Friday, January 23, 2015

Stocking and Keeping a Home Bar (Part II)

Now that you have a home bar setup, the last step before kicking back and enjoying is a trip to the liquor store. Before deciding what to buy to stock your home bar, there are a couple rules that you must follow. 

  1. If you wouldn't drink it, do not buy it.
  2. If you can try something before buying it, do it!
  3. Start simple and then venture out.
Let take a moment and look at each of these.

If you wouldn't drink it, don't buy it

Remember, even though you will certainly use your home bar to entertain, the single most frequent customer will be you. If you don't like something and wouldn't drink it, then don't bother buying a bottle for your home bar, because it will never get used if you aren't drinking it. When I first stocked my home bar I bought a giant bottle of vodka because everyone said vodka was the most versatile alcohol and everyone drank it - well I don't really care for vodka and wouldn't you know it, that bottle sat for years in my liquor cabinet and never got used. (I finally turned it into homemade limoncello, but that is a story for another post.) The moral of the story here is don't buy alcohol you wouldn't drink. Its a waste of money and a waste of alcohol. 

If you can try something before buying it, do it! 

Bottles of alcohol vary in price greatly based on the quality and quantity of the alcohol you are purchasing. For some, buying a bottle of nice scotch is really an investment and if you end up not liking it, it can be very difficult to stomach. When I was in law school I decided to treat myself to a nice bottle of scotch for surviving my 1L year. I had heard great things about Laphroaig and so I excitedly treated myself to an $60 bottle of their Quarter Cask. I had a glass later that night and absolutely hated it - I hated it so much I never finished the bottle. That bottle was a sore subject for a long time. However if I had actually tasted it beforehand I would have known to stay away. The easiest way to do this is to either try the alcohol in a bar beforehand or to purchase an "airplane bottle" of it. (Sadly the selection of airplane bottles is limited - but larger liquor stores generally have a decent selection). It may not be the most cost effective way, but its far more cost effective than buying an expensive bottle of alcohol that you do not like. 

Start simple and then venture out

When you start stocking your home bar, the temptation is to buy one of everything you could possibly ever imagine drinking, especially when there are thousands of options. You don't need to start out with this:

I have one of everything!
My advice is to start simple. Buy a few different bottles of some straightforward types of alcohol that you enjoy drinking to get started. Then as you determine what you like best or what you drink the most of, you can expand in those areas. Another thing that I do, is buy certain types of alcohol seasonally. For instance, we drink a lot of rum during the summer months - we love our mojitos - but rarely during the winter months. So once I run out of rum in September, I hold off on buying it again until the next summer.   

What do I need to buy?

So now you are at the liquor store and you are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. (I should just note that for the purposes of these posts I am not addressing on beer or wine, just liquor.)

Yes, there are still liquors they do not carry here
Keeping in mind those rules above, here is a basic list of alcohol to get you started. 


Vodka is the most basic alcohol and also the most flavorless, but it is the base for lots of cocktails and the most popular alcohol by volume in the USA. Since you most likely won't be drinking this straight, you can get away with buying an inexpensive bottle for mixing in drinks. I generally buy Svedka (Swedish) or Sobieski (Polish). They are both in the $10 to $12 range for a 750 ml bottle and serve their purpose well. If you want cheaper, Smirnoff (USA) is the most popular option and runs in the $15 range for a 1.75 ml bottle. If you want high end vodka, Grey Goose (French) is probably my favorite. 


When it comes to gin, you either love it or hate it - there really is no in between. I personally love it, and gin and tonics are a summer mainstay in our house. Again, like vodka, you are likely not drinking gin straight so you can afford to buy a cheaper bottle. I really like Seagrams gin for mixing. It runs about $12 for a 750 ml bottle. Trader Joe's Jailhouse Gin is also very good and doesn't break the bank. On the high end, I am a fan of Bombay Sapphire over Tanqueray. Whichever you prefer, both bottles run around $23 for a 750 ml bottle. Finally, If you really enjoy gin and want to try some more unique options, I'd recommend trying Hendricks, well known and highly unique, or Bluecoat gin. Bluecoat is a craft distillery located in Philadelphia, PA, and their gin was a gold medal winner at the San Francisco world spirits competition.


This one comes down to whether you drink tequila or not. I occasionally do, but its not something that I feel the need to keep a bottle in the house. However, if I do have a bottle, its generally el Jimador which runs in the $16 to $18 range for a 750 ml bottle. Really the important thing to look for is that its made with 100% agave and not fillers.  


When it comes to rum, you generally are going to have two bottles of rum - one spiced and one white. Both rums are versatile and can be used in a number of cocktails, plus I actually enjoy drinking spiced rum neat. Bacardi is an old mainstay and runs about $13 a bottle. I actually really enjoy Shellback rum in both varieties, but particularly the white. Its inexpensive - around $12 a bottle - and mixes very well. On the higher end, Sailor Jerry's spiced rum runs around $18-$20 a bottle, is very good and definitely drinkable neat. 


Whiskey is a broad area that includes Scotch, Irish whiskey, whisky, rye, and bourbon amongst others and could be a blog post in itself. For the purpose of stocking your home bar, whether you intend to mix this into cocktails or drink it straight will determine how much you spend on a bottle. For me, I almost exclusively drink whiskey straight so I keep a range of more expensive bottles that I enjoy drinking. For starting out, I would buy a blended scotch - Johnnie Walker Black Label is a classic ($28 for a 750ml bottle) and Famous Grouse is the most popular blended scotch in Scotland ($20 for a 750ml bottle). Both of these are good for mixing or drinking straight. If you are interested in a single malt scotch for drinking straight, I prefer Balvenie ($50 for a 750ml bottle) - but this is an area where I encourage you to taste some different single malts before buying.

In terms of Irish whiskey I prefer Tullamore Dew ($22 for a 750ml bottle). Bourbon is my favorite type of whisky so I keep three to four different bottle in my bar at any given time. For an inexpensive bourbon, you can't go wrong with Evan Williams ($11 for a 750ml bottle). However, I prefer the mid-range bourbons like Eagle Rare ($30 for a 750ml bottle), Buffalo Trace ($25 for a 750ml bottle), and Woodford Reserve ($35 for a 750ml bottle). If you near the midwest and able to get it, Chicago's Koval Distillery's bourbon is the best I've ever had. It runs $50 for a 750ml bottle, but its worth it.

Miscellaneous liquors and liqueurs

There are a handful of items you will want to have on hand for mixing a wide range of cocktails and drinks. First, you will need a bottle of bitters. Angostura bitters are the classic and can be found at any liquor store. Second, you will want a bottle of vermouth. There is dry vermouth (used in making martinis and manhattans) and sweet vermouth. You can buy a cheap bottle of each for under $10. Since vermouth is a wine, it does not last as long as regular alcohol, so you do not want to over buy. And if you do find yourself needing to use it up, try cooking with it. It does go well in a variety of dishes. Lastly, I really enjoying keeping a bottle of triple sec on hand.  Triple sec is a orange liquor that you can mix into a variety of drinks. Cheaper bottles can be had for around $10, but the gold standard in orange liqueurs is Cointreau. It is pricey at $30 a bottle, but if you like the orange liqueur and use it, its worth the investment. Since you only use a small amount to mix into a drink, the bottle will last a long time. 

As you get more comfortable with what you like, there are many liqueurs out there to try. One of my favorites is St. Germain - a liqueur made from the elderflower. It mixes extremely well in vodka and tonics, gin and tonics, and many other drinks -however at $40 a bottle it is not for everyone. This is one that I have been able to find in the airplane bottle size, but it takes some searching. 
Another option is Frangelico - an extremely tasty liquor made from hazelnuts. This is a winter time favorite in our house as we mix it with hot chocolate to make a delicious adult hot chocolate. Plus with a bottle shaped like a monk, it makes a great talking piece.

Odds and Ends

The odds and ends are pretty straightforward. You will need a bottle of tonic water and club soda for mixing into drinks. Do not buy these at the liquor store - you will pay 3 times what you can buy them for at the grocery store. I also like to keep a bottle of cranberry juice as well as a bottle of ginger ale on hand (I buy the ginger ale in cans or small bottles so they last longer). In the end, the mixers are really up to you and what you like best. 

As for garnishes - lemons, limes, olives, cherries, mint, etc. - I will be honest, I don't keep any of this in the house unless I'm actually throwing a party and need something specific. Since most of this is fresh and does not last long at all I advise against buying something unless you know you will use it up quickly. 

Again, as you get more comfortable with what you drink most and decide it is time to branch out more, you can try different things. The only important things to keep in mind are the rules above; other than that, have fun. 

Now go make yourself a drink, kick back and enjoy.

<><><>FAB <><><>

My recommended bottle list for getting started under $100

(All bottles are 750 ml unless otherwise noted):
  1. 1 bottle of Sobieski vodka - $12
  2. 1 bottle of Seagrams gin - $12
  3. 1 bottle of Bacardi rum - $13
  4. 1 bottle of Johnnie Walker Black - $28
  5. 1 bottle of Evan Williams - $12
  6. 1 bottle of Angostura bitters - $8
  7. 1 bottle of dry vermouth - $5
  8. 1 bottle (375ml) of Leroux Triple Sec - $6
  9. 1 bottle of tonic water - >$1
  10. 1 bottle of club soda - >$1
  11. 1 bottle of ginger ale - $1

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