In order to have a great home bar, you have to have some great spirits to work with. But it's equally important to have the proper accoutrements as well, for you can't make a superlative cocktail without the right ingredients and the right equipment.
Three things a home bar should have: 1) good vermouth, 2) a selection of choice bitters, and 3) some finishing salts. So let's talk about vermouth.
Photo/Martini & Rossi
What would you think if you walked into a bar and ordered a cocktail that included your favorite spirit for which you would gladly pay extra because you like the best---and then watched the bartender mix that spirit with the cheapest vermouth possible? A cocktail is only as good as its least ingredient, so why pinch pennies on the supporting players? They are important too.
So don't settle for an inexpensive vermouth. That's false economy. The good news is that even the choicest vermouths aren't really all that expensive Martini & Rossi (Italian), Noilly Prat (French) and the highly regarded Dolin (French) are readily available, and none are costly.
Another vermouth you might consider is a California version, made by Andrew Quady, a winemaker who was frustrated at the dearth of good quality vermouths around and decided to make his own. The result was Vya Vermouth, and it is good stuff indeed, rich and full of flavor.
For Martinis and other drinks that call for it, there is dry white vermouth. Be careful though: some white vermouths are sweeter. Make sure you have the proper one in your bar. Or both.
For other drinks, such as a Manhattan you'll need a sweet red vermouth. And finally, you'll need a complex, drier and fuller-flavored bitter vermouth or liqueur for flavoring your cocktails and mixed drinks.
The venerable firm of Carpano (Antonio Carpano is the man credited with inventing vermouth) has two excellent mixers, Punt e Mes and the even more highly regardedCarpano Antico Formulae, an amazing traditional bitter vermouth that has astounding complexities of flavor that will enhance a great many drinks---and most especially those that are whiskey-based, such as a Manhattan or an Old Fashion.
A wide range of liqueurs can also be used to enhance cocktails in interesting ways, but we'll go into those in a future article.
Most of these vermouths are widely available throughout Oregon, and should be easy to find. Now you can access the OLCC search engine from their website to locate the items you're looking for. The only one that might prove difficult to find is the Carpano Antico Formulae; on the other hand, it's worth seeking out.
Sample through the selections to find the ones you prefer; or you can talk to bartenders and mixologists for their suggestions as well---there's not a bartender I know of that won't talk your ear off about the tools of the trade if you ask.
The Oregon state liquor stores carry a basic selection of vermouths. But you'll find the wine-based vermouths (as opposed to the spirit based bitters, which are technically in the liqueur category) in grocery stores and specialty shops as well.
One very good place to shop for vermouth is The Meadow, at 3731 N. Mississippi Avenue. It's a delightful shop with an a good selection of vermouth and choice wines. It also has an impressive selection of finishing salts, chocolates, and bitters you should check out.