Cocktail culture isn't dead -- it's just gone home (yours)

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While the recent economic boom may be most famous for its expensive restaurants, outrageously priced vacations, and insanely high corporate bonuses, its ultimate symbol may well have been cocktail culture. While beer remains the plebian quaff of choice and wine is popular with a more staid crowd, mixed drinks demonstrated energy, excitement, and expense. For many a sophisticated clubgoer, there was nothing more impressive than an experienced bartender, bottles flipping in the air, producing a crisp Mojito or a sweet Cosmopolitan.

Of course, as with so many boom fetishes, cocktail culture had a lot of smoke and mirrors. Bottle service -- which basically involved buying massively inflated bottles of booze and quaffing them with pals -- was more about flashing wealth than about enjoying the finer things. After all, who in their right mind really pays a 1000% markup on a bottle of Grey Goose?

For that matter, even bars that actually mixed real cocktails often focused on a few favorites, like cosmos, appletinis, and the occasional sex on the beach. Still, for all its failings, cocktail culture held out a promise of culinary artistry crossed with inebriation, and its decline is somewhat sad.

That having been said, there may be a bright side. Just as the economic miseries of the 1970's inspired America's first love affair with homemade gourmet cookery, its latest financial miseries may lay the groundwork for a cocktail revolution. For many booze-based artisans, the closing of a favorite bar could translate into the opening of an even better nightspot: your living room.

While mixing cocktails isn't the easiest thing in the world, it is a lot of fun. Best of all, even when you make a mistake, you get to drink to your failures. Is there any other human endeavor that can make the same claim?

As you embark on your new home bar, here are a few pointers:

Barware
While sites like Barware.com and stores like Williams-Sonoma are eager to sell you the finest in lead crystal cocktail glasses and sterling silver tea stirrers, you'd be well-advised to start at your local dollar store or restaurant supply shop. After all, while paying $10 apiece for martini glasses may seem like a great expenditure, there's also a lot to be said for buying cheap $2 bottles and spending the rest on exotic liquors. Alternately, try checking out eBay for seltzer bottles, cocktail shakers, shot glasses, and other specialty equipment.

Bar Guide
There's a lot to be said for looking up drink recipes on the internet, but it's kind of awkward to read off a computer while trying to manipulate a cocktail shaker. Almost any bar guide will do the job, but my personal favorite is The Ultimate A-to-Z Bar Guide by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. The Herbsts are experienced food writers -- their Food Lover's Companion is now in its third edition -- and their approach is authoritative and encyclopedic. That having been said, any book that keeps you from dripping vodka on your keyboard is well worth the dough.

DIY Booze
While making your own beer or wine is a difficult, involved task, creating delicious infused liqueurs is both simple and cost-effective. For the price of a bottle of vodka or grain-neutral spirits, a couple of pounds of fruit, and a little sugar, you can easily make distinctive tipples that will surprise your friends. My personal favorite is homemade blueberry liqueur, although honey liqueur is also a lot of fun.

The Relevant Literature
Beer drinkers and wine drinkers both have their own magazines, so it's hardly surprising that Imbibe, a periodical devoted to fans of liquor should have found an impressive audience. With recipes, product reviews, and endless articles devoted to the art and enjoyment of liquor, it is a bartender's must read.

In Case of Emergency...Cheat!
Even the old standby, bottled cocktail mixers, have undergone a transformation. While one can easily find the classic mixes like Mr. and Mrs. T's or the fine line of TGIFriday's Margarita products, at least one company has taken it to the next level. Stirrings' mixes retail for as much as $10; although pricey, this is still significantly less than comparable bar prices. Best of all, Stirrings avoids nasty ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. In fact, the company boasts that many of its beverages are all-natural. While the best thing is homemade, Stirrings may well be a close second!
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