocolate or good coffee, your palate already understands how pleasant bitterness can be when combined with sweetness. It’s like life, you know – you take the good with the bad. The most common style of amaro production uses a neutral spirit base (typically vodka or grappa) loaded up with differing botanicals (roots, bark, herbs, flowers, spices), sugar, and (sometimes nowadays) caramel coloring. These are often family recipes passed down through the generations and they vary by region. Typical amari botanicals may include anise, chamomile, chinchona, ginger, lemon balm, licorice, mint, orange peel, rhubarb, saffron, sage, thyme – even artichoke at the weird end of things. Amari range in proof from 40 to 80 percent, so they can be a pleasant alternative beverage when you don’t want something too strong.

Vermouths (both the sweet Italian style and the dry French style) can be thought of similar to amari – they’re just made with a fortified wine base in place of the neutral spirit and wormwood as one of the bitter components (where allowed). Vermouth got its start in Asia around 1000 BC (wow) and later came to rise in Germany as a digestive tonic for the upper class, something they would take a sip of between each bite so they could keep gorging themselves, striving for the overweight appearance prized as a status symbol. But German vermouth had a reputation as ruthlessly efficient and equally unpleasant. It took tavern worker Antonio Carpano of Turin, Italy to bring his family’s recipe to his bosses, a finessing of the idea of vermouth for his German customers in 1786, that perfected it with a blend of sweetness and spice in a recipe that’s emulated with the Carpano Antica vermouth sold today.

Vermouths are typically enjoyed over ice with a lemon twist as “aperitifs,” a before-dinner kickstart, a reset button that marks the border between the workday and the evening. Amari are sipped after dinner as “digestifs,” neat (straight from the bottle at room temperature) to help settle the dinner down and prevent that two-hour dead zone of loginess.

Amari can be kept at room temperature – their sugar content helps keep them shelf-stable. Vermouths should always be refrigerated after opening and used within a couple weeks, if possible. It helps to buy vermouth in 375 mL bottles, or to share a larger 750 mL (or even 1 L in the case of Carpano Antica) with a friend and store it in smaller bottles or jars.

AMARI TYPES

There are hundreds of amari produced across Europe, maybe a couple dozen that are available here in the U.S. It’s hard to segment them into rigid defining types as there’s much crossover, but the general agreement seems to be on these basic distinctions:

MILD: These amari gently tone down the extremes of bitter and sweet. Meletti and Amaro Nonino are recommended.

MEDIUM: The core of the class, these amari are rich and potent, but never overwhelming. Look for Amaro Montenegro as a great starting taste that represents amari at their best. Also worth tracking down are Ramazzotti and Averna.

FERNET: Always overwhelming (in a good way), these amari are prized for their curative properties – but their intense herbal menthol flavor is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Best known are Fernet-Branca and Luxardo Fernet.

CHINA: Pronouncedly bitter with sweetness diminished, these borderline amari are nearly always consumed mixed and served as aperitifs. Made with the medicinal chinchona calisaya bark, they’re just too intense on their own. Best known are Campari, Aperol, and Tempus Fugit’s nouveau-retro Gran Clasico. There’s a great new Calisaya liqueur made in Eugene, Oregon that revives this long-lost ingredient in many pre-prohibition cocktails.

OTHERS: From here, things get even deeper into niches. There’s Alpine types made with mountain herbs, Carciofo made with artichoke, Tartufo made with truffles, and more.

VERMOUTH TYPES

ITALIAN: Also known as sweet or red, these represent the original style pioneered in Turin. Try Carpano Antica, Dolin, or Noilly Prat.

FRENCH: Also known as dry or white, my favorite is made by Dolin in Chambéry, France, near the Swiss Alps border with Italy. If you can’t find Dolin, try Noilly Prat or Cinzano.

OTHERS: Stepping away from these two classic styles are a round of variations: white (also called bianco or blanc), amber, and rosé. Again, Dolin makes a heavenly blanc vermouth.

Now: even though these amari and vermouths are typically enjoyed on their own in Europe, that hasn’t stopped bartenders around the world from experimenting with their use in cocktails of all kinds. Vermouth’s popularity in New York City around 1870 gave birth to an all-new style of stirred cocktails including the Martinez, the Manhattan, and the Martini. One of my favorite new-school amari drinks is the “Vienna by Train,” a low-proof sipper by Chris Bostick while he was at The Varnish in Los Angeles.

By all means, enjoy these mixed (they are delicious in cocktails when done right)… but some traditions are worth exploring and maintaining. Try some vermouth before your next big meal and an amaro afterwards; You may agree there’s something special to this old-time medicine after all.

A giant vat of thanks to Mollie Casey of The Henry Wine Group for sharing her knowledge of and enthusiasm for amari.

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Getting good ice at home may be your biggest challenge – but it’s not impossible. Good ice is dense, dry on its surface, holds a chill for a long time, has no off-flavors or -smells, and is as clear as possible.

High-end bars and commercial ice providers have systems to gently agitate water while freezing to work out air bubbles, then cut off the cloudy parts where trapped air and particulates settle. At home, there’s no magic trick like using boiled or distilled water that’ll get you crystal-clear ice… but there is a reliable technique, detailed below. Working down from big to small, there’s:

Block Ice – sometimes available at the store, but easy to make on your own if you have room in the freezer.  If you want to go deep into your quest for ice perfection, the best way I’ve figured is to fill a small Igloo cooler with water and freeze a couple days. The cloudy stuff will settle in the bottom, where you can saw it off (carefully, please!) using a bread knife. Use these blocks for chilling punch bowls or to carve…

Rock Ice – attractive mini-icebergs hand-carved from block ice. They’ll dilute much slower than cubes, plus they’re impressive. Carefully use an ice pick or bread knife to shape clear chunks that will fit snugly in an Old Fashioned glass. Store finished ice rocks in your freezer in a freezer-safe airtight container.

Cubed Ice – Tovolo makes two sizes of silicone trays that produce perfect cubes (as opposed to the crescent shapes made by freezer icemakers that hug the edges of the glass in an annoying way). Plus, real cubic cubes dress up a drink nicely and allow you to crack or crush your ice as need be. Punch a small hole in the bottom of each section and elevate this ice tray (filled with and surrounded by water) inside a cooler in your freezer if you want crystal-clear cubes (see technique detailed below). Store finished ice cubes in your freezer in a freezer-safe airtight container.

Cracked Ice – if your freezer’s icemaker filters water and cracks ice, that’s good enough for most. Alternately, you can hand-crack ice cubes by holding a single cube in the palm of your hand and whacking it hard with the back of a barspoon – or bust them up in a canvas Lewis bag. For parties, you’ll want to buy cracked ice in bags (they may call it “crushed”) and keep it in the freezer – not in ice buckets on the counter.

Crushed Ice – for fine, snowy crushing, the Lewis bag does a great job, if a little loudly. Good way to annoy people trying to relax. Some good smashes from a rolling pin or muddler against an ice-filled gallon freezer Ziploc wrapped in a dishtowel will work in a pinch.

HOW TO MAKE CRYSTAL-CLEAR ICE CUBES AT HOME

I’ll preface this procedure by acknowledging that, for 95% of the population, obsessing about clear ice is roughly as interesting as cataloging variances in the brownness of cardboard. But still – hand a guest at your home a drink with perfectly cubic, crystal-clear ice and they’ll be impressed. To make ice this way, you’ll need a free shelf in your side-by-side freezer or a good amount of clear space in your over/under freezer. Credit-Where-Credit-Is-Due Department: this technique was inspired by what I learned from Camper English’s quest for clear ice at home on his website Alcademics.

Hardware: Igloo Playmate 7-quart cooler, set of two Tovolo Perfect Cube ice trays, 2-cup plastic food storage container, something to poke holes with, scissors, knife

Step One
Using scissors, trim the end row from each Tovolo tray, leaving a 3 x 4 grid instead of a 3 x 5. Using any handy (and safe) implement, poke five small holes in the center-bottom of each tray space. You’ll see in the photo, I started with a one larger hole at first and found it wasn’t necessary to make clear ice. In fact, the cubes coming from the spaces with smaller holes are more clear. To make the small holes, I used a small hole-punch tool designed to be used with an outdoor drip-irrigation system.

Step Two
Place an empty 2-cup (or so) plastic food storage container in the bottom of an Igloo Playmate 7-quart cooler, then lay the Tovolo ice trays on top. The reasoning behind this setup: when water freezes into ice slowly, trapped air bubbles and particulates settle to the bottom. By placing this rig inside an insulated cooler and elevating the trays, cloudiness will be forced through those pinholes in the bottom of the trays into the area below.

Step Three
Lifting the edge of an ice tray, fill the cooler with plain old tap water just to the top edge of the ice trays. No need to filter or boil (unless your tap water is disgusting). Make sure the water is evenly distributed, filling each ice cube space to the rim and the food-storage container under the ice trays as well. If you overfill above the ice trays, you’ll have a hard time breaking out your cubes. Place the cooler with the lid folded down in your freezer for 24 hours.

Step Four
Once the ice cubes are set, there’ll still be some liquid water at the bottom that holds all the trapped air and particulates. You may even see one space where cloudy freezing ice has pushed up, fighting against being trapped underneath. Using a knife, carefully chip away any ice that has formed around the edges of the ice trays. Over the sink, tilt the cooler and pull out the ice tray assembly. Break the trays loose from any ice that may be holding them, then pop out your perfect, clear ice cubes. Store finished ice cubes in your freezer in a freezer-safe airtight container.