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Build A Bar

July 23, 2009

There are two schools of thought when it comes to building your home bar.  And I have spent time at each of those schools.  So I thought I would share my thoughts.

I expect Raf to be the first to chime in on this subject, since currently he sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from me.  But I can’t blame him, I’ve been there, and its draw is very powerful.

One school is to slowly build a home bar so that you have everything.  You become a collector of sorts.  Sure, it can be modified to select for only the libations and spirits that you and your friends are likely to consume.  No need to stock cream liqueurs if all your friends are lactose intolerant.

The other school is to limit yourself to a few bottles at a time.  Your bar is a reflection of the handful of cocktails you enjoy and would like to share with your friends.  It is the culmination of your lifetime of experiences, and your well-entrenched preferences.  Sure you may try something new, but that’s the reason God invented bartenders.

There are a few problems with trying to build a full bar at home.
1)    Space: Bottles take up a lot more room than you imagine.
2)    Time: Constant trips to the liquor store to replenish empty bottles.
3)    Money: Constant trips to the liquor store to replenish empty bottles.

Plus you will invariably end up with bottles sitting around that never get used.  Like the time I simply had to have a bottle of Crème de Banana to properly make a Rum Runner.  Even fantastic spirits like Luxardo’s Maraschino, which only get used by the teaspoon, occasionally slip out of rotation and end up getting dusty on the shelf.

Today my entire bar fits in one narrow kitchen cabinet.  I am told that may seem large to some people.  But to me it feels small.

Here is how I put it to good use.

I drink seasonally.  It’s summer, so the bar leans heavier on summer base spirits:  tequila, gin and rum.  I generally break things down into two quality levels.  The first is spirits I mix.  The mixing spirits I usually buy in large bottles.  I know what I like, so why not buy in volume and save a few dollars.

The second level is spirits for sipping.  I keep a small handful of these bottles around for special occasions.  There is a fantastic 15-year-old Haitian rum, my father-in-law’s favorite Macallan 12 year old, and a bottle of Booker’s bourbon that will take the enamel off your teeth.

I also buy supplemental bottles of liqueurs needed to make my favorite cocktails.  Since these get used by the teaspoon or tablespoon I generally stick with smaller half-bottles.  Cointreau allows me to make margaritas and other drinks in the sour family.  In summer it is my go-to liqueur.  A half-bottle of green chartreuse allows me to make the sublime Alaska cocktail.  I also have a bottle of coffee liqueur that is leftover from winter but has found a good home in the Afro-Cuban cocktail.

Finally, I have a library of bittersBitters are important for mixing drinks.  Even if space is at a premium.  I make room for Angostura bitters, Fee’s whiskey barrel aged old-fashioned bitters, two kinds of orange bitters, and Peychaud’s bitters.  I also keep a bottle of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth in the cabinet.  And I did hoard as much of the old formulation of Noilly Prat dry vermouth as I could.

When fall rolls around, I’ll start transitioning the rum and tequila out for scotch and bourbon, and dust off my bottle of Drambuie.  It will be nice to welcome back my Manhattans and Rusty Nails for the season.  Gin is really a full-year spirit.  Juniper is ever green, you know.

The secret to this approach is to find what you like.

And that is easier said than done.  It takes time.  It takes trying a lot of different things to know which ones you prefer.  It takes having a dedication to that brand in the face of new and interesting versions of spirits coming along every year.  It takes the fortitude to stick to your plan.

But ultimately, I think it is rewarding.  When you build this kind of bar at home, you no longer have to wonder, “What am I in the mood to drink?”  You have already narrowed down your choices to your few favorites of the moment.  You just pull down the bottles and the cocktail almost makes itself.

If you need help, let me know.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2009 12:15 pm

    I think I have stated before on this, the fussiest of all blogs, that I am just not a cocktail guy. I am a fairly heavy (as in frequent, not problem) drinker, but I usually have only beer, scotch, and perhaps a decent red table wine on hand. I guess this makes life fairly easy for me in the home bar department as most of my friends are like minded. Also, I remember one hazy night in college when (me and some mates tried to maintain a semblance of a communal bar) I downed a half bottle of Midori straight after the beer ran out. I would not like to experience this in adult life, so I try to limit the amount of funny digestives lying around. I will admit a certain weakness for sipping a glass of Grand Marnier, so maybe you will find some of that in my abode on occasion.

  2. July 23, 2009 12:54 pm

    thanks for the tips Daniel. my SO and I recently purchased a house and he wants a bar in the basement

  3. July 23, 2009 6:42 pm

    I also have another problem – don’t drink it all so darned quickly… It’s so nice to see my server/bar stocked, but it gets depleted so quickly.

    • July 24, 2009 12:47 pm

      Oh yeah. We have this same problem in our household. I’m amazed the bottle of vermouth is still kicking around. Even my little pink bottle of sake is gone!

  4. Raf permalink
    July 23, 2009 10:44 pm

    Having collected a ridiculous collection of liquor, I actually agree with keeping it limited. You can have a really solid bar with a dozen bottles or so. Were I to start over, I’d keep it limited to the bottles listed below.

    My only quibble with your post is that you keep your vermouth in the cabinet. Open bottles of vermouth (wine) should be kept in the fridge, not out in the open.

    plymouth or tanq gin
    buffalo trace bourbon
    wild turkey rye
    herradura silver tequila
    white rum ?brand?
    goslings black seal rum
    countreau
    maraschino
    absinthe
    campari
    noilly prat dry vermouth
    carpano antica (sweet vermouth)
    angustora bitters
    angustora orange bitters
    peychaud bitters

  5. July 23, 2009 11:37 pm

    Raf- Funny that you mention that about the Vermouth. One of my enduring memories of childhood is opening the fridge and seeing a bottle of Martini & Rossi in the same spot, all the time, a never ending constant. My father was a Martini man (dry, up, with olives).

  6. Spencer permalink
    July 24, 2009 4:32 pm

    Bookers ain’t cheap! But it is goooood.

    Well I have a few of those “gotta-have-its” in my bar (anyone want a bottle of Herbsaint??) but I generally do the same as profus- gin and rum for summer, browner stuff for winter. For white rum that $7 pyrat from TJs was unbeatable, but as it is gone I stick with Bacardi, probably for mostly sentimental reasons. I love Pampero Anniversaro (in the leather pouch) at $20 for a good aged rum.

    Gotta get some marachino from Raff. The improved whiskey cocktail he makes is great.

  7. Mama Ass permalink
    July 28, 2009 10:38 am

    Hi. I want help. I am leaving in two days for a long beach weekend and I would like to take a few things down to mix a few drinks for others (pretty much Papa Ass’s parents and Milo’s parents).
    I am making a carafe of simple syrup and taking Gin to make Tom Collins.
    I have a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of rum some pomegranate schnapps and a bottle of gin.
    I bought a small bottle of brandy to soak sour cherries for whiskey sours, but haven’t bought the cherries yet. I can buy bitters. What might you recommend to fill out a mini bar to take on the road for beach cocktails?

  8. July 28, 2010 11:52 pm

    Is the 15-yr old Rum Barbancourt Rhum? I have a bottle myself and it is spectacular for sipping. For cocktails, I prefer Pussers.

  9. July 29, 2010 2:01 am

    Great post. If you happen to watch Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” (the only show of his worth watching, if you ask me), a constant correction he makes to most restaurants is to simplify the menu. Not only do you keep your costs down, you create something much more manageable. I just hosted a poker night, and as I always do in such situations, I created a limited drinks menu based on what I had on hand and what was quick to make — daiquiris, sours, Jack Rose, Small Dinger, etc. There was something for everyone — the menu helps them decide too, as most people don’t know their cocktails — and, more importantly, I wasn’t trapped making drinks all night.

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