Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
As a bartender who has been doing this job for the past 20 years while achieving a modicum of success and respectability in the business, there is one question that I’m asked, without fail, by writers on the regular. And it is as follows: “As a professional bartender, what advice can you give to people who want to make drinks at home?”
Now, it’s not a bad question at all. Totally fair, totally reasonable, and just the sort of thing I would have wanted to know the answer to back when I was a beer bartender and budding cocktail enthusiast. The problem with the question, however, is that I have yet to come across a drinks writer who is satisfied with my honest answer.
Because my answers don’t really make for good copy. What writers really want to hear is, “You’re a failure if you’re not serving your friends this obscure spirit that nobody has heard about yet.” Or “Here are the three secrets to setting up a home bar that will rival any Manhattan craft cocktail bar.”
But I don’t see things that way; I don’t think you need to serve esoteric spirits and cocktails in order to throw a successful party, and I certainly don’t think you need to try to re-create Death and Co. in your living room for chrissake! I am of the seemingly unpopular opinion that you should serve whatever it is you and your friends want to drink and that setting up a full bar for home entertaining is kind of a dumb pursuit.
Here’s why I see it the way I do: If you’re going to have a party, and not a single one of your friends enjoys the intense smoky, salty, iodine-y flavor of an Islay whisky, then why the hell would you want to serve it? Personally, I love it. I have whiskey connoisseur friends who love it as well, and when we get together at my place we usually have a few bottles being passed around. But that’s a pretty specific group of people, and when my friends from college are over and we’re grilling in the backyard, it’s usually a refreshing gin cocktail that’s being served from a pitcher.
I no longer worry about the fact that I don’t have every possible combination of ingredients available to serve, and it’s liberating.
If someone thinks spirit-driven drinks are what’s “cool” and they’re “tired of serving variations on a sour” — I put these in quotes because I’ve actually heard these exact phrases before — then why are they bothering to entertain at home in the first place? I, for one, have never gone to a friend’s place because I wanted a lecture on what I should and shouldn’t be drinking. Have you? You wouldn’t roast a whole pig on a spit if all of your friends were vegetarian, would you? And if so, then how on earth do you actually have any friends?
This conversation most often manifests in the form of the question “What five bottles should be behind everyone’s home bar?” Well, call me crazy, but I’d suggest you pick up five bottles that you like. Is making margaritas at home your favorite thing in the world to do? Great! Get yourself a silver tequila, a reposado tequila, a mezcal, a bottle of Cointreau, and another orange liqueur you’ve been wanting to try. Boom! There you go. Why the fuck would anyone suggest you need a bottle of Fernet?
But this casual insistence that you’re some sort of entertaining failure if you don’t have a full bar you’re prepared to stand behind and fulfill orders from is ludicrous to me. I’ll admit, there was a time in my life when I didn’t feel this way. Back when I was really getting into cocktails, I spent many hours and a ridiculous amount of money building and stocking a full-on bar at my home. Like, a serious bar, with refrigeration, and an ice well and a back bar that would rival some neighborhood dives. (Come on, it was a long time ago, and I didn’t have the best taste.) And you know what? The parties I threw at that house were horrible for me. I spent most of my time working, cranking out drink orders while in the weeds, not getting to relax and talk to my friends, and then spending hours cleaning up a big, sticky mess after the whole thing was over.
But now my parties are so much easier. I pick one drink and make it ahead of time, and everyone can simply help themselves. If you’re the sort of picky guest (and let’s face it, every gathering has that one outsider who recently started dating someone in the group) who needs his Canadian whiskey and Diet Pepsi or whatever it is, you can just bring it yourself. I no longer worry about the fact that I don’t have every possible combination of ingredients available to serve, and it’s liberating.
Now I get everything done beforehand and free up some time so I can enjoy the company of my friends in my own home. I mean, it almost sounds trite to say “punch, punch, punch” these days when talking about entertaining at home, but it’s still very true. And it doesn’t have to be a big bowl of 17th-century punch if that’s not your idea of modern entertaining. Whip up a gallon of margaritas and throw it in one of those orange Igloo insulated beverage dispensers ($20, sold everywhere) with a bag of ice. No, don’t even take the ice out of the bag — just literally throw the whole thing in there so there’s no dilution. Look at you now, you’re serving 10 to 20 people and you’re having a good time.
Look, a party is supposed to be fun. And I know you’re having a ball with this geeky cocktails stuff. I’ve been nerding out about it for the better part of two decades now. But more than being wowed by your new-found obscure information, more than having access to the entire PDT Cocktail Book’s entire repository of drinks, and more than being educated about rare whiskies on a day off, your friends want to spend time with you. Have a little fun this weekend, and everyone will be glad you did.