Up your bar setup — and cocktail recipes — for the holidays

Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Entertaining

PITTSBURGH — During the pandemic, Bill Semins was happy to have a lot more free time on his hands. However, because all his favorite restaurants and bars were forced to close during the lockdown, he had nowhere to go for a great adult beverage.

So the Pittsburgh lawyer took on a task he normally would have left to the professionals: creating and mixing signature drinks at home.

"I've always loved a good cocktail," he explains, "and part of a great meal is the expertise [of bartenders] I couldn't do at home."

Crafting a different one each day, Semins ended up mixing more than 270 custom cocktails before he stopped counting, earning him not just the admiration of family and friends, but also an invitation to join the "Cocktail of the Day" group on Facebook.

Many of his recipes, the 52-year-old says, are inspired by something he saw online. Others are the result of pure alchemy — measuring out a little of this to add to some of that to conjure up a drink both smooth and sophisticated. To add to the fun, many were given witty names that speak to the polarized times we live in, such as Smash the Peartriarchy (featuring bourbon, St-Germain, muddled pear and ginger syrup) and the Kentucky Kleptocrat, which stars Kentucky bourbon in an ode to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"There's really no excuse not to make cocktails at home because there are so many recipes out here," Semins says of his creations, which are bolstered by his wife Hattie Fletcher's homemade syrups and infusions using garden ingredients. This time of year, for instance, plums and nasturtiums join forces in a sweet and slightly peppery simple syrup. "It's just finding the right balance."


Being able to serve his hand-crafted concoctions in the vintage glassware he inherited from his great uncle Meyer Paris and great aunts Rose and Violet Semins only adds to the experience.

With the holiday entertaining season fast approaching, maybe you'd like to try your hand at home cocktailing, too. You're in good company, according to a 2021 study on emerging home design trends by Houzz, an online design source. It found that searches for home bars and wine cellars both were up nearly four times from 2020 to 2021.

Thankfully, expert mixologists such as Milk Street editorial director J.M. Hirsch, who spent much of the pandemic field-testing and writing the new cocktail book, "Pour Me Another: 250 Ways to Find Your Favorite Drink" (Voracious, $27), say it's not as hard as you might think.

Just as home cooking has gotten easier with better access to quality ingredients and great equipment online, so too has starting and growing a well-appointed bar setup. Another reason for the home bar's growing popularity: As Semins demonstrated while whipping up an Aperol spritz in his dining room on a recent Wednesday, most cocktails can be made in 5 minutes or less.


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