Your Home Start-up Bar Essentials

My friends Jordie and Darcy just opened a new cocktail supply shop in Vancouver called Sips Cocktail Emporium. Since they are in the business of supplying you with the wares to stock your home bar, perhaps you are asking yourself “Where would I begin?”

Lucky for you, they wrote a blog post about How to Start Your Home Liquor Cabinet. The thing I liked the most about this post was reading about their recommended home bar supplies separately, as well as why. They had some cross-over, but each added their personal flair to it. Which just goes to show, aside from an assortment of spirits, the liqueurs, aperitifs, bitters and so on are really up to your personal preference.

Start_Your_Home_Bar2_1024x1024There’s a theory that with only 12 bottles of liquor you can start your own home bar well-equipped to make hundreds of cocktails. The theory is put forward by the Solomonsons in their book The 12 Bottle Bar. While these bottles will definitely equip you with a lot of cocktail ammo, we don’t even think you’d need 12. When it comes down to it your bar is what you think is important. We believe that, not only is there room for more personalization, it can take much less to start your own liquor cabinet!Personalization is key and even between the two of us, we created different starter home-bars. Here what we came up with:

Darcy’s starter home-bar:
1. Vodka
2. Gin
3. Bourbon
4. Rye
Even though they seem similar, I like to have specify both bourbon and rye (and not just whisky) since they have unique flavours and there are many cocktails that specify which is needed.
5. Amber Rum
6. Dark Rum
Again, while these two rums may seem similar, they are used for completely different purposes. I like a good amber rum for mixing in cocktails and a dark rum for sipping.
6. Sweet Vermouth
7. Dry Vermouth
8. Campari
9. Lillet Blanc
One of my favourite liqueurs! I would ideally like to have a bottle of each kind: Blanc, Rose and Rouge. However, to simplify, I think the Blanc is more versatile as a cocktail ingredient and a drink on its own.
With this selection of bottles, I can make countless cocktails including: A Negroni, a Vesper Martini and my personal favourite A Little Princess (equal parts amber rum and sweet vermouth).


Jordie’s starter home-bar:
Now before I tell you what I’d include I think that I should talk about my philosophy here. What you want in a home bar is something that if anyone comes over you can make something to suit their tastes, while at the same time showing off your own. It’s a very free-flowing style, well suited to my own flexible personality.
First off I need the basics:
1. Vodka
2. Gin
3. Whisky
Rye or bourbon is what I prefer for mixing cocktails, bourbon is a little sweeter and rye is a little spicier, play it to your tastes. If you are a scotch drinker, I’d recommend getting a bottle of scotch for sipping and another bottle of a cheaper variety of whisky for pouring mixed drinks.
4. Tequila
Good for certain cocktails, but also useful for those people who just want a shot.
5. Rum
Now many people will criticize this (Darcy included), but you can probably just get away with one type of rum. White rum is used for some types of rum cocktails (Daiquiris, Long Island Iced Teas) whereas amber or spiced dark rums are preferred for more rum-centric drinks (Hot Buttered Rum, Rum & Cokes) that known, no reasonable human being is going to spit in your eye if you offer them one for the other. If you in particular are the sort of person who cares, by all means get all three types. (If you, like me, don’t care I’d say just get a nice tasting amber and use it for everything.)
Then I’d want a few things to just make many classic cocktails:
6-7. Sweet & Dry Vermouth
Crucial for classic cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans these vermouths (unlike rums imho) are not suitable for interchangeable use. I like to age my sweet vermouth in a barrel for a couple weeks before use, but this is not at all necessary.
8. Aromatic Bitters
There’s 100s of types of bitters out there, but the only one you absolutely have to have is an aromatic. I like to use Scrappy’s but other brands are fine, and each offers their own subtleties. Once you get started down the bitter’s road you can expand your bars versatility in many directions, but aromatic is all you need to start (and is what is being referred to when any cocktail recipe just calls for “bitters”).
And finally, a place to start experimenting:
9. Your favourite type of liqueur
There’s many types of liqueurs out there, but there’s no need to get all of them. You probably know what flavours you like and what you’ll use the most. I like to always have Campari and an orange liqueur in the house, but that’s because I particularly like experimenting with those flavours in cocktails. If you like Irish Cream, Coffee Liqueur, Amaretto, Fernet Branca, Lillet, Fireball or Peppermint Schnapps, that’s great. Get those. Just get a flavour you like and experiment with making your own cocktails at home with it. Then when you get bored of it, get something else!
So don’t be fooled into thinking you need certain types of liquor to start your home bar. There are great basics to begin with and there is lots of room for personalization. Ultimately, your home bar is for you: to make yourself delicious cocktails that you love and to show off to your friends what tastes you like.
Happy sipping!

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Sips Cocktail Emporium home page


Legend Distilling – Full Line Review

Legend Distilling is a new distillery that opened in the Okanagan in July 2014. They are located in Naramata (near Penticton), a region more well-known in British Columbia for its vineyards than it is for its distilleries. According to an article about the distillery though, this was done somewhat intentionally. Why do what everyone else in the region is doing? Good point.

Their line is quite impressive: they are producing a vodka, gin, 3 fruit-infused vodkas, a coffee liqueur, and a special edition gin. All within their first year of distilling! Grabbing the bull by the horns, here is my review of their individual products and line as a whole.

Starting with their “Shadow in the Lake” vodka, smelled like vanilla, tasted like vanilla, smooth texture, medium bodied, not too sweet or complex, with only a slight eLegend Distilling Linethanol taste to it (not enough to be undesirable, did not affect the flavour). Definitely worth drinking straight, perhaps neat or use a big ol’ oversized ice cube, like in an Old Fashioned.

Next up, their “Doctor’s Orders” gin, smells lightly like citrus with strong juniper notes, tastes like juniper, lavender, and something green! Potent but not overpowering, and not one botanical stands out. Their website lists “lavender, elderberry, mint and apple” as their botanicals. I didn’t taste the mint, though it did leave a cool little tingle on my tongue. Would love to try this in a martini, or mixed in a cucumber-mint tonic water (Phillips Brewing has another project called The Fermentorium and makes assorted tonic water flavours).

The Slowpoke vodkas come in 3 flavours: Okanagan Apricot, Rhubarb and Honey, and Naramata Sour Cherry. The rep told me that their Apricot one sells the best, but my store staff and I agreed that the Naramata Sour Cherry was the best. Perhaps because it had the strongest flavour. The flavours were nice, not too sweet and have natural flavours from the fruit grown locally.
My criticism of the flavoured vodkas is this: if I’m going to pay $30+ dollars for a 500 ml bottle, I’m going to by mighty upset that it’s only 23-25% ABV. Not simply because it’s a low alcohol percentage (for a spirit), but because that price is paying for a product that’s 75% water. All spirits yield a distillate in the high 90% ABV range, and subsequently get watered down to a suitable percentage (Popular Mechanics magazine does a really good job of explaining how distilling works). I understand that these were not created to be spirits mixed into cocktails necessarily, but they taste watered down. In my opinion, they would work better either as 40% ABV vodkas or sell them as vodka coolers.

The Blasted Brew coffee liqueur was quite tasty! Made from cold brewed coffee grown in the region, and tasted like coffee and vanilla. Again though, similar to the Slowpoke, I found it to taste a bit watered down. I liked that it wasn’t overly sweet or cheap tasting, and would still likely buy it in place of Kahlua/Tia Maria.

Last but not least, my favourite of the whole lot, the Defender Island gin. There’s no link to this yet because the first shipment is being sent to stores tomorrow; we got to try it from their sales rep. The key botanicals they added to their Doctor’s Orders gin that made this stand out is wild sage brush and smoked rosemary. When I asked the rep how the rosemary was smoked, he said that it was “roasted with a butane torch and then put on the BBQ with the lid closed!” The smokiness reminds me of a peated Scotch; not quite the same kind of smokiness but strong and similarly polarizing, either people will love it or hate it. Definitely a sipping gin.

Overall review of their line: I like their straight up vodka and gin, and love their special release gin. Was not too impressed with their Slowpoke or Blasted Brew. I like that they have a lot to choose from but too many choices means that less time can be devoted to perfecting a few things before moving forward. My hands-down favourite part of their line though, that completely sets them apart from their competition, is that they will be selling their teeny 50 ml bottles in stores. No better way to sample a $40+ bottle than by trying a teeny bottle! Especially considering that the distillery is a 6-hour drive from Vancouver, not many people will be hitting the tasting lounge soon, unless they are on a Naramata Bench wineries tour. I hope to have some of those teeny bottles in my stocking for Christmas this year. ;)

Unruly Gin and Vodka Reviews – Wayward Distillation House

With the influx of new craft distilleries opening up in British Columbia, it’s difficult to create a product that’s going to be yummy and distinct. Enter Wayward Distillation House from Courtenay, BC (on Vancouver Island). Another distillery which opened up last year and managed to snag the 1st and 2nd place titles in the BC Distilled competition for 2015 in the “Favourite New Vodka” and Gin categories, respectively.

What sets them apart from their competition? They obtain their neutral base spirit from honey, rather than from a grain. Perhaps you are thinking the same thing that I first thought: “doesn’t that mean they are making MEAD?” Why YES, yes it does! And then they distill the mead to make their base and turn it into vodka and gin! Doesn’t that sound delicious?! I sincerely hope that there’s an American-style whiskey up their sleeve because that would be fantastic with a honey distilled spirit base. Unruly Vodka & Gin

The vodka smells sweet and pleasant, tastes smooth with light sweetness, has a full body, and a light finish.

The gin smells like juniper and pine, tastes like a London Dry to start but leaves behind a woodsy mouth feel. The distillers note that their botanical blend has “complimented its juniper with a hint of cedar and citrus, a dash of fragrant lavender and sarsaparilla root, and the vibrant notes of coriander.” (Wayward Distillation House – Spirits page)

Both their vodka and gin are well balanced; neither one of them has a particularly dominant flavour, and are fantastic sipping spirits. I would not want to obscure their flavour in a cocktail with too much sugar, but would be curious how they would fare in a Vesper, since it calls for both vodka and gin. Combining the two together on their own in my taster glass is magnificent! The distillers suggest drinking the vodka neat, and drinking the gin in a martini.

Deep Cove Gin – Review

First off, I applaud people for having the tenacity to operate a distillery. I am so happy that there are more local craft distilleries popping up in British Columbia! Not as fast as craft breweries or cider houses, but definitely making a significant impact.

And then sometimes, you come across a craft brewery that wants to dip their toes into craft distilling. One example of this is Deep Cove Brewers & Distillers (another example of this is The Fermentorium – the distillery brain child behind Phillips Brewing in Victoria, BC). Some people would argue that just because someone knows how to make beer dDeep Cove Ginoes not mean they know how to make a good gin. Some people would argue that (craft) alcohol production is all the same thing….or is it? Would you trust a wine maker to produce a yummy beer? Would you go into a Scotch distillery expecting to find a good wine? Now, I’m certainly not against people trying their hand at it, or even bringing in a “resident expert” to produce under an already established name. That’s good marketing. But, is it good alcohol? Furthermore, in an increasing craft market, how does a company make something distinct enough to be remembered and yet still palatable?

Enter Deep Cove Gin. They named their gin “Oliver” because they added olives and rosemary into their production. It is common to find rosemary as a botanical, but far less common to find olives. Seems to fit, since a lot of Martinis come with olives as a garnish, or one can order a “dirty Martini”, which is a Martini with some olive brine in it.

The bottle smelled great but the straight up flavour on its own was overpowering. Definitely not a sipping gin. Would not go well in sweet cocktails, and much to my surprise, I also did not like it in a Caesar. I did however enjoy it in a Martini, and an Avocado Gimlet (see here for the recipe). I also wonder how different it would taste if I merely left olives and rosemary in some gin myself to infuse? I did not get a chance to try it with tonic water, so it could mix well into that. Overall, I was disappointed and perhaps I expected it to be more versatile than it was. It had a smooth body to it and little after burn.

I give it 2.5 stars

Even though I haven’t given it a high rating, I am still eager to try their vodka, their sweet tea vodka, and their whiskey. Some distillers are better at one spirit than others.

The (BC) Campari Controversy

If you’re looking to purchase Campari in BC, you won’t be able to find it anywhere in the lower mainland or most of Vancouver Island. The BC Liquor Stores don’t do transfers from other locations, either. CampariWhich is horrible news when you’re craving a Negroni and you suspect that no one in McBride or Gold River even knows what Campari is!

Good news: when I went into the BCLS on Friday afternoon, a store manager at a downtown location said that Campari would be arriving sometime in the next week. At this point, we still have no idea what the source of the shortage was. According to the president of Gruppo Campari Canada, the slowdown affected BC simply due to “distribution issues”. These issues did not affect any of the other provinces, only BC.

So why is this particular liqueur so coveted, anyway? It’s not so much that its flavour is spectacular, it’s that its flavour is unique. In a cocktail, it can be replaced with Cynar (another herbal aperitif/digestif), or Aperol (similar blend as Campari but with half the alcohol content). Except that calling them all the same is like suggesting that all pinot noir wines are the same simply because they come from the same grape.  These are the most suitable substitutions available, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with the same cocktail.

NegroniCampari is an essential ingredient in a cocktail called a Negroni, which is simply equal parts of Campari, red/sweet Vermouth, and gin. I like to use 0.5 oz for each.

As mentioned above, Campari is considered to be an aperitif/digestif, which means that the best time to have this cocktail is before or after a meal. This is believed to be because the herbs used in the production of an aperitif/digestif are used to aid in digestion. Whether you believe in that or not (I would suggest trying it first!), a Negroni is not a sweet cocktail. It’s quite bitter and is not exactly the best choice for “a night out”. It’s not bitter in an easy way to describe; it’s not bitter like hops in beer or bitter like an orange rind, it has its own special kind of bitterness. I certainly think it takes some getting used to, even if you like bitter drinks.

Tempo Renovo GinI enjoy drinking them now, and obviously, the choice of gin is also going to be of the utmost importance. A Dutch gin like Genever will have too delicate of a profile to stand out in a Negroni, which will push the Vermouth and Campari forward. If you want it to kick, use a gin that kicks like Tanqueray. If you want a smooth gin where the gin flavour is still noticeable, you could opt to get some Hendrick’s but that carries a high price for something that is going to be mixed.

If you are living in Vancouver, lucky you! There are 3 local distillers producing gin that I would recommend: G& W Distilleries Tempo Renovo Gin (Delta, BC), Odd Society Spirits Wallflower Gin (East Vancouver, BC), and Long Table Distillery London Dry Gin (Downtown Vancouver, BC). Odd Society and Long Table have a tasting room where you can try everything they produce. I have yet to pay G&W a visit, but their bottle was a modest price, enough for me to gamble on it. I was happy I did!

Futher reading:
Campari cocktail recipes direct from Campari
5 Essential Campari Cocktails from Serious Eats

Honey Lavender syrup


Some of you might be thinking “What, that putrid stench of women’s bath bombs in a drink, are you daft?!” or some of you might be thinking “If I wanted to taste like I was munching flowers, I would go raid my neighbour’s garden!” But NO! To miss out on lavender is a crime against one of the finest flowers to make itself into the culinary arts.

Fir0002/FlagstaffotosHere’s the trick with enjoying lavender: it’s very very potent. In order to get it to play well with others, you have to use little of it when preparing a syrup and little of the syrup in the drink. Likewise, if you’ve ever had some lavender white chocolates (common combination), the lavender taste is a hint and that does it plenty. A little goes a long way with this happy little purple guy.

So of course, I made my syrup with honey because bees are what help pollinate our purple guy up there and without bees we have NO flowers!!
By TTaylor (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons Here is a picture of a bee because I LOVE BEES! 

First, comes the easy part of making the syrup.

Like the other syrups, I added equal parts water and sugar (honey). 3/4cup of each on low heat. Added a little less than a tablespoon of dried lavender. When the low heat mixture gently bubbles, leave on the heat only another 3 minutes. Cool and then transfer to a 1 cup mason jar.

And now, for the yummy drinks! The thing that’s good about this syrup is the sweetness of the honey lends well to combine with rum, and the floral contribution of the lavender lends well to gin. I did not get around to naming these drinks…!

Drink #1:
2 oz gin
0.5 oz honey lavender syrup
0.25 oz Alize
0.25 oz Grand Marnier
Top with lime club soda

Drink #2:
1 oz rum agricole amber
0.25 oz honey lavender syrup
0.5 oz Alize
125 mL tropical juice
Shaken and strained over ice

Drink #3:
2 oz gin
0.33 oz honey lavender syrup
0.33 oz saffron syrup
Pineapple juice
Splash orange juice
Shaken served on ice

And if you’re having an easy lazy morning at home and don’t feel like drinking, add the syrup to some Earl Grey tea. YUM!!

Gin & Tonic

I am huge lover of gin. I was never a big gin & tonic fan. However, having only had them at bars or at house parties, both the gin and the tonic typically used are not the highest in quality. Drinking “bar rail” gins are absolutely putrid (think: Gordon’s, Beefeater, etc.) and the tonic water coming out of the yellow Schweppes can makes my stomach wretch just thinking about it. Watching other people drink it inside of a nightclub however, is super fun because their drink turns neon blue under blacklight.

First of all, you have to find a gin that you like. There are typically two kinds of hard alcohols: those intended for mixed drinks, and those intended to enjoy on their own. Immediately, this eliminates the use of most bar rail quality gins because even though you are adding tonic water which has a type of sugar in it and quinine is also a very strong flavour, there are no juices or complex flavour to “hide” the lesser quality gins.
The type of gin you choose is chalked up to personal taste preferences; some people prefer a simple gin created with not many botanicals (i.e. Tanqueray is only made with 4 botanicals – juniper being the only one mandatory to call itself a “gin”), whereas some people prefer a more floral gin (i.e. Bombay Sapphire contains 10 botanicals), and some people prefer a more earthy vegetable flavour in their gin (i.e. any cucumber gin, Hendrick’s). If you have the money to shell out for a bottle of Hendrick’s or Tanqueray 10, those would be my higher quality gin recommendations.

Next, you have to find a tonic water that you like. Fever-Tree Naturally Light Indian Tonic WaterPersonally, I would stay away from any cheaply-produced tonic waters (i.e. Schweppes, Canada Dry) because anything produced from a company which mass-produces soda pop is going to contain foul ingredients (high fructose corn syrup as their sugar and sodium benzoate as a preservative). I used Fever-TreeNaturally Light Indian Tonic Water because it uses a small amount of fructose as its sweetening agent and has only 3.9g of sugar per 200 mL bottle. What is “Indian” tonic water? It’s the same thing as regular tonic water, it’s merely a marketing ploy to make it sound more fancy. Read the Wikipedia entry for tonic water and you will see that the history of the Gin & Tonic drink originated in British colonial India, hence the name. Quinine (the ingredient in tonic water that gives it that unique bitter flavour) is not indigenous to tree bark from India, it is indigenous to Africa and South Asia.

The first G&T that I made at home, I used 2 oz of Bombay Sapphire gin and the Fever-Tree Naturally Light Indian Tonic Water. It was too intense for me, so I added 5 drops of Hella Bitters Citrus bitters to try and temper the overwhelming flavour of the thinned out Bombay Sapphire. Choosing the proper gin was even more crucial in this case because I used half of the 200 mL bottle of Fever-Tree for my drink, which means there was next to no sugar to mask nor complement the gin flavour.

The second G&T I made was far better. Instead of using Bombay Sapphire, I used 2 oz of De Kuyper’s Genever Gin. This gin has a flavour like nothing else I had tried before it; it has a very citrus and sweet flavour to it. It definitely tastes like a gin, but lacks the earthy tones that Hendrick’s has, and also lacks the floral tones that Bombay has (sadly after my Bombay G&T, I felt a bit like I had been catapulted face-first into a bowl of potpourri)! The bitter orange flavour in the Fever-Tree complemented the Genever quite well. It was not necessary to add any bitters to this one to temper the flavour; the gin and tonic water alone were a fantastic combination. I now found a G&T that I liked!!

Further reading: