The bartending world is incredibly close-knit and insular, particularly here in Los Angeles, where mixology is an art and bar programs are as important as food menus. So it means something that the bartender at Goldie's invited Dave Stolte — who is neither bartender nor restaurateur — to guest bartend for a largely industry crowd of chefs, cocktail makers and assorted drinkers over this past weekend. Stolte is not in the liquor business: He's simply an illustrator with a cocktail obsession and a scientific mind.
Stolte served up three tequila cocktails (courtesy of Olmeca Altos tequila) to celebrate the launch of his book, Home Bar Basics (and Not-so-Basics), a guide for home bartenders to stock their cabinet and master classic cocktails. It's a pocket-sized primer, just over 100 pages, that will have you shaking and pouring like a pro in no time. (You can find it at various stores around town, and at www.homebarbasics.com.)
We caught up with Stolte to talk liquor cabinets and Christmas gifts — and to get his recipe for the best margarita.
Squid Ink: What on earth inspired you to make this book?
Dave Stolte: I am a designer and illustrator by trade and making cocktails at home was always just a hobby. I started about 20 years ago when my wife and I first got married. We were broke as a joke and we couldn't afford to go eat out. So we had to figure out how to cook on our own, and how to make a drink while cooking dinner. It started out just playing with how to make a good margarita at home, and it grew from there.
The book originally came out in the fall of 2011, and I just did 1,500 copies, financing the first print run on Kickstarter — just to see if it would work. I didn't have anything in the game other than my time and my attention. It sold out after a year, and the second run with all the fixes and all the updates I financed myself.
SI: Who's this book for?
DS: It's for somebody who may have had dinner at a place like this [gestures to the bar at Goldie's] and had an amazing drink and wants to know how to do that at home. Somebody who wants to get away from the flavored vodka and sour mix and learn how to do something with fresh juices and top-shelf ingredients, and do it at the level these people do it. A lot of people might think of a daiquiri, for instance, as something that comes out of a slushy machine and think, “I don't like those.” That's not a daiquiri. It's a heartbreak is what it is.
SI: What makes it different from other beginner bar books?
DS: A couple things: I think the size, there's something psychological about the size — you can put it in your pocket, it's not intimidating. The tone of the book is conversational. And it's printed on synthetic paper that's water-resistant and tear-resistant — water never soaks into the paper.
SI: What recipes will people find in here?
DS: I have 30 recipes. I tell people to start with an old-fashioned because it's a very simple drink and you don't need a lot of equipment for it. Just one bottle of booze and some bitters. You don't need a shaker, you don't need a mixing glass, and it's probably one of the first cocktails, historically. So it's kind of a nice place to start. It's also boozy — there's not a lot to hide behind in the old-fashioned. It's sort of a jump-in-the-pool-with-both-feet-and-see-if-you-like-it drink.
SI: Do you make recommendations on what kind of liquor people should buy?
DS: I do, and that's one of the nice things about being independent — I can make the recommendations in my book and they're not influenced by a brand that's paying to advertise in the book. They're all my recommendations based on what tastes good, what's affordable and what's easy for people to find.
SI: OK, give me some examples. What should people be stocking their home bar with?
DS: I really like Wild Turkey 101. And a lot of people think of it as a bottom-shelf, old-man whiskey — but it's really a solid delicious whiskey and it's a good price and has a wide distribution so I feel really happy to recommend that. I also like Bulleit bourbon, that's great — it's got more rye in the mash so it's kind of peppery and spicy.
For vodka, I tell people by the time you put it into a drink and you dilute it, vodka is so subtle that any differences between brands is going to be minimal. So I recommend Tito's out of Austin, Texas, because it's a nice, small-batch product. There are so many great gins, but I think Beefeater is probably the most versatile. And that's surprising to some people because it's an affordable product — you can get a bottle for $15 at the grocery store.
SI: For someone just starting to build their home bar, what are the things they need to know to get started?
DS: I always advise people just to start with one drink. Pick a drink that you like, get all the stuff for that drink, master it, and then move on to the next one and add things one drink at a time. And that's the way the book is designed: You start with bourbon, work through rye, and gin and rum, all these other things, so you over time grow a collection where you can make more than 12 drinks. By the end of the 12 drinks in the beginning of the book, you have a really solid bar and you can make a lot of different drinks.
SI: And the 12 drinks at the beginning are the classics?
DS: Yeah, they're the classics: Manhattan, Martini, Tom Collins, Margarita — solid drinks. And then in the back we have more obscure classics and some Tiki drinks, and some craft cocktails, say, from the last 12 years or so.
SI: What else is in there?
DS: Lots of tips on technique. How to find good citrus at the store, how to make clear ice at home …
SI: How do you do that?
DS: It's nerdy. But if you put the water in a cooler and then put the cooler in the freezer, instead of all the cloudiness being forced to the center of the ice cube, it'll be forced to the bottom. I have an Igloo cooler, and I just put my ice trays in there and each ice tray has a pinhole in the bottom, so all the cloudiness goes through there and all the clear ice is on top. And thankfully, my wife is very forgiving of my science experiments.
SI: You're an illustrator who likes to drink, not a bartender who likes to draw?
DS: Yes. Exactly. And the community has actually been surprisingly welcoming to an outsider like me who's on this side of the bar — not that side. I got to the level where I felt comfortable, and then I ran the book by some people I respect, and they went through it with a red pen and marked up the recipes, and helped me really polish it up to the level it's at now. I still have been retesting all the recipes, double-checking all my work, every time I come to a place like Goldie's I'm watching their technique, seeing how they do it, taking notes mentally.
SI: You drew all the cute cocktails in this book. Can people buy your bar art, too?
DS: I did all the illustrations in the book, and this summer at Tales of the Cocktail, I was commissioned to do illustrations of all the bartenders who were working at this end-of-the-party event. So I did 30 illustrations of these famous bartenders, drawn as cocktails. And I started getting all these requests, so I came up with a way to do it — people can commission me now to do a one-of-a-kind illustration of them as a cocktail.
SI: Well, Christmas is coming.
DS: You can pick the cocktail or I'll pick one for you, whatever!!
SI: Reading through this book, what strikes me is how easy these recipes are.
DS: I've always told people if you can read, you can cook. You just have to pay attention, measure, don't cut corners. If you don't have a certain ingredient, you can try to substitute it, but it's going to make a different drink. So just take the time to care about what you're doing.
From: Dave Stolte's Home Bar Basics (and Not-so-Basics)
Makes: 1 drink
2 oz. tequila
1 oz. triple sec
3/4 oz. lime juice
1 tsp. rich simple syrup
1. Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least 10 minutes.
2. If you choose to salt the rim, sprinkle some kosher salt on a plate and moisten either the full rim or just half with your lime wheel garnish and lightly press the glass rim into the salt. Try to avoid getting salt on the interior glass surface.
3. In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add the above ingredients.
4. Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. (As an option, serve over ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass.) Garnish with a lime wheel.
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