Home Bartending Goes Hardcore

As the craft cocktail movement continues to march on, amateur enthusiasts are continuing to multiply. From amassing 600-plus bottles of rare spirits to gaining legions of Instagram followers, Dan Saltzstein explores the more obsessive fringe of the at-home bartending world.

home bartenders obsessives

I enjoy making cocktails at home. I try a few each week, both classic and new—I even created a house cocktail—and have amassed a decent collection of spirits and liqueurs, which number about 50 bottles.

That, it turns out, is not particularly impressive.

“I finally did an inventory two weeks ago,” Eric Witz recently told me. “Not including bitters and small bottles, I think it was 615. And I’ve probably bought 10 since then.”

Witz is part of an increasingly extensive and geographically disparate group of amateur cocktail enthusiasts—men and women, most of whom have day jobs, who find themselves more and more obsessed with mixing at home. And they are sharing their creations with an emergent online community. The breadth of this world, and the depth of its participants’ obsessions, says a lot about how the craft cocktail movement has grown, extending its arm-gartered reach from the subterranean drinking den into the home kitchen.

Witz, 37, who goes by @aphonik on Instagram and Tumblr, works in publishing in the Boston area. He didn’t start off as much of a drinker, he says. But in 2007, he started going to the Cambridge bar and restaurant Green Street. “I was fascinated by the drinks, ingredients I had never heard of.”

From there, he says, “I feel like it blew up really quickly into an obsession. I would look into drinks and start buying obscure liquors. That’s how I started going crazy, spending all the money I had on bottles.”

Of those 600-plus bottles, his most expensive purchase is a late 19th-century bottle of Chartreuse, which he tracked down in Wisconsin and bought for about $600. Not wanting to risk damage in shipping—you can’t insure liquor—he drove the 1,000 or so miles to Milwaukee to pick it up.

For others, the collection might not be as extensive, but the interest is. Andy Whitehead (@liquorary), 33, is an analyst at the Department of Defense based in D.C. In 2011, he did a civilian tour in Baghdad. “We weren’t allowed to drink and the food wasn’t good,” he says, so when he returned, his wife took him on a tour of good restaurants with great cocktail programs, mostly in D.C. That piqued his interest.

The growth of the cocktail scene on social media speaks to just how pervasive the general cocktail culture has become. There’s a craft bar in virtually every city and town, and newer books like those from Death & Co. and PDT provide comprehensive guides to the craft of drink-making. But those looking to escape high drink prices and bar scrums—and hoping to make connections with fellow obsessives—now have the ability to do so literally at their fingertips.

Soon, he picked up a Dave Wondrich book (a common source for these fans, along with other usual suspects like Jerry Thomas) and was off. The recipes “were so simple, I could make them at home without a lot of stress.” He says the Sazerac is his all-time favorite, though he does try to invent cocktails (“I like to think I’m creating recipes, but nine times out of ten, I think someone else has figured it out already”), which he posts to his Instagram account. Most of the drinks are featured in the vintage glasses that he and his wife have amassed and now sell on Etsy. (They also bought an antique brass bar cart to house Whitehead’s relatively modest collection of 40 or so bottles and had plexiglass panels specially cut to replace the glass; with two young kids at home, it’s a safer option for their small rowhouse on Capitol Hill.)

Instagram has become the primary point of connection for these obsessives. Posts are generally close-ups of a cocktail, often with its ingredients as backdrop, sometimes accompanied by a recipe and commentary. Comments range from supportive (“That’s a damn solid daq spec”) to vaguely critical (“Isn’t that like defeating the purpose of #kombucha?”). But more importantly, the app has become a place for same-minded souls to find each other. “There’s such a generosity,” Whitehead says. “Someone is always introducing me to something new.”

The growth of the cocktail scene on social media speaks to just how pervasive the general cocktail culture has become. There’s a craft bar in virtually every city and town, and newer books like those from Death & Co. and PDT provide comprehensive guides to the craft of drink-making. But those looking to escape high drink prices and bar scrums—and hoping to make connections with fellow obsessives—now have the ability to do so literally at their fingertips.

If Witz’s focus is on spirits and Whitehead’s on cocktail classics, Natalie Migliarini’s is on hospitality. Migliarini is on Instagram (and Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest) as @BeautifulBooze. But for the 34-year-old Seattle resident, who left a job in the public health sector to focus on her cocktail hobby, her blog is where she finds the most engagement—and it’s not thanks to deep dives into the obscure, but rather to an emphasis on accessibility.

Dani DeLuna, 34, known as @homebargirl on Instagram and her own blog, likes to throw cocktail parties and is no stranger to bars, but still finds much of her inspiration at home with her girlfriend. The couple, who lives in Brooklyn, makes a smoothie almost daily, and its fresh ingredients drive what later goes into DeLuna’s cocktails.

Not all of the enthusiasts are as focused on engaging a community or entertaining, though. There’s a fine line between obsessive and introvert, and some of these home bartenders fall beyond it, abetted by the semi-anonymous quality of social media. “I’m a homebody,” Witz admits. “I have to psych myself up for social interactions,” adding most of the relationships his hobby engenders happen online: “Most of my friends on Facebook are bartenders.”

If there’s one thing that bonds these enthusiasts together, it’s a lack of storage space. Between his huge collection and one-bedroom apartment, Witz faces the biggest challenge. “It started on a shelf, then flowed onto the counter, then the table,” he says. “Now every available surface is covered.” He adds: “If you walked into my kitchen and didn’t know I was into this, you might think I had a problem.”

Matt Pietrek (@cocktailwonk), a 49-year-old software architect in Seattle, is a bit of an exception. When he and his wife were renovating their house, he spent about $4,000 on a gorgeous bar to house his collection, as well as barware, an ice-maker and a sign with his online moniker.

But even he quickly ran out of space. “Now that’s like my well,” he says, noting that his roughly 220-bottle collection has grown, kudzu-like, onto IKEA shelves that house four times what the bar does.

None of this will sound foreign to collectors of fine wines and whiskeys. Cocktails, of course, are more than just the sum of their bottles. But, as any of these obsessives will tell you, they needn’t be intimidating.

“I probably would enjoy cooking or baking, but it’s much harder to have supplies on hand,” says Pietrek. “But cocktails, once you have a certain collection on hand, you can tinker forever.”

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[Lead Images: @aphonik@homebargirl@cocktailwonk]

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