My father is a carpenter, quite a good one too. As a wedding present he made us a gorgeous table designed to fit our little attic apartment, but still allow us to have dinner parties. More recently he made us a bar, more like a dedicated cabinet to house our booze. We used to have a shelf in our kitchen that held a few bottles and some glassware, but when it came to mixing drinks everything needed to be moved to the kitchen counter to have enough space to work. So we sketched out a few designs, measured for the specifics of our slanted ceiling living room, and gave serious thought to how we would use it. A few months later another piece of gorgeous oak furniture was ours.
We quickly filled it with the liquor we had on hand, the ever-growing collection of bitters, all our barware, and a few books on wine and cocktails. But the bar didn’t seem stocked instead it seemed haphazard. So I started to think about what would make a home bar seemed stocked, but still fit in our tiny space and not break the bank. Even better I decided to share the fruits of those long, thoughtful hours with you.
Start With The Booze
It is a bar after all. I’d suggest picking 3 base spirits that you like to drink with at least one brown and one clear. For our bar bourbon is a given and an aged rum is a nice change of pace. I also chose a lighter, citrusy gin because while I’m not a gin fan, I find a good gin cocktail much more interesting than anything I’ve had with vodka.
Once you’ve decided your 3 base spirits, decide what cocktails you’d like to make most. I’m a fan of simple classic, cocktails that have versatile ingredients, but you should have the makings for whatever you like to drink.
That meant I needed sweet vermouth for Manhattans. I like to mix Dark and Stormys with rum and Gin and Tonics with the gin so I didn’t need any other boozes.
What About The Bitters?
Of course our home bar is heavy on the bitters, but for anyone I suggest having at least two quality bitters. One of the aromatic variety, Angostura is a perfectly fine option, but both Scrappy’s and Fee Brothers will give you something just a little more exciting. Then I would suggest another lighter, more playful type that goes with the spirits you like to drink. Orange bitters is a great compliment to both bourbon and vodka. Grapefruit bitters make gin and tequila sing. Scrappy’s also makes a tasty, cardamom bitters that I’ve seen used very creatively.
Bitters are the playful part of your bar. Think of them as fresh herbs you’re adding to a soup. A little goes a long way, but they make everything brighter and more interesting.
Then Add The Mixers
Having a few bottles of soda is always nice for those spontaneous guests or cocktail cravings. Plain old seltzer is highly versatile and a must for my Old Fashioneds. Tonic of course for Gin and Tonics and ginger beer for Dark and Stormys is all I need for my basic cocktails. However there are so many great small batch sodas out there it couldn’t hurt to have a little sparkling lemonade, cola or grapefruit soda on hand.
Then there’s juice. I don’t make a lot of cocktails with juice, but if you’re a fan of Tiki drinks pineapple is a must and if you get it in the small cans you don’t have to worry about too much waste. Orange, cranberry and grapefruit juice are also quite versatile and useful.
Now Let’s Garnish
Garnishes aren’t so much about stocking as they are about having a few things on hand. I’m a huge fan of brandied cherries and they are a requisite part of Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, also very hard to find so I make my own, but quality Maraschino Cherries do just fine. Of course lemons, limes and oranges go a long way in many drinks. You also might consider quality olives for Martinis or a few pickled veggies for Bloody Marys.
What About The Tools?
I’m a fan of simple when it comes to barware, but there are a few essentials that you should definitely have on hand. A shaker should be your first purchase. I suggest a Boston shaker, the classic stainless steel, pint glass combo. Fancier cocktail shakers with strainers built in tend to be hard to get apart and easy to misplace parts. A shot glass or jigger with marked measurements, strainer, small pairing knife, and long spoon will round out the very basic needs. I would also suggest you find yourself a wooden muddler for Mojitos, Old Fashioneds, and many summer fruit drinks. Not necessary, but quite handy is an ice bucket and a few bar towels.
Then you need something to put those fabulous drinks in. Solid, heavy bottom tumblers will go a long way and they’re both hard to spill or break. For drinks served up, a smaller more delicate glass is nice. I prefer the coup shape to a martini glass, but even a smaller white wine glass can work.
Moving Up From The Basics
Once you have all you need to make 3 or 4 solid cocktails add to your bar with a specific cocktail in mind. Don’t buy a fancy liqueur you don’t know how to use just because it sounds good. It will be forgotten and end up gathering dust. If something strikes your fancy, figure out what to do with it and buy everything you need. From there you can experiment with other combinations, but you’ll always have the first recipe to fall back on.
If you start small and build around your tastes and versatility, you’ll soon have an impressive bar set up that will tempt you to make cocktail hour at home a regular thing.
I'm going to try to break myself of calling them house bitters, because that doesn't mean anything to anyone but me. Instead I will call them aromatic bitters which hints that they are similar to Angostura and have a nice spicy component to them.
Version 4 of my recipe is infusing as I write this and will be ready to taste in a little over a week. This time around I melded the recipes for versions 2 and 3, throwing out the citrus, but putting dried cherries back in. There's lots of baking spices, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg as well as heavy doses of black walnut leaf, wild cherry bark, and grains of paradise.
The intended result is a spicy, bitter mix with a good dose of woodsy notes. Plenty of depth of character to stand up to bourbon, but a nice round spiciness that will also compliment sweet, nutty drinks.
This time around I'm also testing the difference between using bourbon as a base spirit and a neutral alcohol. Based on whiffs so far it seems the difference will be slight and easily compensated for with a slight adjustment to the recipe, maybe even the addition of a few oak chips.
I'm patiently waiting till it's ready for tasting so that I can decide if I'm ready to stamp a big, fat final formula on the recipe and get on with the licensing process.
Before the wedding, Dan asked me if I was going to change my name. I hesitated for a moment, I honestly hadn’t thought about it. It did occur to me that I would be the last one in my family to carry the Robertson name, but if we had a child they would have the name Brazelton. And while I grew up with a sense of the Scottish heritage my last name carried, it was the heritage that was most important, not the name itself. I told him I would change it.
Dan on the other hand has much stronger feelings about his last name. He wasn’t born a Brazelton, his given last name was passed to him only by marriage, not blood. It also carried a weight that Dan didn’t want to shoulder. So he changed his name and took the last name of his blood grandfather, a man he never met, but whose strength of character was passed on by his grandmother.
Not only did he work to have his name, he then made sure it meant something, that when someone recognized his name it was associated with respect and integrity.
But after we got married I did nothing about changing my name. Why, because I’m lazy. It meant a trip to City Hall, the Social Security office and the DMV, not to mention lots of time spent on the phone with banks and credit cards. It still wasn’t that important to me, but a comment Dan made a few months after we married let me see just how important it was to him. For me to take his name built on the association he had worked hard to create. We would be the Brazeltons and the life we created together would be associated with our name.
Seven months after the wedding, on our first Christmas together as a married couple I handed him an envelope from the DMV with receipts of my name change. It took me a while, but I was officially a Brazelton. So it’s probably no surprise that it took me another year to officially change my name on all the various accounts I held. Just last week I finally dealt with banks. Genevieve Robertson is now fully a thing of the past; only the current version, Genevieve R Brazelton, exists.
Around the holidays Dan and I had a couple of friends over for dinner and as things are want to go in our house a few bottles of wine turned into dessert cocktails. I'm always happy to oblige when someone asks me to make them something yummy and as luck would have it I had a batch of nocino that was ready for drinking.
First, the nocino.
It's a liqueur made from green walnuts. One Saturday at the farmer's market a vendor had a box full and Dan asked if I knew what you would do with them. Of course I did, make tasty, boozy concoctions of course. I cut the walnuts in quarters, threw them in a liter of vodka with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and lemon zest. I let that infuse for 40 days then I strained off the liquid and added 2 cups of sugar. That sat for another 40 days before it was ready to drink. It was a successful first attempt at nocino and we will be making big batches again this year as we have almost none left.
Back to the drinks.
We all wanted something a little sweet, so I mixed the nocino with bourbon, bitters and simple syrup. This made for a mighty fine drink, but a little on the sweet side, so for the next one I omitted the simple syrup and added just a splash of the juice from our brandied cherries. Perfect. Enough so that before Dan was even finished with the cocktail he decided that this was what he wanted to call a Brazelton.
The first Brazelton will still be served on occasion, but we'll have to find another name for it.
2 oz. Bourbon
1 oz. Nocino
1 tsp Bitter Housewife House Bitters
splash of juice from brandied cherries
Put all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a coup.
Now that I’ve settled into the New Year, I’ve been tackling the big question of “What will it take to get The Bitter Housewife off the ground?” I made a big long list of all the things I could think of that needed to get done and then started to prioritize them based on the most pressing tasks.
The thing that quickly floated to the top was once and for all figuring out what kind of license we needed, what the process was like, and what we needed to have in place to even apply. Figuring out which licensing track to take was quite confusing as there are a few ways to go about it and the licenses themselves don’t state why you would choose one over the other.
In the end we’ve decided to register our bitters as a non-beverage product. This essentially means we’ll be treated as a food product in terms of how and where we can sell and have to follow FDA rules for food safety. This also limits the size bottle we can sell, but I’m fine with smaller bottles if we’re able to sell direct to the customer online and in specialty food stores.
Much like getting a rectifier’s or distiller’s license ( the other paths you could take) we still need to submit a sample of our final product along with our label to make sure that we’re following all the rules of the TTB. So the final formula became the first order of business. I’m still testing recipes and production methods, but I’m getting close.
Then we need to source our base spirit. So far I’ve just been buying from BevMo in large quantities, but that’s not going to cut it cost wise for large-scale production. We also need to find a commercial kitchen space to produce and store the bitters. In San Francisco this might actually prove to be the most challenging task. Commercial space is limited and highly sought, but there are also a lot of kitchens out there not being used all day and who wouldn’t want a little help paying rent in SF? So Dan and I are actively looking.
Lastly we need to get that label designed and make sure we’ve got all the information we need written out the way it’s supposed to be. I’ve heard that the label approval process can be quite trying with a lot of back and forth. I’m thankful I’ve got a few friends who’ve been through it before and are willing to help me make it as easy as possible.
Looks like I’ve got the next 3 or 4 months pretty well tied up. I’m sure there will be lots of stories to tell as we get down to the actual application process. In the meantime there’s going to be a lot of tasting of bitters to nail down the final formulation. Version number 4 is infusing right now.