Best in Glass

with Neal Bodenheimer

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2014

I’ll admit it. When I asked Neal Bodenheimer to send me a snapshot of his home bar, I had a few preconceived notions.

Since he’s a man who lives in the craft cocktail world, I expected Bodenheimer’s picture to reveal a million-bottle stash lining the spiritual equivalent of Bruce Wayne’s Batcave. I visualized floor-to-ceiling shelves containing a dizzying array of exotic and rare elixirs. Tiny vials of artisanal bitters and tinctures. Fifty different kinds of gin and Scotch whiskys bottled during the final days of World War I. I imagined that his personal archives would resemble the cavernous cellar of a wine collector with a 20-year Bordeaux fixation.

Instead, the photo came through revealing 15 bottles lined up on a modest-sized side table. No china cabinets overloaded with small-batch Caribbean rums. No dedicated rye whiskey wing. Just a tight, well-tended collection of (mostly brown) liquors. Nice rums. Three Irish selections. Two kinds of bitters.

After he convinced me that the picture wasn’t a prank, Bodenheimer explained his first principle in building a great home bar: Make It Your Own.

As an owner and creative force behind some of New Orleans’ best cocktail bars — Cure and Cane & Table among them — Bodenheimer spends a lot of time studying the craft and chemistry of a well-made drink.

“On any given day, I’ve got a lot of great bottles at my disposal,” he says. “I spend a lot of my day thinking about booze, but when I come home, I’m not going to mix up a complex cocktail. I’m going to pour something nice and relax.”

And his home bar reflects this reality with a tight selection of nice sipping liquors. Minimal. Appealing. Simple.

Contrast this to the standard approach to “building a home bar” — a process that usually precedes a high-stakes dinner or holiday party. In an attempt to be a good host and cover all the bases, most folks adopt a “one of everything” strategy. One trip to Rouses to fill a cart: fifths of vodka, gin, bourbon, scotch, and tequila along with tonic, club soda, orange juice, cranberry and a few citrus fruits (limes, lemons, oranges) for good measure. (Better get some triple sec in case Uncle Harry wants to make margaritas. And rum and Coke for the boss’s husband. Piña colada mix just in case. And on and on…)

This scattershot approach works fine if you routinely cater bar mitzvahs and company Christmas parties, but for the average home bartender, it leads to a lot of wasted liquor that you were never interested in in the first place.

But a more personalized approach — one that reflects the realities of a home bar — will result in better quality at a lower price almost every time.

Your home bar doesn’t have to please everybody; it’s got to be the right bar for you.

Know Thyself

Before you head off to the liquor section at Rouses, take 20 minutes and sit down with a notebook and a simple question: “What do I really like?”

Write down a list of cocktails that you enjoy enough to re-create them at home. Maybe it’s a Buffalo Trace Manhattan or the Pimm’s cup from your favorite bar. A perfect gin and tonic your old roommate made during college. That aged Nicaraguan rum you tried on your honeymoon.

Now do the same thing with the other folks who will be more or less regulars (your spouse, maybe a couple of close friends). If your husband likes a nice gimlet, there’s no real need to keep the fixin’s for a Stoli blueberry/kiwi fizz on hand, now is there?

“The great question is this,” Bodenheimer says. “What do you drink when you go out? Start there.”

Choose Your Bottles Well

The liquors in Bodenheimer’s collection — Spartan though they may be — have an important thing in common: Each one has a story behind it and a reason for being on the bar.

“I try to find things that are special,” he says.

His current selection reflects his interest in Irish whiskey, including a couple of bottles that were gifts from like-minded friends. “There are a couple of really nice sipping rums. I’ve got a bottle of Latvian herbal liqueur my brother brought back from a trip. Every bottle up there has a story.”

Learn Your Ingredients

It helps to know a little about the supporting cast in the cocktail world. It’ll help guide your purchases over time. Spirits are shelf-stable, but other bar standards are less durable.

“Vermouth is going to be your most consistent purchase,” he says. “It starts to turn about a month after you open it, so I like to buy the half-bottles.”

Likewise, bitters can start to fade after a year or so. Citrus fruits can vary in flavor and juice content. Over time, experience (and your developing palate) will help you dial in flavors.

Keep Tools Simple

As you work your way through your list of favorites, you’ll need a few simple tools to make your life easier. A long-handled bar spoon and a simple metal shaker will suffice for most preparations, which is why working barkeeps always have them close at hand.

Specialized glassware is often a nice touch (slender stemmed glasses for the martini crowd, chunky rocks glasses for fans of the old fashioned), but don’t go nuts with special ice molds or margarita machines.

Build Your Skills and Palate

As you use said tools to make your version of said cocktails with said ingredients, you’ll learn something amazing — that you’re building basic skills through pure repetition. If you love a nice mai tai, you’re gonna get good at juicing and shaking. If you were inspired by Mad Men to dig into the old fashioned, then you’ll develop mad muddling skills as time goes on.

But you’ll also learn how to dial in the different ingredients to match your own personal tastes, even if it’s a little different from the classic recipes. You might like a little extra horseradish in your bloody mary or a specific vermouth in a homemade Manhattan.

Done right, your own personal style will emerge simply and organically. And as you gain in experience and confidence, you’ll see that you can accomplish a whole lot with a few bottles and time at home.