A friend of mine recently got a new home and now wants to stock his home bar. He asked for my advice on this matter, so here it goes...
I'm going to break this down into 3 phases so you don't have to break the bank right off the bat. These phases assume that you already have a place to put all of your liquor, mixers, etc... and that this place is near or close enough to a sink with running water.
Phase one is simple. Think of your favorite three cocktails and get the needed ingredients. If you like Gin and Tonics, Manhattans, and Black Russians then get the following ingredients:
Gin, Bourbon, Vodka, Coffee Liqueur, Sweet Vermouth, Tonic Water, Bitters
This maybe all you ever need if you don't plan on entertaining and just want what you need for your favorites. This phase is the most economical but also the most selfish. If you want to be considered a mixologist amongst your friends you have to give your guests choices. So on to phase 2...
In the second phase of stocking your home bar you will get the bare bones basics to make the nearly all lowballs (liquor and mixers), most of the fundamental cocktails, and some rarities.
Liquors: Bourbon, Brandy, Gin, Light Rum (white), Blanco Tequila (white), Vodka, Whiskey (Blended, Rye, Scotch, Irish)
Liqueurs: Amaretto, Triple Sec, Coffee Liqueur, Italian Vermouth (sweet or red label), French Vermouth (dry or green label), Various Schnapps (Apple, Peach, Peppermint ...)
Garnishes and Condiments: Angostura Bitters, Black Pepper, Cocktail Olives (no pimento), Cocktail Onions (pickled), Limes, Lemons, Oranges, Grenadine, Horseradish, Maraschino Cherries, Rose's Lime Juice, Salt, Coarse Salt, Sugar, Tabasco Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, Orange Bitters
Mixers: Water, Club Soda, Cola, Diet Cola, Lemon-Lime Soda, Milk, Orange Juice, Tomato Juice, Tonic Water, Ginger Ale, Cranberry Juice, Pineapple Juice, Beer
Don't be overwhelmed with this list. You can build this up over time. And, I would recommend not just buying an ingredient just because it is on this list. Get it because it is in a recipe you want to try and/or serve. This means it doesn't make sense to buy all the liquors first you will have nothing to mix them with. If you do this you will be drinking a lot of "on the rocks" drinks. Buy the set of sprits, mixers, condiments for something that will actually make a cocktail.
For example if you are moving from phase 1 to phase 2 with the example of phase 1 above and you want to now serve Martinis, add French Vermouth with the Gin you already have and you got it.
The Schnapps are definitely recipe specific for example you may want to serve a Fuzzy Navel (Peach Schnapps and Orange Juice)
On to..... Phase 3
Now you certainly do not have to have all of the ingredients in phase 2 before you get some of these specialized spirits in phase 3. The same rules apply; get ingredients that make up the recipes of what you want to try/serve.
As you add spirits to your arsenal I would highly recommend tasting each and everyone either neat, on the rocks, or as a chilled shot. This will allow you to know the flavor of each ingredient individually. By knowing a spirit’s flavor you will know what it is doing to the cocktail and how it is affecting the balance of the drink, which will make you a better mixologist.
Liquor: Cognac, Canadian Whisky, Single Malt Scotch, Aged Rum, Anejo Tequila, Various Flavored Vodkas (Citron, Limon ...)
Liqueurs: Anisette, Cointreau, Crème de Menthe, Blue Curaçao, White Curaçao, Grand Marnier, Pernod, Sambuca, Amer Picon, Applejack, Aquavit, B & B, Irish Cream, Benedictine, Campari, Chambord, Chartruse, Cherry Heering, Crème de Banane, Crème de Cassis, Crème de Noyaux, Drambuie, Bubonnet, Framboise, Galliano, Irish Mist, Jagermeister, Lillet, Maraschino Liqueur, Midori, Pimm's No. 1, Sloe Gin, Southern Comfort, Tia Maria, Tuaca, Various Flavored Brandies (Peach, Cherry,...)
Garnishes and Condiments: Bananas, Celery, Celery Seeds, Cinnamon Sticks, Cloves, Eggs, Ground Cinnamon, Heavy Cream, Light Cream, Mint Sprigs, Nutmeg, Pineapple, Strawberries
Mixers: Beef Bouillon, Clamato Juice, Coconut Cream, Coffee, Ginger Beer, Grapefruit Juice, Lemonade, Orange Flower Water, Orgeat (Almond Syrup), Peach Nectar, Sake, Red Wine, White Wine, Port, Ale, Stout
Wow! If you have a home bar with all this you would rival a high end public bar. Now we need to talk about practicality. It really is not practical to stock all of these ingredients in your home bar, especially the perishable items. Unless you are getting ready for a big party or you constantly serve a lot of guests at your home we need to dial this back some.
Carbonated items, fresh fruit, fresh spices, wine, vermouth, dairy, and fresh juices are all ingredients that spoil over time. Unless you use them often in a favorite drink you will want to minimize the amount of these items you have on hand.
I would recommend buying the small bottles/cans whenever possible. For example there are six packs of tonic water, ginger ale, club soda, pineapple juice, cola, lemon-lime soda, etc... that are very convenient and efficient in a home bar. One of these small bottles/cans has enough in it to make about 3 to 4 cocktails and if you only end up making one Gin and Tonic you only waste a little bit of tonic water not a big 2 litter of it.
As far as fresh fruit is concerned, it is general pretty cheap. I always keep at least one lemon, lime, and orange in the refrigerator. I found that I use a lot more limes than anything else so I actually got a lime tree growing in my backyard, talk about fresh! If you do keep your fresh fruit in the fridge you will want to take it out a couple of hours before serving, if you can, to allow it to get to room temperature. Fruit juices better at room temperature.
Vermouth is a fortified wine. It does go bad. Sure it takes a little longer because it has extra alcohol in it, but it does go bad. It can especially go bad if you have it sitting around at room temperature with a speed pourer sticking in it. If you are not a big vermouth fan but you want to stock it for your guests you can also buy vermouth in small bottles. Keeping your vermouth in the fridge can also make it last longer after opening, however you may not get the proper amount of melted ice in your cocktails with chilled spirits.
There is something you need to know about orange liqueurs as well… Triple Sec, White Curaçao, Blue Curaçao, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier are types of orange liqueurs. They all have an orange flavor and each can be substituted one for the other. Some do taste better than others and there is large price difference between them. You will notice some to be dryer, some to be sweeter, and some to contain a caramel, cinnamon, or nutmeg flavoring. Curaçao and Triple Sec are your less expensive choices and it is a good idea to start with one of these in your cabinet. But, you should try the other varieties as well. You could go into a public bar and order a sampling of each of these on the rocks (be careful if you do this in one sitting). I generally stock a low end and a high end orange liqueur in my bar. (There will be a future article on Orange Liqueurs)
You also have to manage your space in a home bar. If you are like me you have a couple of cabinets available to store all your spirits. Those couple of cabinets can fill up quickly and you will find yourself with a lot of ingredients that you rarely pour. You will want to get other liqueurs and spirits but have no where to put them. So be prudent with your space, make sure you utilize your cabinet with ingredients you will use on a fairly consistent basis.
One thing you can do to be both economical and save on space is to keep only the 750ml bottles in your cabinet, but buy the larger 1.75 litter bottles to refill the 750ml. Now this is very much frowned on in public bars due to liquor laws. Also if a guest ever saw a bartender doing this they would immediately think, "This place waters down their liquor!" But at home, this is a perfectly fine practice. Sure you might want to get a new 750ml bottle now and then but really one bottle can last you for a long time. Keep your 1.75 litter bottles in another room, in a closet, or something of the sort. Just make sure this place stays at a normal room temperature. When your 750ml bottle runs out, go get your 1.75 litter bottle and a funnel and filler back up. You can get over twice as much of the spirit in the 1.75 litter bottles at not nearly double the price.
So there you have it. The goal when building your home bar is to be able to make as wide of a selection of cocktails as possible without breaking the bank, running out of space, or duplicating the flavors where possible. Look for that one next ingredient that will allow you to make a much larger selection of cocktails.
Cheers and have fun!
Image courtesy of laartist at IStockphoto.com