Artisanal cocktails

From left to right: New York Sour, Hairdresser on Fire, Natasha Fatale. Styled by Julie Rothman. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / January 16, 2013)

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When Stacey Barich turned the modest dining room of her Parkville home into a tiki bar inspired by the 1930s, it became a project of passion for the 40-year-old photographer.

Pairing her love of vintage culture with a growing obsession with authenticity, Barich quickly found herself on eBay, searching and bidding for additions to the new favorite room in her house. The research and collecting quickly led Barich to the world of handcrafted cocktails.

"Once that happens, you're picking up old vintage books on how to make things," Barich said. "You have to find super-nerdy cocktail freaks all over the Internet to discuss how to make the best grenadine and honey syrup. It becomes this whole other hobby."

Barich is one of a growing number of Marylanders putting serious thought into the cocktails they serve at home. Wine, beer and basic mixed drinks such as gin and tonics will always be options at gatherings. But lately, home bartenders are spending extra time and effort crafting artisanal cocktails for their guests (and themselves).

For Kelsey Haywood, serving interesting cocktails is a way to show she's paying attention to details. It also elevates a casual get-together into something more personal and exciting.

"You want something that's going to make it a little more special than a glass of wine," said Haywood, a 25-year-old marketing manager who lives in Canton.

What exactly is a handcrafted cocktail? Tim Riley, the beverage director for the Bagby Restaurant Group (which includes Fleet Street Kitchen and Ten Ten), says they're drinks people put time, thought and effort into, and the ingredients used are "quality-focused."

"You're seeing the same focus chefs have had on their kitchens reflected in their bar programs now," Riley said. "You don't have to go to fine dining restaurants anymore, either. Sports bars are even doing it."

At least once a night, a customer will fall in love with a new cocktail and ask a Ten Ten or Fleet Street Kitchen bartender for the recipe, Riley said. It speaks to a cycle Riley has noticed: As more Baltimore bars and restaurants improve their liquor programs by adding artisanal cocktails, more customers want to replicate the recipes at home.

Haywood credits Woodberry Kitchen's array of cocktails as a source of inspiration.

"The mixtures they do are definitely inspiring and make you think of what ingredients you can put together that you wouldn't expect," she said.

For many craft-cocktail enthusiasts, finding obscure ingredients adds to the trend's allure. Barich says she regularly orders liqueurs from New York that she can't find here.

That could change soon. As serving artisanal cocktails at home gains popularity, local liquor stores have stocked their shelves accordingly, incorporating new brands and varieties of alcohol alongside more common products.

Of Love and Regret, the bar and restaurant from Stillwater Ale's Brian Strumke, recently opened a bottle shop on its second floor, where customers can buy the Italian bitter spirit Fernet Branca and Kornan Swedish Punsch liqueur, among others.

Riley says amateurs looking to stock a home bar from scratch should start slowly. He recommends focusing on two or three cocktails, and buying the "best possible ingredients you can."

"It's not a hard science," Riley said. "There's no technique you can use to turn a $9 bottle of whiskey into a good Manhattan."

Jon Blair, a bartender at Rye, a Fells Point bar that specializes in handcrafted cocktails, said he writes down cocktail recipes for customers about once every couple of weeks. He added that home bartenders should be precise with measurements and not worry about failure.

"Don't be afraid to make a cocktail 10, 12, 20 times, if you think that's what it takes to get it just right," Blair said.

Bidding on eBay, obtaining hard-to-find ingredients, trial-and-error execution — it all sounds like a lot of time, preparation and work for some drinks at home. Barich says that's the point of the hobby.