You’ve got your basic spirits, but you want to add a bit more flair to the shelves? Let’s start by filling in a few gaps that we left in Part 1. Our home bar is somewhat deficient in aged spirits, so I’d throw in either an aged tequila (añejo) or a Scotch. They’ll be delicious on their own, and will bring a smoky, complex flavor to a cocktail. Using añejo as the base for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned will show you the depth of flavor tequilas can have, while adding a half-ounce of Scotch to your margarita can dramatically (and deliciously) change its profile. Unless you’re inclined to drink either spirit on its own, I’d opt for a relatively affordable añejo or Scotch; the options are far too many to fully tackle here, but I’d try to avoid anything too peaty or smoky. A blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker Red works well, or an affordable single malt like Glenlivet. As for añejos, the Hornitos version is generally affordable and quite tasty. Casa Noble, though pricier, is a delicious, rich, and flavorful spirit, and one well worth trying.
Next: modifiers for drinks. They generally fall into two categories: sweet and fruity or bitter and herbal, and your personal preference should come into play here. (Those aren’t absolutes, and some bitter spirits can also be sort of sweet, but hey, I’m just a bartender!)
In the sweet realm, you’ve got maraschino liqueur, which is predominantly cherry-flavored. Luxardo is the easiest to find, but whichever brand you choose will provide a nice way to add sweetness and body to a wide range of cocktails, and it pairs well with both rye whiskey and gin. Consider a Red Hook, a variant of the Manhattan: 2 ounces of rye whiskey, a half-ounce of maraschino liqueur, and a half-ounce of sweet vermouth, preferably Punt e Mes, which I’ll get to shortly.
Another great sweet option is St. Germain. Predominantly flavored by elderflowers, it has a bright, lively florality and a slight grapefruit note. Pair it with gin, vodka, or a white rum. It’s also great with sparkling wine if you want a light sipper.
Leaning toward the fruitier side, there are a ton of options. If you’ve already sprung for Cointreau (per my suggestion in Part 1), I’d say you can skip the other orangey liqueurs, but I’d consider picking up Chambord, a raspberry-flavored liqueur. There are a bevy of delicious stone-fruit liqueurs on the market: I’d personally lean toward apricot or plum, flavors that are hard to add to a drink otherwise. They work well with gins, brandies, and spiced rums, but can also mix it up with lighter-bodied whiskeys.
With bitter spirits, there’s ever-expanding variety. Campari is the classic, with a bitter orange and herbal flavor that makes it a key component of the Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth). It also pairs really well with rye whiskey; the Boulevardier is just a Negroni where you substitute rye for the gin.
If you prefer vermouths, Punt e Mes is a great hybrid of an amaro and a sweet vermouth, and will give your Manhattan a slightly different sensibility than a classic sweet vermouth. Fernet Branca will kick you in the face if you let it, but try it with rye whiskey and Cointreau to get an updated take on the Toronto. There are a wide range of other amaros on the market, and plenty of other unique and obscure European spirits, so feel free to experiment. Traditional bitters are also a great and inexpensive way to diversify your bar: Local company Scrappy’s Bitters has an amazing line of flavors, from coffee to cranberry to lavender.
But if you’re more of a hands-on type, why not try your own infusions? Simply start with your preferred base spirit (a relatively cheap brand willl do) and add whatever fruits, herbs, spices, or other flavoring agents (chocolate is a favorite of mine) you want. There are of course a multitude of possibilities, but one word of advice: Test your infusions regularly. They can go from subtle to overwhelming in a very short time. Generally, fresh fruits and herbs infuse within a few days, while dried herbs and other flavoring agents can take a week or two. Once the infusion is over, I recommend straining the spirit to remove any remaining larger chunks which might alter or ruin the flavor if left alone.
Lastly, how to improvise? I suggest starting with our seven basic cocktails and just changing one ingredient. Make an Old Fashioned with brandy instead of whiskey, or use a different type of bitters. Use basil instead of mint in that mojito, or sneak St. Germain into the French 75. As you get more comfortable with cocktails, you’ll find that tweaking the basic recipes can yield some delicious alternatives—and make you look like a master mixologist to your guests!