By J.M. Hirsch, AP Food Editor
It’s the bane of the home mixologist — complicated cocktail recipes that call for multiple (and often pricey) esoteric liquors doomed to be used once, then linger for years at the back of the cabinet.
Convinced there had to be a better way to stock a bar, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson and husband David Solmonson set out to cull the cocktail herd and home in on only the most essential ingredients for great drinking. They settled on an even dozen, which gave birth first to the website 12bottlebar.com, and now a cookbook/shopping guide, “The 12 Bottle Bar.”
Jacobs Solmonson recently spoke with AP about the winnowing process, why tequila didn’t make the cut and what to do if a one-bottle bar is more your style. (The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
AP: Explain the concept of the 12-bottle bar.
Jacobs Solmonson: The idea of the 12-bottle bar is sprung for us out of the frustration of trying to make all these really cool drinks that we kept seeing in magazines. Every cocktail in these magazines got progressively more and more complicated, and very often would call for a bottle of something that when you ran out to the store to get it ran between $50 and $70. So we drop our $50 or $70 and use the quarter teaspoon it called for in the drink, and not only would we not like the drink that had been made, but we were stuck with the $70 bottle of “creme de esoteric.”
We sat down and said, “What would it take to create a great home bar that was easily accessible in terms of budget, in terms of ease of use, and just in terms of the breadth of cocktails you could make?” And that was where the 12 bottles were born.
AP: Keeping it to 12 bottles obviously involved some hard choices. How did you sort that out?
Jacobs Solmonson: When we started out, we were very much enamored of the emerging (classic) cocktail culture. We fell in love with that idea of artisan quality and because of that we went to very early bottles. The evolution came as we started experimenting, deciding which bottles really made the cut. Our roadmap to choosing the bottles was: Is it cost effective in terms of the number of drinks it will produce? Does it offer you a breadth of drinks, not just a number of drinks? So we came up with the spirits (brandy, dry gin, genever, amber rum, white rum, rye, vodka, orange liqueur), two bottles of vermouth, a sweet and a dry, and two bottles of bitters.
Tequila did not make the cut. We know that tequila and mezcal are huge right now. But for all intents and purposes, tequila makes two drinks. It makes a margarita and a paloma. Now I’m not saying it doesn’t make all these amazing drinks that fabulous bartenders are making. But in the world of classic cocktails, there’s really not much else.
Vodka however did (make the cut). We would have been foolish if we overlooked the popularity of that market. Because vodka is such a core of modern drinking, we couldn’t leave it out. More importantly, when you have vodka, you can make your own liqueurs. So now, one of these bottles in a 12-bottle bar has literally opened the door to five, 10, 20 other bottles, or as many things as you want to make in terms of infusing the vodka.
AP: You gave up two of the 12 bottles to bitters. Why?
Jacobs Solmonson: Bitters is probably one of the most underrated ingredients. The average person doesn’t realize what bitters does. You look at it like a spice. You would never cook a dish without seasoning. And bitters is your seasoning. Bitters offers balance.
AP: You also have a chapter on virgin drinks. Isn’t that a zero-bottle bar?
Jacobs Solmonson: Well, yes, sort of. But you’ve always got those 12 bottles you can spike it with. As a good host and as a responsible host, you’ve got to be able to provide virgin drinks.
AP: You have tips on starting with one-, three- and four-bottle bars. If you had to pare yourself down to just that one bottle, what would it be?
Jacobs Solmonson: I have two loves. I am a gin lover from forever. And I’m also a rye lover. They are extremely different, but they are both very aromatic and I think it’s aromatics that attract me. For me, one of the greatest cocktails — the martini — has absolutely no competition. If it is made correctly, it is one of the most exquisite drinks in the world. And you have to use gin in your martini. There is no such thing as a vodka martini. We understand that people order them, but what you are ordering is a long shot of vodka. So man up and try it with some gin.