Obviously good drinks start with good ingredients. That said, you don’t have to break the bank to find some really great spirits to stock your bar. For every premium liquor, there is an equally tasty budget option (Trader Joe’s has surprised us more and more lately). Also, don’t worry about having every kind of liquor stocked. This is about having the basics and knowing just what to do with them.
Our bar is surprisingly lean. I like it that way. It keeps the drinks honest and simple (despite some of our more complex undertakings). I have heard more than one bartender say that the best drinks have 4 or fewer ingredients. More ingredients can yield a good drink but can also mask subtler flavors. Here are the base liquors we typically stock (in order of popularity).
- Gin A sturdy London dry variety like Beefeater or Sapphire will please most. Both of Trader Joe’s house labels are very good. Their latest Jail House Gin is exceptional for the price (about $15 for 750ml.) and Admiral Joseph’s London Dry is a steal. Most gin drinkers will prefer the higher proof varieties. Gin is typically higher than 80 proof which helps it stand up to mixers. If you choose a lesser proof, your results may suffer.
- Bourbon or Rye Whiskey I say “or” in this case because they have become somewhat interchangeable in most recipes. I know there are purists that will disagree, but this isn’t about them. This is your bar in your home. Serve what you want. Go with something popular (Jack Daniels is still a solid choice) or find something off the path like Old Fitzgerald, a tasty bourbon with lovely vanilla and caramel notes and a very friendly price tag.
- Tequila It’s not a spirit for everyone but if you crave a well-made margarita once in s a while, there’s no substitute. I like silver, others prefer reposado. The cheaper versions don’t vary much in flavor, but after it’s mixed with fresh citrus and a some sweet liqueur, it won’t matter much. El Jimador is a solid choice and widely available. Trader Joe’s comes through with several choices here. Their Zapopan reposado is dirt cheap and mixes very well.
- Rum This is a tricky one. Seems pretty straight forward but there are so many styles and regions for rum, the flavors will be all over the map. I have always felt that spiced rums are trying to hide something, so we avoid them. My go-to is usually Meyers Dark rum, a Jamaican style with a very, uh, rummy flavor profile, which is to say it’s versatile. Avoid flavored rums; they are loaded with sugar and don’t taste anything like rum.
- Scotch Tread lightly here. Scotchphiles are notoriously picky. That’s fine because it’s a refined spirit with some pretty strict rules involved with just making it. Whether single malt or blended, scotch doesn’t get mixed around here. It’s goes into a glass with a little chunk of ice and that’s about it. My budget choice is Dewars 12 Year, which drinks like a single malt but is priced for the everyman.
- Vodka Ha! Kidding. We don’t buy vodka. Unless we know our guests will absolutely not drink gin. Even then, we’ve managed to convert even the most staunch anti-gin taste buds. If you love vodka, I’m sure you have a favorite already. Use that.
There are a few important secondary liqueurs to stock. Fortunately, they are cheap and easy to find and usually last a while. Also, upgrading to the higher end version generally only means a couple extra bucks. I encourage this because there are some truly nasty tasting liqueurs lurking on the bottom shelf.
- Sweet Vermouth (a.k.a Red, Rosso, or Italian Vermouth) We use this in so many basic recipes it has turned into a staple ingredient even in our small travel bar. Martini & Rossi Rosso is my favorite for its bitter sweetness. Cinzano is also a solid choice.
- Dry Vermouth (a.k.a. white, or French Vermouth) This will come in handy when you need some dry crispness to counter any sweet or fruity ingredient. It adds complexity to a martini when used sparingly and also comes in handy in the kitchen where I use it like dry sherry. Noilly Prat and Martini & Rossi work well.
- Triple Sec or Curaçao A ubiquitous ingredient and home bar staple. There are many options out there with varying degrees of quality and price. I found there’s no middle ground here. It’s either cheap or expensive, so we make our own. It’s a little time consuming but worth the effort. If you’re feeling fancy go for Grand Marnier or Cointreau, otherwise DeKuyper will work just fine.
- Specialty Liqueurs This is where you can show your creativity. Go with what sounds good or sparks your interest. I like to have a couple amaro or bitter liqueurs like Campari of Fernet Branca as well as something sweet and floral like elderflower or pomegranate liqueur (St. Germaine or Thatcher’s).
- Bitters Once left to a handful of classic drinks, bitters have recently started playing a bigger role in basic recipes. I love a dash of bitters in almost everything I drink these days, alcoholic or not. The two most widely used are Angostura and Peychaud’s aromatic varities. Stock both as they have very different flavors. Or go crazy and make your own bitters.
Now that your bar is stocked with lots of great stuff, you’ll need some mixers and fresh produce. These are the non-bar things we always have on hand.
Mixers and Fresh Produce
- Citrus Lemons and limes specifically with oranges and grapefruits following close by. We tend to get what’s in season and adjust the cocktail recipes accordingly.
- Sodas and Tonic Water Standard Scwhepps or Canada Dry will do here. You can get fancy with any of the “craft” mixers from Fever Tree, Or Q Tonic but that’s your call. One of the current cocktail trends is the Mule, a simple and refreshing drink which uses bold ginger beer for the mixer.
- Simple Syrup Make your own by dissolving 1 cup sugar into 1 cup hot water, then chill. Simple. Like the name. I always keep some on hand in the fridge.
So now you have everything it takes to mix about a hundred really tasty cocktails. Now you need to know a little mixing science. It comes down to ratios. I’ve experimented enough with all the above ingredients to confidently suggest this simple formula:
- 2 oz. liquor of choice
- 1/2 oz. sweet or dry vermouth
- 1/2 oz. triple sec
- 1/2 oz. lemon or lime juice
- splash of specialty liqueur of choice
- Shake or stir over ice and strain into a chilled glass.
Sounds vague and delicious at the same time, right? Now obviously I leave this to your good judgement. I’d say that if you’re using Kahlua as your specialty liqueur, you may not be pleased.
Now, go have fun!