[Ed. note: A revised, updated version of this post circa 2009 can be found here.]
A few weeks ago, I received a request from an interested reader, asking for my thoughts on liquor in the home bar. Specifically, what and how should one choose what to buy? And, equally important, how do you keep the cost reasonable?
Well, dear readers, I hate to shatter my image of infallibility, but I am certainly not an expert. I am, however, absurdly opinionated and rarely resist the opportunity to run my mouth, so below you will find my recommendations for setting up a workable home bar.
Quibble if you must, but at least buy me a drink first, eh?
FIRST THINGS FIRST
You should spend money on your bar.
This doesn’t mean you should spend a lot of money on your bar, but think of it as an investment. If you are going to go so far as to develop an actual entity you are going to refer to as your bar, take some pride in it. This is an endeavor for you, by you, and you should work at making it worth your time.
You can set up a small, reasonable bar for a reasonable investment. I have heard before, and would agree, that a fair expectation for a “good” home bar will cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-300, depending on your tastes. A bar on a smaller scale will, naturally, result in a smaller bill.
As to stocking your bar, the bargain basement selection I am willing to entertain in liquor is whiskey and gin. Most people will include vodka in this—and I won’t necessarily disagree—but you can’t call it a bar unless you at least have whiskey and gin.
Our general-purpose bourbon is Maker’s Mark. Reasonably priced, good quality and flexible, it will work for most cocktails that call for bourbon. I’ll spare you the lecture on Tennessee versus Kentucky, but if you are more the whiskey-and-Coke type than the Old-Fashioned type, you can get away with Jack Daniels or Jim Beam—but if cheap is the important qualification, try a bottle of George Dickel instead. It’ll only set you back $20 and it tastes pretty good, all things considered. If you’re feeling feisty—and you have $50 or so to spare—treat yourself with a bottle of Woodford Reserve or Booker’s.
On the rye front, we keep a bottle of Old Overholt for our Manhattans. If you like whiskey and you haven’t tried rye, you should definitely pick up a bottle. There are quite a few brands available (though Old Overholt and Jim Beam are the two easiest to find) and it’s generally priced quite affordably.
In blended whiskies, Famous Grouse or Johnny Walker Black should set you up; as for Canadian, I can’t say I use it often, so a bottle of Seagram’s VO does me just fine.
We keep a bottle of Bushmill’s for the odd occasion that calls for Irish whisky. I’m not much of an Irish whisky fan, but more than one Boilermaker has met its fate in my kitchen and for that you need the Irish.
I am a scotch lover. In the cooler months, scotch on the rocks is my drink of choice. I will give some of my favorites here, but you really need to get out and sample a variety of scotches to find the kinds you like. They vary in smoothness, smokiness, peatiness and depth, so those that I love may not be nearly so well liked by you and those who will be partaking of your bar. Geographically, my tastes tend toward Speyside and the Northern and Central Highlands of Scotland: Macallan, Glenmorangie, Balvenie, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Aberlour a’bunadh—all of which are low on the “peat” scale.
On the flip side of the cool months are the warm ones, which is the time when my tastes run from scotch to gin. I keep three kinds of gin on hand at all times; usually Tanqueray, Plymouth and Damrak. Tanqueray and Plymouth are both London Dry gins, while Damrak is Dutch. At the moment, Hendrick’s has replaced Tanqueray.
You really only need one type to keep your bar functional. For those who like the botanical flavors of gin, I recommend Tanqueray; it’s flavorful, reasonably priced and easy to find. For those who aren’t quite able to stomach a full-flavored gin, or if, like me, you prefer a milder flavor in some drinks, I recommend Plymouth. Bombay Sapphire is also a good mild gin if you can’t find Plymouth near you, and Beefeater is another good moderately priced choice, though I’d place it’s flavor somewhere between Plymouth and Tanqueray.
I admit it: I own fair amount of vodka. Most of it was acquired through gifting (I certainly didn’t buy myself that bottle of Stoli Vanil), and the others picked up for specific recipes or experiments somewhere along the way. Nearly none of those bottles ever leave the bar; for regular use I keep a single bottle of Ketel One for my Bloody Marys and Moscow Mules.
I happen to like Ketel One—it doesn’t give me that strange, blank-yet-metallic aftertaste that I get with most vodkas—so that’s what I keep. I am also fine with Absolut, but at nearly the same price I grab the Ketel. I have heard, repeatedly, that Belvedere or Grey Goose are far superior, but I have tasted both and can’t find any foundation for that claim.
On the more economical side, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Stoli (unless you are, for some reason, drinking it straight), but if you are a Trader Joe’s shopper, we found a great, California-made bargain vodka called Prism. You can pick up a bottle for about $10 and, honestly, it’s indistinguishable from Ketel in a Bloody Mary.
We keep a bottle of gold and a bottle of white rum at all times. If we’re feeling some tiki coming on, we’ll pick up dark and/or overproof, but that doesn’t tend to happen often—especially because we live within close proximity to some outstanding tiki-style bars.
I happen to be quite fond of Mount Gay rum; it is very reasonably priced and tastes great in just about everything I’ve ever put it in. I was not quite as impressed with Appleton, though I have been assured by those who know more than I do that you can occasionally find a truly outstanding bottle. I quite liked Bacardi 8-year, which would be a perfectly fine addition to your home bar if Mount Gay or Appleton are unavailable.
As for the white rum, I still haven’t found one I am especially fond of, but I have been moderately happy with the white Pyrat that is currently gracing our shelves.
The other beloved liquor of summer! I could wax about tequila for hours. I won’t, but I could. Here’s what you need to know: there are three types of tequila (blanco, reposado and añejo) distinguishable by color (clear/white/silver, medium gold and dark gold). Much like any other aged spirit, the longer it’s in the barrel, the richer the flavor becomes. Blanco tequilas are perfectly fine for margaritas or other cocktails, though I tend to prefer reposado for a little more agave goodness. Añejo tequilas are meant to be sipped—not shot, not mixed, not blended. Much like a fine whiskey, you savor a good tequila, and you’d better not let me catch you doing otherwise.
Patron is a perfectly good, reasonably priced and easy to find tequila. This is what we generally specify when ordering margaritas at a restaurant; silver or reposado will do you just fine in your home bar. Cabo Wabo used to make a decent reposado, but the quality has fallen off some in recent years; Cabo Wabo añejo is still a fair—if sadly overpriced—tequila. If you find it on sale (under $45), I’d consider picking some up. Milagro reposado and añejos are both excellent mid-range bottles, though Milagro’s Tequila Romance will really do a number on you if you have the money to spend on it (and can find a bottle). Also in that league is Paradiso, which, honestly, is the best tequila I’ve ever sampled. (At $120 a bottle, it certainly should be.) The Cuervo Reserva de la Familia is above average, but still not nearly as good as Paradiso, though it falls in the same price range.
LIQUEURS, CORDIALS AND THE LIKE
A botanical; you will need a bottle of pastis (or Pernod) if you plan to make classic cocktails. Presently, I have a bottle of La Muse Verte, which works just fine. If you plan to stick with more contemporary drinks, you can probably skip this. You can also use ouzo if it’s what you have handy, but it won’t be a cool green color…and it will still taste like ouzo.
B&B will do if you can’t get Benedictine, but you’ll find this useful in a wide array of drinks.
For the love of all that is holy, don’t call it a bar unless you have a bottle of Angostura bitters in there. If you’re feeling really adventurous, pick up some orange bitters, too. Fee Brothers makes a very nice, very easy to find variety.
You will need a standard brandy—I’m afraid I can’t be much help here, as the only bottle currently in my bar was a gift. I won’t mention any names, because that bottle really isn’t even worth discussing. You can also benefit from a bottle of calvados, an apple brandy, which used in quite a few drinks. If you can’t find calvados, pick up a bottle of applejack (the American version).
Bitter, orange, excellent with club soda. Mostly imbibed on its own in our house but very, very good.
This is a very lovely orange liqueur that you will find useful in many drinks. Pick it up on sale if you can find it, but you can substitute with generic triple sec or curaçao if the budget won’t allow it. It won’t taste quite as good, but it will give you a nice citrus flavor.
Creme de Cacao
Chocolate liqueur, available in white and brown. I only keep white, as I don’t have much call for this most of the time. There are a number of brands available, the most common being Bols, Hiram Walker, DeKuyper and Potter’s. Potter’s is the cheapest and completely decent, though I would go with one of the first two if you can.
Creme de Menthe
I keep a bottle of green as well as white because I have a weakness for Grasshoppers. In most instances, you will be fine with just a bottle of white. If things are really tight you can make do with a bottle of peppermint schnapps, but I’d rather sub white creme de menthe for peppermint than the other way around.
There are a number of brands available, the most common being Bols, Hiram Walker, DeKuyper and Potter’s. Potter’s is the cheapest and completely decent, though I would go with one of the first two if you can.
I keep a small bottle of this though, honestly, I use it more often in baking than behind the bar.
You’ll need cherry liqueur. This is what I use, and I recommend it. Schanapps (again, Bols, Hiram Walker or DeKuyper) or kirschwasser (cherry brandy) will do in a pinch.
A bottle of Lillet Blanc will do you well when making quite a few drinks. You’ll like it, I promise.
Absolutely necessary for quite a few classics. It has a very particular flavor, so don’t expect to sub for it. The easiest brand to find locally is Luxardo.
Another like Campari. Sort of bitter with a very particular flavor. Necessary for the Pimm’s Cup, and generally excellent on its own with 7-Up.
Relatively easy to find, necessary for a Sloe Gin Fizz (among other things). There are a number of brands available, the most common being Bols, Hiram Walker, DeKuyper and Potter’s. Potter’s is the cheapest and completely decent, though I would go with one of the first two if you can.
Grenadine, Rose’s lime cordial, simple, orgeat. Raspberry too, if you’re ambitious.
Yes, I know, everyone hates vermouth. You need it anyway. You will learn to love it once you get a real, honest, well-crafted cocktail made with it. You need a sweet and a dry; at your average liquor store or market, you will find Martini & Rossi (Italian) and/or Cinzano (Italian), and perhaps, if you’re lucky, Noilly Prat (French). They usually run about the same price ($10 per bottle), and if given the choice I pick Noilly Prat, followed by Cinzano, followed by Martini & Rossi. (If I really get to be particular, I like Noilly Prat dry and Cinzano sweet.)
There you go. It’s not exhaustive, nor even close to, but there are my recommendations and opinions on getting yourself started. My best advice is to buy yourself a good bar guide. Pick a handful of drinks that can be made with the same very basic ingredients (say, gin, whiskey, grenadine, vermouth, lemon juice and bitters). Once you purchase those ingredients and get the mixing down, you can build your bar in whatever direction tickles your fancy.