Greetings! My apologies for the long summer hiatus, but unfortunately other activities pulled me away for a while, first and foremost among them finding and purchasing my first home! Now that that is done and I've settled in, I'm back on track (or back on the wagon, if you prefer). Further, with the purchase of a new home, comes the buying of many many things to stock and set it up. So, in that spirit, I thought it might be a good time to throw my two cents in on a topic that often gets many viewpoints on message boards and in the blogosphere, the question of what to buy to stock up a home bar.
Generally speaking, I think there are two different mind sets that people propose for stocking up a home bar: 1) cover the basics and 2) build up based on a drink or drinks you want to be able to make. The two are not mutually exclusive; they are both just means of getting around a finite budget. The extent to which you want to borrow from one approach or the other is a matter of personal preference and audience. Are you catering primarily to yourself and maybe a S.O., or are you looking primarily to entertain for the masses (or a group of picky friends)? I think that question is a good initial one to ask. The answer could likely be both, but if you can at least figure out how to weight the scale towards one or other, it can help you prioritize.
Once you've got a handle on your goals, the next step I'd suggest is to get a handle on the categories you will be building from. I don't mean type of whiskey or anything like that here; I simply mean the categories of: base spirits, modifiers (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), tools, and glassware. To get a home bar up and running, these are pretty much what you'll be looking at, with the other possible addition being storage (though at the end of the day, a kitchen cabinet can cover you for basic purposes on this front if you wish to go no further - it's all about budget!).
When deciding what base spirits to stock, one question you should keep in mind is are you looking at a spirit for mixing, for sipping, or both? Often times, a certain brand of spirit will be good for one or the other. One key point to be made about purchasing base spirits - don't judge purely by price tag! I don't have the space in this post to give a definitive treatise on brands, and experts and aficionados will give you varying opinions (even contradictory ones) as a matter of taste. However, one piece of advice I can give is do a little leg work if it's a spirit you are not familiar with because there are many many cases where price tag only correlates to marketing dollars, not quality.
When stocking up on base spirits, gin will be up there on the priority list for most people that enjoy a cocktail. For the gin lover, you can really go to town because the variety of gins out there is huge, with the distinctions among them non-trivial. Plymouth is a solid choice among cocktail lovers as a general purpose gin. Some form of London dry gin is generally useful to have - Beefeater and Tanqueray are popular among those that enjoy a stronger juniper flavor; for those that are less juniper tolerant, Bombay Saphire and New Amsterdam are popular choices. To make some of the pre-prohibition era cocktails, you'll need a holland style gin (aka genever), with the most common brand that I have seen being Bols, and an Old Tom style gin, the most common that I've seen being Hayman's and Ransom. If picking between or prioritizing, the Old Tom's I've seen tend to be at a lower price point than the genevers, although it can vary wildly from market to market and store to store.
If you want to take care of all potential comers for entertaining, vodka is going to have to be on your list as well. Vodka gets bashed as flavorless and over-priced by many in the cocktail "scene"; for my part, all I can say is 1) I'm Polish - I drink vodka now and again; and 2) life is short, you should drink what you enjoy. Listening to others suggestions is helpful for learning and expanding one's horizons, but mixed drinks are supposed to be fun, not something to stress about. That said, the comment about price and marketing dollars goes double for vodka. Sobieski and Lukosova are solid, affordable choices in the vodka spectrum (see comment about my being Polish), as is Tito's. If it comes in a fancy bottle and costs 4 times as much as one of these, it's probably not worth it.
Whiskey is another category you will probably want to cover at some point, and it is perhaps the broadest. If you're a Scotch drinker, or have friends that are, this will be a must have. Sadly, it's not an area of expertise for me, so I'm going to yield to better authorities on that one. The same goes for Irish whiskeys. For the American whiskeys, you'll be looking at bourbon and rye, both being important, the latter key for any vintage drink recipes. I like Eagle Rare 10 yr and Blanton's single barrel as relatively affordable choices. Four Roses and Bulleit also have some good product. Another favorite of mine is Redemption, though the caveat with Redemption is that it's practically a rye in taste. And as for rye, I like Sazerac or Russel Reserve 6 yr when willing to spend a bit more money. For a cheaper price point though, Rittenhouse is great bang for the buck, and I don't mind Old Overholdt myself and it's cheap as hell (though less a sipper).
Next up, we have the brandy/cognac category. This is another category where I'm more in the learning phase on, so I have less input on brands (if you too want to do some learning, try starting here). I can tell you that Pierre Ferrand's Ambre cognac is a choice you likely won't regret. One point worth raising is that many cocktail/booze aficionados will tell you that if it's not cognac, then it's not worth bothering. It's just not the same. I think there's some truth to that, but if you are looking for something less expensive that works for mixing, there's a Spanish brandy called Fundador that I first learned about at cocktail
virgin slut that does work very well in mixed drinks and can be seen popping up in bars now and again. Another sub-cateogory you can consider stocking if you want to make some vingage recipes is apple brandy, either a French Calvados or if going American, Laird's Applejack (beware if you get Applejack - the commonly found variety is a blend of apple brandy and netural spirits; there's a higher proof version that's harder to find that's 100% apple brandy, and that's the one you want). There's also a few micro-distillery brands around. If your budget allows, another related area you can expand into is Piscos (a South American, predominantly Peruvian brandy) . I leave you to do the legwork on brands for that, however; I enjoy a Pisco Sour now and then, but I haven't become an expert on the spirit as of yet.
Tequila can be either a really easy or complex category to fill depending on your affinity. For starters, avoid all blended Cuervo, Sauza, or the like - make sure it says 100% agave on the bottle. From there, you can find a ton of inexpensive but quality brands. Beware, however, as marketing dollars have been hitting tequila hard in recent years, so be careful about higher priced hyped choices. Espolon is a good buy for the price, and I also like Milagro (but I'd probably only buy it on sale). Lunazul is a brand I've had luck with and which is dirt cheap. If you just want to cover basic mixed drinks, a blanco will generally suffice. A reposado can also be handy for mixing and most are sipable as well. Anejos are generally sippers, though I don't doubt you can make a fine cocktail with one. If you want to expand your horizons, or just want to be trendy, you can also pick up a bottle of tequila's oft smokier relative, Mezcal. Ilegal makes a fine one, but my favorite starter level is probably Del Maguey Mezcal Vida (their more expensive offerings are also phenomenal).
Rum! Where to begin! Rum can be the path of madness when it comes to socking a home bar. If you like tiki drinks...God help you. Some call for five types of rum for a single recipe. In any event, you'll likely want a light Puerto Rican or Virgin Island rum (unless you can get cuban, in which case go for it!). I suggest saving a few dollars by skipping Bacardi in favor of Cruzan or Don Q. You'll also likely want a dark Jamaican rum, for which I like Meyers and Appleton Estate; for the latter, you have some options in terms of age depending on your budget. I also highly suggest a bottle of Smith & Cross, which is a pot still rum with a unique funkiness that works well in a number of drinks. Two other categories you might want to hit are demerara rums, e.g. El Dorado or Lemon Hart, and a Rhum Agricole such as La Favorite. Both types are necessary for doing much in the tiki drink genre. One category I tend to skip is spiced rums; I just haven't found one that earns its keep yet. As if that all wasn't complicated enough, rum has some relatives worth considering as well. if you like Capirinas, you'll need a decent cachaca (I'm no expert, but Leblanon is tasty). There's also arrack, a style of spirit similar to but pre-dating rum. For that, Van Osten Batavia Arrack is a good choice. For other advice on rums, try RumDood.
One side note on flavored rums and vodkas. I for one won't judge you for having some of these (some people might, I think you should drink what you like). That said, I do warn that you should make sure you know what to use it for before you buy it, as the danger of flavored rums and vodkas is that most people don't actually have a use for them so they languish on the shelf for years. Also, you can recreate the effect of these in more usable portions very easily in most cases just by macerating some fruit in an inexpensive vodka or rum for a few days and adding some simple syrup to bring down the proof. The result can be as good or better than the store bought options. The only flavored variety I tend to ever have is coconut rum; it's handy for scratching the tropical itch with little effort (though admittedly, there are better ways).
Now that you have your base spirits covered, it's time to talk about modifiers, which I generally sum up as liqueurs, bitters (potable and non-potable), fortified wines, sweeteners, fruits and juices, and "bubbly" elements.
First among liqueurs for the average boozehound will be orange liqueurs, most notably a triple sec and a curacao. First among triple secs is Cointreau, hands down. For a less expensive alternative though, I've had some luck with Luxardo's Triplum. Rhum Clement Creole Shrubb is a tasty choice for curacao. Another worthwhile purchase if you have the funds is some Grand Marnier. If you want more definitive coverage about orange liqueurs, Oh Gosh! has some great info.
Herbal liqueurs are a sub-category that I get a substantial amount of mileage out of as well. Most famously, these include Benedictine, Chartreuse, and Yellow Chartreuse. Benedictine is a good entry point for these, as it has a much lower price point. I will also inappropriately lump absinthe in with this category. Absinthe is technically a spirit, but it is often used in similar ways as herbal liqueurs or bitters in mixed drinks. I'm not a huge connoisseur, but Lucid is a solid brand from my experience. There are also cheaper anise flavored alternatives you can try like Herbsaint or pastis as well if the price point is too much for you.
For other liqueurs, I would say go with rule #2 above and use drinks you want to make as your jumping off point. That said, one thing I would highly suggest as an early purchase if you want to make vintage drinks is maraschino liqueur (I like Luxardo's). It goes a long way and is frequently called for. If you really can't bear to make some decisions, here is a handful of other liqueurs I happen to like in no particular order: Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur; Cherry Heering; St. Germain elderflower liqueur; Marie Brizzard Apry apricot brandy; Rene de Miscault Creme de Cassis; St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.
Next up, potable bitters/amari. The most common of these are Aperol, Campari, Cynar, and Fernet Branca. If you can afford it and are into bitter, by all means get them all as they each have their own character. Otherwise, my guess is that Campari is the most frequently called for as an ingredient, while Aperol is the most "accessible" for someone still acquiring a taste for this genre.
For non-potable or cocktail bitters, the first suggestion is easy: Angostura. No question, it is still the most called for of modern bitters. Next, I'd suggest an orange bitters, of which there are a growing number of brands. Try some and decide what you like if it's an option. Failing that, I like Angostura's relatively young offering personally. Another brand that's remained prevalent over the years is Peychaud's. To be honest though, I find that except for in Sazerac's, I reach for it less often than I had hoped. Outside of these, try and buy is my advice, or build based on a recipe you like. Between the Boston Shaker and Cocktail Kingdom, you could very easily fill an entire wall with different bitters if you wanted to given the number available today. If you want to cheat a bit, the Bitter Truth has a product they call their "travel pack" that is a sampler of some of their offerings (you may have to get it special ordered). Other than that, for what it's worth I find that I reach for my Boker's bitters pretty frequently; like Angostura, they just magically work in a number of drinks.
Fortified wines are another sub-category you'll likely want to build up, foremost amongst which are vermouths. For a dry, Noilly Prat is my go-to for an inexpensive option, but I prefer Dolin. For a sweet, Carpano Antica is indeed the king (but pricey); Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is also excellent (both are good for sipping as well as mixing). If you need a cheaper option though, Martini & Rossi will do in a pinch. A pseudo-vermouth with a more bitter profile that I also enjoy is Punt e Mes. It is good on its own, is called for by name in some recipes, and makes for an interesting sub for sweet vermouth. Speaking of bitter, quinquinas are another sub-category worth having on hand. My favorite is the moscatto-based Cocchi Americano. Dubonet Rouge is a commonly used red variety. Last, sherries and ports are also handy ingredients, though I don't have the expertise for substantial recommendations. Whatever you acquire, don't forget the "wine" part in fortified wine and store them in the fridge after opening and discard after they turn.
Don't overlook the non-alcoholic ingredients when stocking up your home bar. One important category of these is sweeteners. Superfine sugar is handy to have for making a quick simple syrup. I like having demerara sugar on hand, which I think is even better (though it will give a brown color). Muscovado sugar is similar to demerara, but tends to be more fine. A good honey is also useful to have (anything local and/or organic), as is some agave syrup. If you want to go beyond the basics, flavored syrups are very handy to have. The big commercial brands you see are Monin and Torani, but there's also some small batch producers like R.G. Reynalds (formerly Trader Tiki) for your tiki-oriented needs and Small Hand Foods for offerings like gomme syrup, pineapple gomme syrup, and other fine products.
Fruit is another thing you must have for a functional home bar. It is not optional - the bottled stuff just will not do. Lemons and limes are most important for juicing and garnishes; oranges thereafter, followed by grapefruit. I confess, I usually go with store bought pineapple juice rather than juicing (small cans of unsweetened). Other than that, things like mint and whatever is in season is always good to have around. For garnishes, maraschino cherries also come in handy, and while pricey, Luxardo's are great; otherwise, try for anything that's actually made with cherries (rarer than you might think) or even better, make your own.
The last set of modifiers I will cover is "bubblies," which include tonic, sodas, ginger ale/beer, and seltzer/club soda. For tonic, better quality does make a huge difference. If you are unwilling to spend the money on high end brands like Q, Fever Tree, or Fentimen's, I'd at least suggest going for Whole Foods' 365 brand tonic - it's much better than the common super market brands. Coke for a rum and coke is not a bad idea. For some interesting options, you can get a little more exotic with something like grapefruit soda. Ginger ale should not be overlooked, but a good ginger beer is a thing of beauty (I like Fentimen's but there's a number of good brands - do some taste testing and you'll find one you like). Last, for carbonated water, I think you can't beat a soda gun or Soda Stream machine (I have the latter and love love love it). Failing that, I usually fall back to Schwepes for what it's worth.
I'll keep my commentary on glassware brief. I'd suggest a set of v-shaped martini/cocktail glasses (I have a cheap set from Amazon); a set of rocks/lowball glasses; a set of highball glasses or Collins glasses; and wine glasses (white and red if you want be more civilized; champagne flutes as well if you want to be exceedingly civilized). Fancy or ikea quality is up to you.
The last thing you'll need for flinging drinks is some basic bar tools. At a minimum, you'll need a shaker, for which I recommend a Boston shaker style. If you do go that route, you'll also need a Hawthorne strainer at a minimum; I'd recommend a julip strainer as well for straining out of the mixing glass. Some good measures are also a must. I tend to use both a set of jiggers (1 half oz/ one oz and one 3/4 oz 1.5 oz), as well as an oxo angled mini measure (there is a metal and plastic variety) and a Harold Mini Measure. The latter are handy for when you need 1/4 oz measures in particular. A good juicer is another useful tool. If you have the funds, a good commercial press style juicer is great; a hand juicer like the Chef n' FreshForce is worthwhile too (I have had bad luck with the porcelain hand juicers). A bar spoon can be had for cheap, but you can get by with a chopstick if need be. A good paring knife and a good peeler are useful tools to have around as well (and obviously they have other uses too). A channel knife or channel knife/zester combo is useful for garnishes, but not necessarily essential. If you still have money to burn, an ice crushing bag (aka Lewis bag) and mallet can be good to have. You can also invest in some tavolo ice cube trays and even some tools and even a polar ice tray for making clear ice.
Hopefully this gives you some ideas at least if you're stocking up your home bar. Keep in mind, any such advice is going to have some opinion and personal preference involved. But then, if we all had the same tastes and preferences, how boring would that be?
Cheers, and good shopping to you!