THERE ARE MANY things that people remark upon when entering my apartment, for the first, or second, or fifteenth time: the nine-foot tall Buddha I bought on a whim in Boston, the gilded appearance of my living room in candlelight, reflected in mirrors (an economy that even Versailles was thrifty enough to capitalize on), the extensive art collection, arranged salon-style and built over time, mostly through gifts and bartering my publicity services early in my career, the linen drapes flawlessly pleated with a “ripple fold” after I told Bettertex that I’d like the room to resemble a ship’s cabin modeled with a grand hotel of the 1930s in mind, the French Art Deco tea set for twelve, the fragrance of Catbird’s “Campfire” candle, which I’ve bought by the dozen thanks to its notes of honey, tobacco and saddle leather, and can hardly manage to keep on hand, the vintage playlist (currently: Elizabeth Welch Sings Irving Berlin Playbook, recorded when she was 83), but the one feature that never fails to entertain, in every sense, is the bar cabinet.
Just about five and a half feet tall, or eye level or thereabouts for most women, it’s a beguiling piece, stacked on top with oversized books such as Maxim’s, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Italy’s Private Gardens, Bloomsbury Reflections, My French Life, Syrie Maugham, and a copy of Botanicals that Van Cleef & Arpels gave me after a private tour; dark wood with a fan pattern brushed into the doors, the allure multiplies into untold dimensions when they are swung open to reveal, among various types of liquids, including the basics (rum, scotch or bourbon, gin and vodka), plus mixers (tonic water, club soda, bitters, sweet and dry vermouth), coupe glasses and flutes for champagne, depending on preference, heavy cut-glass tumblers, other vessels, and an assortment of cocktail napkins, decks of playing cards and other amusements that could come in handy.
We keep what my sister terms “the 21 spread,” shrewdly observed over regular forays to her favorite haunt, the one place besides the elevator where executives and assistants from her company cross paths –– cocktail nuts, wasabi peas, and asiago cheese twists from Zabar’s –– in a separate cabinet. Fill a bowl with lemons and limes, and you’re set. When you are stocking your own bar at home, you learn quickly that space is finite, and the selection comes to represent something of the hosts’ tastes, while also seeking to satisfy those of the guests. My sister and I always have Pimm’s on hand for summer, with cans of Gosling’s ginger beer stacked neatly alongside. We even tried to make up a seasonal cocktail list so that we’d learn a few by heart, but that effort fell quickly by the wayside in favor of simpler pleasures. Most importantly, a good bar teaches you to focus on those things that you can do well, and that matter most. Such as, drinks based on gin.
I’ve had many wonderful gin cocktails around the world, although none quite matches the towering achievements of the martinis served at Duke’s Hotel in London, something of a pilgrimage I must make on every trip. A simple gin and tonic usually does the trick around here, and we stock “Q” tonic on the recommendation of the very properly English general manager of the private club across the square here at home in New York. I always like to go for the local brand of gin, or Hendrick’s, and am such a regular at the wine shop around the corner that the proprietor gave me my own tote; lilac, with patent trim. He recommends a certain blanc de blanc for our house bubbly, which we order by the case, that he’s been kind enough to leave the shop for a few minutes to ferry to my front door.
We seldom drink without company, and so mixing cocktails has a festive, social air that draws deep from the well of hospitality. While I’m happy to pour wine or beer for guests who prefer some variation of those, it gives me a special joy when someone asks for a mixed drink. On a small scale, it’s a way to demonstrate care and admiration, and to give someone something you’ve made with your hands and a passion for detail. It’s also hard work, and so I take my time, as a good cocktail lasts the evening. One more can make the night glow. After that, it’s all “Dorothy Parker once said…” and then the morning after, the age of which I’m frankly well past now. That being said, we once had a baby shower so rollicking that we jauntily went through a bottle of bourbon. With friends from church.
Cocktail parties are occasional, and dinner parties much more par for the course, and when entertaining on anything more than an intimate scale, I recommend choosing a signature drink and pouring it by the pitcher; a hit this spring was limoncello and gin generously clouded with thyme toasted to a crisp by the handful on a countertop grill. There’s a lovely recipe for something called the “Irish Poet,” made with a copious splash of strong black tea, printed on the label of the “Rose” Royal Rose Syrup that I imagine as a companionable favorite as Indian Summer sets in. In the interest of full disclosure, I enjoyed it once but will probably not make it again because, for some reason, I associate it with Samuel Beckett and a devastating passage from his “First Loves” that I used to quote with airy aplomb and arrow-to-the-heart precision: “there it is, either you love or you don’t.” Of all the things I don’t miss, my foolish arrogance at age 30 tops the list.
Year-round, our house cocktail is the Old Etonian, a 1920s London standard that has sunk into unfair obscurity, and which I was inspired to revive in homage to an amiable man who, as we talked well into the early morning hours after a chance meeting over dinner (keywords: Viceroy, Samarkand, Rolls-Royce, storied fortunes, and much about marriage), told me, with a slight note of chagrin, that the only sport he’d ever shown any promise at was Fives. Mix one part gin and one part Lillet blanc with a wrist flick of orange bitters and another of an almond liqueur such as amarguinha. Serve chilled.
A few months ago, I was getting to know someone better and wanted to cook for him, especially as he had little experience with the Southern cuisine that is half my heritage. The centerpiece of the meal was scallop gumbo, and a red velvet cake with hand-whipped frosting. My sister, excited to show off her skills and the bar, which, in fact, is all hers, a birthday gift from me, asked if he’d like a drink and he politely demurred. I smiled with understanding, and then he changed his mind: yes, actually, on second thought, he would.