Stocking a home bar shouldn’t be difficult, yet we’ve all been there, looking at that shelf in the den or that corner in the kitchen which we’ve chosen for our bottles and tools, and wondering where to start. It can be overwhelming at first, but then you slowly acquire the things you think you’ll need, like towels and glasses and a shaker. You learn some recipes, find a taste for cocktails, and develop an interest in local distilling, which feels like square one, all over again, except it shouldn’t. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you don’t have to stumble blindly into craft spirits and craft distilling with wallet wide open, randomly grabbing bottles and hoping they’ll be what you expect.
The first step is understanding what you want before deciding what you’ll need. Stop at a fancy bar for happy hour and order an expensive cocktail. It will give you a sense of what to expect, and will help you find what you favor. Maybe you like sours, maybe whiskey is your thing, or maybe you’ve found a taste for rum and Tiki drinks. Whatever the case, becoming familiar with the basics of distilled spirits is always a good idea, then, if you find a cocktail or style of cocktail you like, start making your own.
There are a number of excellent books on the topic of home bartending, and any will do. The Joy of Mixology, by Gary Regan, and The Bar Book, by Jeffery Morganthaler are 2 solid choices that offer in depth detail about the tools needed, the techniques required and advice on how to make the best cocktails at home. Recipe books like the Mr. Boston Bar Guide are also good choices because they give you the basics of making drinks along with many recipes you can try. When looking for a recipe book, select one that is well organized, with recipes either grouped by spirit or style, or with a comprehensive index so you can easily find new recipes.
When buying liquor for a new home bar, you can approach the task in several ways. One way is buying the 12 bottles you’ll need to make just about any basic drink. The 12 Bottle Bar by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson lays out a simple plan to stock your shelves with the most common choices. This will get you started, and is a perfectly effective solution. Once you have the 12 bottles, you can enjoy them for a while, learn different recipes, and, eventually begin adding to your collection. This is also a good strategy if you’re not sure what you like, or if you or your guests have differing taste. You’ll get to try a little of everything, and entertaining becomes much more hospitable.
Another approach is a recipe based approach. Each month, select a recipe or several with similar ingredients, buy what you need for those recipes, and enjoy. Next month, pick another recipe using some of the ingredients you bought last month. This method allows you to take your time and slowly build a stock of bottles you’re sure to use.
For example, let’s say you want to get started with gin. Pick 3 recipes to try, a Tom Collins, a Gin and Tonic, and a Southside. For these three, you’ll need a bottle of gin, some lemons, a lime for garnish, some tonic water, and some mint. You’ll also need some sugar and water because we’ll need some simple syrup, which means this month, you’ll learn about gin, you’ll learn how to make simple syrup, you’ll learn how to muddle, how to handle ice, and how to shake a cocktail.
One you’ve mastered those, next month pick 3 more recipes to build on what you already have, such as a Martini, a Gin Basil Smash, and a Vesper. For this, you’ll need to pick up some dry vermouth, some basil, and some vodka. You might also want some olives, if you like them in a Martini, but you have some lemons, and could use a lemon twist. In any case, you’re sampling more gin, but you now have vodka and vermouth, so next month, maybe take on a Cosmopolitan, or Moscow Mule, or a Gibson.
Using this method you’ll slowly build a home bar with spirits you plan on drinking, and can tailor the selections to your taste. However you get started, don’t worry about local products just yet. You’re getting a benchmark, so experience the basics of gin by starting with a traditional London dry, such as Tanqueray or Beefeater. You might not like them as much as other’s you’ll eventually try, or you may love them and look for similar products. In either case, having a baseline will give you a better understanding of where the local products fit in the pantheon of gin. Same for bourbon, and any other spirit. Just remember to keep a notebook as you go, write down the recipes you make, along with any tasting notes or adjustments you’ve made, and share with your friends.
By now you’ve developed taste and technique, but, more so, curiosity. You enjoy exploring different drinks, are familiar with some known brands, and want to know more. Now the adventure really begins. You’ve found a taste for bourbon, perhaps tried some Buffalo Trace, a superb brand, then maybe a few others and now you want something local. Sure, you could go to the store, open the wallet, and randomly buy something. That’s fun, too, but a little knowledge goes a long way.
When learning about local spirits, the first place to start should be your online resources such as distillers’ websites where you can read about their products, blogs like The Portland Pour that explain how to use local spirits, or publisher websites like Imbibe, or Sip Northwest, which can offer news and reviews of local brands.
Another resource is your local liquor store. Finding one knowledgeable and passionate about local products can be hit or miss, but, if you’re in Portland, we recommend Portland Center Liquor, where we get stuff for The Portland Pour. Portland Center Liquor organizes local products in a section of their own, which makes things super easy to find. Building a relationship with people at a liquor store also gives you someone you can ask about local spirits. Talking to the retailer is a great way to learn about products and ask about what might appeal to you if you like particular qualities in your favorite spirit, or if you have a drink recipe you want to try, and aren’t sure which brand would be best. Of course, The Portland Pour can help you with the latter, but having a helpful retailer can be super convenient.
Tasting rooms are a great place to learn about distillers and their products, and many in Portland host events, or have regular hours. This can be a great option if you’re visiting Portland, but live somewhere else. Look for a distillery tour that takes you to several tasting rooms where you can enjoy different products, and even take some home, which you should. If you want to explore on your own, we’ve added a list of distillers and their websites. Check each for tasting room addresses and hours.
Finally, go to a bar, not your local taproom, but find a craft bar that stocks local spirits, such as Proof Reader, Clyde Common, The Teardrop Lounge, or any number of fine establishments around Portland. Talk to the bartender, ask questions (as long as she’s not so busy that you become a distraction) and review the cocktail menu, noting what local brands they use in their drinks. Many bartenders may be eager to talk about their craft and their cocktail creations, but not all, so just roll with it. They don’t owe you a conversation, but around Portland, you’ll find some really cool professionals who are very friendly and take pride in what they do, so ask questions!
How local your home bar is depends on the ingredients and drinks you like. If you like sours, for instance, you’ll need citrus, and that doesn’t grow here. But you could commit to the local fruit, which means pears, apples, cherries, peaches, berries, etc, and still have a diverse recipe book. Try some of The Portland Pour recipes such as Pie for Breakfast, which uses homemade blueberry compote which can be made from local blueberries, and, with a few adjustments, is also entirely local.
Maybe you’re OK with some ingredients made elsewhere, as are we. We like citrus, and there are a number of liqueurs and spirits that aren’t made here. Tequila, for instance, isn’t something you’ll find made in Portland, and we really could use more local rum, if only sourcing sugar cane was less of a problem, but those limitations will also contribute to the local character of your bar. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much or how little you use local goods, you’ll still be supporting artisans in your community.
Here’s a very short list of just some of the many cocktails that can be made entirely with products from Portland and the Pacific Northwest.
The more you try, the more creative you are, the more you’ll enjoy cocktails made with local products, and, as is the case with all beverages, you’ll soon be making them just as you, and your friends like them. Hopefully, you feel inspired to dive into the world of craft distilling and home bartending. For more recipes, look for regular new updates on The Portland Pour
a not so comprehensive list of the distillers who’s products we’ve tried and recommend.
Aria Portland Dry Gin
Big Bottom Distilling
Bull Run Distillery
Clear Creek Distillery
Flooded Fox Den
New Deal Distillery
Rolling River Spirits
Rose City Distilling
Spiritopia Craft Spirits
Stone Barn Brandy Works
Wild Roots Spirits
products that are used in cocktail making, but not always alcoholic
Don’t forget local farmer’s markets for fresh ingredients, and remember, in Oregon, distillers may sell at markets, so you can find both produce and liquor on your Saturday morning shopping spree.