Thursday, March 30, 2023
I collect things. Bookmarks. Seashells. Glass jars. Hello Kitties. Whiskey bottles.
That last one started recently, within the past four years or so. It started innocently enough, with a trip to Chattanooga, where I toured the distillery and left with my purchase of a single bottle and a sticker. I collect stickers, too.
After that I toured George Dickel. Then Leiper’s Fork.
I bought a bottle or two at each.
Things took off exponentially from there. It wasn’t enough to just have the bottle. I needed all the bottles. Every expression, every age, every distillation.
My brother called from his distillery tours to say he’d found something good, and did I want a bottle? Of course I wanted a bottle, this is not a thing to be questioned.
It would be fair to say that although I love a good pour, I also love the bottles themselves. The shapes, the labels, the seals. I love the artistry, the smooth lines and curves of glass.
I’m a person who loves a good mason jar, so you can imagine how thrilling a whiskey bottle is.
My collection grew in indirect proportion to the amount of counter space in my kitchen.
Then about a year and a half ago Ralph and I took a class at Leiper’s Fork Distillery and learned how to make our own bitters. That, more than anything, was the turning point for my bar collection.
I bought all the ingredients you could possibly want, to make any flavor of bitters you could possibly imagine, and put them all into beautiful clear jars (of which I had quite enough, thanks to my jar collection). And then we began to make bitters.
The thing about bitters is that you need a cocktail to put them in. And the thing about cocktails is that there is a completely different ingredient in every single one.
One day you see a really interesting cocktail with Frangelico, so you decide, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot. But then there’s another cocktail and that one wants St-Germain, and you’re pretty sure you’d love that, so you pick it up.
Then your mother sends you a recipe for one with blackberry brandy and of course you’re going to try it, and then you see a thing called Licor 43 and you’re like, what the heck is THAT?
Before you know it you’ve got half a dozen interesting and delicious ingredients and you want to try them in different ways so you look up more cocktails. And you soon discover that in order to use any one ingredient you have to buy at least three more.
And then you realize that you could make all the bitters but really, each one takes a month and who has the patience to wait that long for a cocktail? So you start stocking up on every flavor you can find in the meantime.
And as long as you’re making stuff, why would you want to buy simple syrup when you can just make your own from sugar and water? So you do that, but then you see that sometimes you need a 1:1 ratio and sometimes you need 2:1 and sometimes you even need a whole different kind of sugar.
Then it’s September and you make an apple pie and suddenly have all these leftover peels and think well that’s too bad, it’s a shame to waste them. So you make apple bitters, and while you’re waiting for that to infuse you throw some peels in with the sugar and make an apple syrup.
And when that’s a great success you start throwing everything in with the sugar.
Ginger. Vanilla beans. Cinnamon sticks. Basil. Marshmallows. Over the next few months you try pears and strawberries and peaches and rosemary until not only are your kitchen counters covered in bar bottles but now your refrigerator barely has room for eggs beside all the jars of syrups and infusions.
And then your mother buys you a blender for your anniversary, because it’s the only thing you really want anyway.
I’m not sure we owned anything but wine up until a few years ago.
Not true. We had a cabinet full of the most basic stuff in our condo. There was probably vodka. I know we had Mezcal before Mezcal was the cool kid on the block. Didn’t like it then, don’t like it now.
Judging by the photos, we at least had Kahlúa, Curaçao, rum, some champagne and Strega. Why we had Strega I’ll never guess. I don’t even own it now. It’s been on my to-buy list for quite some time but there’s really only so much you can buy in a week.
I don’t know what happened to that stuff when we moved. I think some of it went straight down the drain. Some of it probably ended up in Brigantine.
What I can say with confidence is that we arrived in Franklin with zero bottles. That somehow grew to… I haven’t counted. Feel like I want to, though.
What it grew to was enough bottles that they filled up the “desk” in our kitchen, a three-foot long counter space set off on one side. It grew to enough bottles that I had to clear off the counter to the left of the stove so I could put a few risers on it and stack more bottles.
It grew to enough bottles that I had to store some in boxes under the desk.
Then a few weeks ago I finally did something sensible, and bought shelves.
My bar is now two shelving units spanning an entire wall. The desk has been restored to a spot where I can now keep my blender, a serving tray, a series of empty bottles that are too beautiful to throw away, and a few other useful items.
The counter has been restored to a counter, where I can actually put bowls and things instead of balancing them on the edge of the sink while I scramble the eggs. Even the space under the desk has been cleaned out, and is now home to the books and games and other things that got displaced from the wall where the bar is.
There’s even space on the bar shelves for Alice Clone and Alice IV.
I love my bar. I love the label on the bottle of Nonino and the color of the absinthe. I love the shape of the Catcher’s Rye bottle and the artistry of Castle and Key’s gin bottle.
I love standing there and deciding what kind of drink I want to make and which syrup to use. I’ve even made up a few of my own cocktails. It’s not that different than cooking, which I also love. Instead of putting food ingredients together, you put beverage ingredients together.
It’s excellent in the instant gratification department, and has the added benefit of improving in taste the more you drink.
I was inspired to pay tribute to my bar today because just last night we finished putting together the new shelves. They still need a little organizing, so all the ryes are together in one place and the gins in another. And I’m way too OCD to leave the pour spouts pointing in different directions, so I’ll have to re-seat them eventually.
In the meantime, I’m going to make another cocktail. There’s some leftover Buddha’s hand syrup in the fridge, and it’s going to be strawberry season all over again soon, so I have to make room for more. Things are starting to appear at the Farmers Market, things that I bet would make interesting cocktails. I wonder… what would arugula syrup taste like?
Photo top: the new bar shelves, marginally better organized now, with room for a Hello Kitty or two. Turns out she loves cocktails, too.
Photo bottom: a space for some fun bar-themed books. All Kitty-approved.