I guess since I’m writing a cocktail blog I’m obligated to tackle the more than ubiquitous question: “What should I stock my home bar with if I want to make great cocktails?” There are a few different approaches that come to mind when thinking about this question. Obviously, I could print out a list of my recommended brands from every spirit category, remind you that cheap triple sec is no substitute for Cointreau, steer you towards vermouths that aren’t the $4.88 brand sitting on the end cap display at the liquor store, and send you out on the booze shopping spree of a lifetime. The problem with that is you’ll get to the cash register and curse my name when you’re slapped with a $504.26 bill and realize that you haven’t even made it to Central Market for all the other crap on that damn list I gave you. To me, this has always seemed like a wasteful and inefficient answer to the question.
The most important thing to keep in mind if you want to build a great home bar is that you don’t have to make all of the great cocktails at home. Even in the professional settings in which I work that are stocked with hundreds of bottles, an army of bitters, and cases of produce, there are still cocktails that I don’t have the ingredients to make. Instead of trying to stock your home bar with a mindset that you need to be able to make all the cocktails, I think it’s best that the home cocktail enthusiast begin building a bar with the most probable cocktail scenarios in mind.
What then is the most common drink that you are going to have to make from the liquor you have at home? The answer is the drink that you enjoy. For simplicity’s sake let’s say you like Manhattans. A good bottle of rye whiskey, a decent sweet vermouth, and a bottle of Angostura bitters will be the leaping off point for your bar. Since a Manhattan requires twice as mush whiskey as it does vermouth and only a couple of dashes of bitters, you’ll soon find that you’re left with a half bottle of vermouth, a mostly full bottle of bitters, and no rye. That’s okay. On the next trip to the liquor store pick up a bottle of rye to replace the one you emptied and a bottle of scotch. Now you’re equipped to make Manhattans and Rob Roys, and you’ve only had to by two bottles of booze per liquor run. On the next trip pick up some Old Tom Gin, a bottle of Luxardo Maraschino, and some orange bitters. Now you can conquer a Manhattan, a Rob Roy, and a Martinez. At this point, you can add a bottle of Benedictine to your collection and start making the Bobby Burns. While only purchasing two bottles at a time you can build a versatile bar in very short order.
It’s important to let your home bar build organically. Learning to perfect the drink that you like to drink and then moving on to perfecting a drink that is similar is a great way to slowly build your skills, educate your palette, and get a sense of what you like and don’t like. In short, it keeps you from needlessly blowing money on bottles that are unnecessary for your drinking habits. I know there’s the off chance that someone might pay you a visit and get a little upset if you’re not stocked up with the ingredients for an Alamagoozlum, but if they won’t accept a well made Manhattan in its place then you’ll know that deep down inside they’re an asshole and you shouldn’t be friends with them anyway.