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Cocktails in crisis

The drinking from home stigma is a pretty threadbare tableau at this point. You can see the PSA now. Fade in on cheap, messy apartment. Pan across grease-smeared pizza box to now-paunchy bachelor searching for nostalgia of college coups in the bottom of whiskey bottle. Cut to fluorescent-yellow kitchen, racoon-eyed divorcée glugging vodka into whatever vessel happens to be handy, shall we say a World’s Best Mom coffee mug? But now, thanks to 2020, we’re all pretty well acquainted with drinking in one’s personal domicile. Turns out it’s about as healthy as drinking out on the town. And, sometimes, as much fun. 

Disclaimer: This issue’s column isn’t meant to make light of or trivialize the struggles many people face with drinking, both in social settings and at home. If alcohol creates problems instead of enjoyment for you, skip to the end of this article for some resources that can help.

Earlier this year, I actually decided to stop drinking at home. I live alone in an apartment (usually pizza box free, btw) and realized how many empty calories I was consuming with a beer here or whiskey there. So, the rule was, if people are over, go for it, make drinks, smash up the Lewis ice bag, create a spectacle, go crazy. But if I’m by myself, opt for tea or seltzer instead. It was a very adult move, and I feel I should be praised for my restraint. Thank you. 

Then COVID-19 came on the scene and options amounted to weathering the pandemic without the aid of the little brown jug or put my new health regimen on hold. If you think I made choice A, the time we’ve spent together over the last few paragraphs has clearly meant nothing. Of course I drink at home, alone. If Joe Pesci shows up to rob the place, I’ll pour him one too, and my problems will be solved. Dsc06646

This new dynamic actually hasn’t been a bad thing. Yes, overindulgence and reliance on booze to numb loneliness and other emotional pitfalls has to be monitored, just like when there’s not a pandemic on. Actually, I’ve found I’m drinking much more creatively. I added two new cocktail books to my library: Easy Tiki by Chloe Frechette and Drinking French by David Lebovitz (can you tell I want to get the hell out of here?). I’ve explored new ways to incorporate fruit juice, created homemade syrups, and experimented with different ways to mix and match spirits. A good friend and I even swapped homemade cocktails from a safe distance. Now is the time to drink at home, people—and not just make drinks, but get good at making drinks. 

Rochester’s bars are on board. From the beginning of the shutdown, many great restaurants offered bottled prefab cocktails with takeout meals. But some are going a step further. Cure is selling Donny Clutterbuck’s house made Sweet Lime (available by the bottle; a modifier recommended with any clear liquor that makes up to fifty drinks) as well as Cristallino Ice packs. The public market cocktail bar also produces Stir Crazy, a cocktail class kit and virtual happy hour every other Friday. Patrons buy a pre-selected, themed kit of bottled spirits and modifiers and receive a Zoom link to join Clutterbuck live behind the bar. Bitter Honey is also adding cocktail classes to its Honey at Home program, with DIY cocktail kits including a QR code that links to a video explaining how to make the drink. Kits can supply either two or four drinkers. Finally, Swan Dive is a one-stop shop for those mixing at home. Base spirits, modifiers, and amari (available in 175ml to one-liter bottles), fresh citrus, fruits, Fizz mixers, house made syrups and cordials, Bloody Mary mix, and house pebble and cubed ice are all available for purchase.

We may not know a ton about the future right now, but we do know summer is here, and, eventually, we’ll be drinking with small groups of friends at home. Maybe on that new outdoor space you purchased with your stimulus check, maybe inside with your windows open. For me, it will be at my tiki bar. So, how do you get started?

You don’t have to go out and buy a hundred bottles and an ice smoker to gain a reputation for making really good drinks. Books help. As well as the aforementioned, check out 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson, The Essential Cocktail by Dale DeGroff, and Batch Cocktails by Maggie Hoffman. Within those pages are everything you need to know, from stirring the perfect Manhattan to mixing a knockout punch.

In terms of equipment, visit Bar Mecca on Richmond Street for your barware needs (and a customized transparent ice block for the aforementioned punch). Start by purchasing a Boston shaker, jigger, bar spoon, citrus juicer, Hawthorne strainer, and fine mesh strainer. That’s enough to outfit your bar cart, make almost any intermediate-level cocktail, and really make you look cool in front of your guests. Also, the Lewis ice bag—not a joke. Name another (legal) activity that calls for booze and a mallet.

For bottles, think in terms of three. Which three-ingredient cocktail do you most enjoy? If it’s a Manhattan, go for a nice bourbon or rye, Noilly Prat or Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, and bitters. Eventually, buy a bottle of Campari, which you can combine with the whiskey and vermouth for a Boulevardier. Maybe you decide this summer you want to get on the rum train (I’ve been in the bar car of that locomotive for about three years, and you really should join me). Get a mid-range bottle of white or golden rum (Bacardi is perfectly fine) and a bag of limes. Assuming there’s sugar in your kitchen, you can now make Daiquiris. Buy (or grow) some mint and you can make Mojitos, too. The point is that you can create an amazing home liquor collection for less than a hundred bucks that will open the door to a wide cocktail repertoire.

Look, we didn’t choose the home bar life in 2020—it chose us. Hopefully, even as you read this page, you have the option to go out the door and safely enjoy a night sipping cocktails at any of the amazing bars we have in this city. But we’ve learned that drinking at home can be pretty great too. So whether you’re toasting at the pub or the picnic table, enjoy it and be safe out there.

*If you’re having a hard time with alcohol, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It’s confidential, free, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for individuals and family members facing substance use disorders. They can refer you to treatment facilities, support groups, and helpful Rochester-based organizations. 

Pete Wayner is a food- and beverage- content creator based in Rochester. 

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