It was the most beautiful bar imaginable, a masterpiece of understated Art Deco, about six feet long with sleek rounded corners and an ambience of stylish intimacy. Tucked into a mirrored recess, it was accessible through a secret door that led from the pantry. Its sophisticated lines, crafted from walnut and mahogany, spoke of its era, a time when the cocktail was de rigueur and nobody looked twice if you screwed your Lucky into a cigarette holder.
I saw this “bar of my dreams” 15 years ago, in the penthouse of one of those stately towers that crown the hill above Druid Hill Lake. In their day, these lofty apartments were Baltimore’s answer to a smart Manhattan address. But by the late ‘70s they were in the wrong part of town, lived in and loved by tenants more bohemian than chic. On that long ago night, the penthouse’s occupant was throwing a Halloween party. Beer was available by the keg, and smoky wisps of dubious legality wafted through the largely barren rooms.
The bar itself was barren as well, sadly unstocked by the host. I doubt he would have known how to properly stock it. But then again, would I?
It’s a good question: How should a gentleman furnish a magnificent bar?
First, consider the gentleman himself. The owner of the well-stocked bar ideally possesses the attributes of affability, generosity, and good taste. Add a dash of hedonism, a touch of insouciance, and an informed expertise, and you’re set, character-wise.
The next question deals with the physical. What do you use? Of course an unoccupied bookshelf might do, but we are thinking on a grander scale here. I consulted Patrick Sutton, of the architectural firm Kaplan Sutton.
From what he’s seen, today’s climate of fastidious moderation has put the bar literally “in the closet.” “People still want them,” he observed. “They offer a perception of luxury. But they’re likely to be concealed, giving you the feeling that you’re getting away with something. It’s sort of a hidden vice.” The crackle in his voice betrayed a mischievous approval of hidden vices.
As for furnishings, Sutton suggested ” a melange of devices” that could work within a framework of “elegant discretion.” ” A tiny TV, an automatic ice dispenser, a pop-up bottle storage compartment sunk beneath the countertop, they all come to mind.” The drinking patterns of the ‘90s must be accommodated. “I’d love to see a Cruvinet [wine preservation system] loaded with six different chardonnays to try.” He also recommended a beer dispenser to handle a small keg of micro-brewed beer.
Lighter beverages aside, the heart of the well-stocked bar is its liquor supply. It wouldn’t do to go off willy-nilly, buying everything in sight. A well thought-out plan is essential. After all, what could say more about a gentleman’s character?
I went to Wells Discount Liquors in Towson for guidance and managed to coax Chuck Eney away from his post in the fine wine department. “I really don’t know that much about liquor,” he said in modest preamble to an exhaustive seminar on the subject. “But you always start with your big five: vodka, gin, scotch, bourbon, and rum.” Add to that cordials, cremes, cognacs, aperitifs, and a few fanciful selections to give color to your collection.
A certain amount of practical thinking comes into play. You really want to purchase two tiers of liquors, one for “everyday” consumption, and one for “high holy days.” Each category of liquor has its high, middle and low end, so choices abound. Here is one possible list.
Scotch whisky: Cutty Sark and Chivas Regal 12 year old. Bourbon: Jack Daniels and Blanton’s Single Barrel. Blended Whisky (a sub-category): Canadian Club and Crown Royal. Gin: Gordon’s and Bombay Sapphire. Rum (you’ll need both light and dark): Bacardi, Mount Gay light and Myer’s dark. Vodka: Smirnoff and Stolichnaya.
Those are the basics, now the bells and whistles. Few would argue that a bottle of Irish whiskey would be out of place, try Jameson’s. And who can resist that bottle of tequila with the worm inside? That would be Monte Alban. For reasons of local pride, throw in a bottle of Pikesville Rye, even though it is now distilled in Kentucky.
Cocktail recipes frequently call for the addition of a wide variety of cremes and cordials. The most useful would be: crème de Menthe, crème de cacao, blue curacao, and peppermint schnapps. Your dinner guests will be delighted with a postprandial choice of Grand Marnier, Amaretto di Sarono, Tia Maria, Bailey’s Irish Cream, or Drambuie.
Cognacs and Armagnacs have their own loyal following, and deserve a place in your bar. Prices can be expensive for the likes of Remy Martin, Martell, or Janeau V.S.O.P., or ridiculously expensive for a single Baccarat crystal decanter of Remy Martin Louis XIII. Don’t overlook the up and coming Spanish brandies, such as Cardenal Mendoza.
Eau-de-vies, strong brandies distilled from fruit juice, have their niche. Alsatian winemaker Trimbach makes an entire line, including pear and cherry. Along the same lines, a bottle of calvados, an apple brandy, would be welcomed by travelers nostalgic for Normandy, try Bizouard’s.
Vermouths and other aperitifs are essential, so consider purchasing Martini & Rossi’s dry and sweet vermouths, as well as bottles of Campari, Pimm’s Cup, and Dubonnet. Lovers of Peter Mayles’ books on Provence can enhance their reading pleasure with Ricard’s aniseed liqueur, Pastis de Marseille, a very trendy drink indeed.
Finally, leave room for a little whimsy. I would pick up a bottle of Galliano Liquore simply because no bar in the world looks complete without the impractically tall golden bottle.
With the pourables nailed down, it’s time to consider the hardware. Most essential is a first-rate cocktail shaker. It should be metal, of a good size, and equipped with a slotted strainer that can be attached on the end. Stirrers, corkscrews, paring knives (for fruit), bottle openers, and bar towels cannot be dispensed with. A good electric blender is useful too, especially for ice-based drinks like pina coladas. Opinion seems to be divided on the question of swizzle sticks. Have them around, and find something better to worry about.
The sparkle of fine glassware adds considerable allure to the well-stocked bar. In a universe of possibilities, it’s wise to follow the two-tier approach again. A complete set of moderately priced glasses will answer for most occasion, while a set of the best hand-crafted crystal has a way of validating the import of a truly special event.
Although there are more than a dozen standard shapes for bar glasses, Gallery 1330 owner Sidney Cohen recommends two in particular: the tall highball glass, and the shorter double old-fashioned. He showed me a very attractive design in molded glass produced by Luigi Bornioli. Or you can move up in elegance and price to cut crystal with the stylish Ellisee line.
Two other shapes would be useful: the brandy snifter, and the martini glass. “I frequently have young people come in and ask for the Joan Crawford glass. There’s really no such thing, but I know exactly what they mean,” says Cohen as he reaches for a beautiful example. “This is called ‘Line’ by Kosta Boda.” The slightly oversized glass has a swirling streak spiralling through the shallow cone of the bowl. It would look perfect in the hands of William Powell.
Although you can stock your bar with inexpensive glassware, there are drawbacks. “You’ll never have a complete set,” warns Steve Weintraub, president of Creative Specialties in Pikesville. “If you’re starting from scratch, I recommend that you buy quality so you can use the same pattern throughout, both for the bar and for the dining room.” Weintraub takes a long-term view toward acquiring fine crystal. “It becomes something you’ll give your kids, something you’ll have forever.”
The high end of crystal ware is dominated by two names, Baccarat and Waterford. Weintraub explains their potent allure. “Number one, if they discontinue a line, they’ll still make a replacement for you. Very important. And number two, it’s perfect, perfect crystal. Not a bubble anywhere.”
Both lines offer handblown glasses in a dazzling array of styles. Waterford has a slight edge by virtue of the astonishing number of sizes available in each pattern. “Lismore” for example, which sells for $49.50 a piece, has no fewer than 24 shapes to choose from.
On the Baccarat side of things, Weintraub showed me examples of the very popular Massena line. At over $100 for a double old-fashioned glass, Massena is very upscale indeed, and you’ll think twice about clinking glasses. But the price almost seems beside the point when you hold, for instance, the red wine goblet in your hand. Deeply carved furrows run up the stem and burst into a blossom of crystalline petals that seem to support the heavy glass of the bowl. Its solidity, grace and texture make it a delight to have and to hold.
To round out the well-stocked bar, Weintraub suggests the addition of several crystal decanters, for both wine and spirits. “And of course a crystal champagne bucket. This is one of the prettiest in the world.” He smiles as he points out Baccarat’s “Moulin Rouge.” Gold-handed and deeply set, it would be a suitable vessel for the finest bubbly from the caves of Champagne. And the price? Well, if you have to ask…
Radcliffe & Co. of Towson Town Center can help you make selections from the mid-price range of barware. The Orrefors line of crystal offers handsomely sculpted pieces at reasonable prices. Their “Odyssey Bar” line is particularly attractive. The crystal highball tumbler and double old-fashioned glass have crisp square bases that gently transmute to a round mouth. The crystal decanter is suitable for a “Man of the Year” award. Its solid rounded shoulders taper gracefully in long concave flutes that culminate in a narrow beveled base.
Radcliffe also has a fine collection of estate silver to enhance your bar’s mise-en-scène. Look for sterling coasters, decanter labels and mint julep tumblers to provide that reassuring aura of heritage. I noticed an indispensable silver double jigger that would make a sound investment.
In readying your bar for service, pay attention to one final detail, the set-ups. Although they may be the least expensive items in your stock, this is no time to be cheap. Purchase only the best brands of tonic, soda water, ginger ale and Tom Collins mix. Cut-rate fillers are the fastest way to ruin good liquor, so follow Garbo’s advice “…and don’t be stingy, baby.”
It might be a good idea to ground your entertainment in good solid research. Every bar needs one of two books that offer recipes for cocktails both familiar and exotic. The “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide” (Warner Books, 272 pages) is a classic. Equally as exhaustive is “The Bartender’s Bible” by Gar Regan (Harper Collins, 340 pages), a well-illustrated, user-friendly manual.
Even more attractive, with gorgeous color photographs of each of 100 mixed drinks, is “The Art of the Cocktail” by Philip Collins, with photography by Sam Sargent (Chronicle Books, 120 pages), available at Pottery Barn). This slender little paperback offers irrefutable visual evidence that Art Deco is the style most appropriate to the American bar. Nothing else offers the same lighthearted sophistication and cheery confidence in “the modern;” attitudes that are notably lacking in today’s society.
Finally, for those who see value in sound philosophical underpinnings for any human endeavor, there’s “On Drink” by Kingsley Amis (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1972). Many writers have written about drink, their phantom companion, but few have the wit, grace, and humility to put it in its proper perspective. As Amis observes in a chapter called “Why We Should Drink,” “The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barrier, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.”