One of my favorite ways to entertain guests is to mix up a cocktail and share a conversation over a couple of drinks, but it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to building up your home bar. In this series, I’m going to go over what I consider the essentials to a perfect bar, starting with the main pillar: your alcohol collection.
There are two main rules when you’re trying to build up your bar:
1. Buy what you like to drink and are comfortable working with, and
2. Don’t go super crazy and buy it all at once.
I’ve organized all these different types of alcohol according to my own preference and priority, but when you’re building you bar, focus on what you and your guests will enjoy. I’ve tried to provide my favorite specific brands (which I just love, no sponsorships here!) but if you’re loyal to something else, it’s probably worth sticking to. Now, let’s get stocking!
I have to start here, because there’s nothing better to share with a guest that a nice glass of bourbon. When it comes to whiskeys, there’s many different types, from sweeter bourbons, to the bite of a rye, to the peatiness of a scotch. I tend to stick to bourbon, and I keep two different kinds on hand. It’s important for me to have a mixing whiskey, which is a little cheaper and less smooth, and then also a sipping one, which has an elevated flavor and is best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
I tend to be brand loyal, so I buy Makers Mark as my mixer, and their more expensive Makers 46 to drink. However, whiskey is my most well-covered bar category. We also keep some other types on hand, like a scotch or Irish whiskey. I’ve also been building up quite the collection of locally distilled bourbons, which I love to share with my fellow enthusiasts. But I’m pretty particular about those, and make sure they never get mixed.
Vodka & Gin
I think these two are the easiest liquors to mix basic drinks. I don’t tend to drink either one straight, so it’s easier for me to save a little money here by focusing on middle of the road brands. For vodka, I think Svedka makes a pretty nice vodka soda lime or vodka cranberry. It works well to add to almost anything for a kick.
Gin can be pretty divisive, but I love it, especially when mixed with something fruity or floral. In my experience, something citrus-forward is more of a crowd-pleaser than something more focused on the botanicals. My current favorite is from a local distillery, Black Button Citrus Forward Gin, and it makes a pretty mean gin fizz.
Rum & Tequila
I put these two together because I actually use them in very similar ways, for sweeter and more complex drinks. When it comes to rum, I like to have a simple Bacardi white, which makes the perfect mojito or daquiri. I’d suggest having a good Jamaican golden or dark rum on hand as well, for when you’re mixing up something like a fruity mai tai or punch.
When it comes to tequila, my preferred style is a reposado. These are the youngest of the aged tequilas, so they have a subtle woody taste, but aren’t quite as robust as an anejo tequila. My current favorite is Hornitos, especially for a simple margarita on the rocks. I love experimenting with different flavors with tequila, and find it works well in a lot of combinations. I recently invented a spicy pineapple margarita, so look out for that recipe coming soon!
Liqueurs & Flavored Liquors
Once you’ve got the basics, these will add some flair to your cabinet and your cocktails. The main one I like is to have an orange liqueur like a triple sec or Cointreau. This is great for margaritas, to mix with gin, or with anything that needs a fruity pop. I don’t tend to keep too many flavored liquors around, but I do like to have a sweet whiskey, like a Jim Beam Maple. That way my less boubon-obsessed guests can sip a nightcap with me and actually enjoy it.
A collection I’ve been working on growing lately is my cream liquers. A typical Irish cream like Bailey’s is always good to sip on it’s own or on the rocks, and also makes an excellent addition to coffee or hot chocolate. Lately, I’ve been enjoying some alternatives as well, like bourbon cream or rum cream (which is unfortunately not available in the US, so we had to bring back some bottles from Jamaica for ourselves!)
Wine & Beer
These are the quickest and easiest way to enjoy a night in. There’s no mixing or flavor matching, and generally, guests enjoy one or the other (although there are a few loyal liquor drinkers out there). For wine, I think having a few on hand can be helpful, especially blends. These tend to be crowd-pleasers over single-grape varietals. My favorite red is Menage a Trois, and my go-to white is Conundrum.
For beer, we tend to only drink dark beers around here, so our fridge is stocked with porters, stouts, and anything barrel-aged. But sometimes our guests are looking for an easy-to-drink alternative. My husband would recommend Labatt Blue as a good lager that is pretty drinkable. I can’t personally vouch though, since I’d rather stick to my Founders Breakfast Stout.
How to Buy
Like I said earlier, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself and feel like you need to stock your whole bar at once. Start with the pieces that you like the best, and then slowly build up from there. If you’re into margs, get tequila and triple sec, and maybe wait on the whiskey and gin. As you experiment, you’ll buy the missing pieces. One tip I love: when you’re having guests, ask what their favorite cocktail is, and then buy the liquor needed for that. That way you can surprise them with a fun night in, and after they leave, you’ll still have it on hand.
When it comes to suppliers, every store is a little different, but in most cases I have found that the employees are knowledgeable and helpful when you have questions like “which is the best cheap whiskey to mix with ginger ale?” Also, pay attention to where you can buy. In New York, we can buy beer in our grocery stores, but for wine and liquor we have to go to a separate liquor store. Check your local laws if you’re not sure.
Happy bar stocking!