There’s been some talk around the internet enumerating the bare minimum of bottles needed to stock a bar. The talk is usually aimed at the young and impoverished who don’t know much about cocktail makin’ and need someone to tell them where to start. While we here at Hooch & Home recognize the rationale behind the idea of the (insert number here) Bottle Bar, we also firmly believe that idea is a bunch of bologna.
The thing is, building a bar is something that is very personal and specific to the situation. Personal preferences should rule your purchases. Why buy rum if the smell of it conjures up memories of college hangovers? Why sink $30 into a bottle of St. Germain if you have shelves with a Napoleon complex or you just really don’t like gin? We think you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t feel obligated!
The idea of limiting a bar is something I’ve never even considered, and I’ve lived in some small and questionable dorms/apartments. One of the most traumatic moments of my school years was watching the campus police pour my homemade limoncello down the drain after they busted a party sophomore year. Yes, I was obviously making my own limoncello sophomore year of college.
Alcohol is something I like to collect everywhere I go, and I truly believe that it has its own kind of terroir, like wine. The honey and anise liqueur I brought back from the Yucatan reminds me of Merida’s colorful streets every time I add it to a Margarita. That bottle of Southern Comfort that has stuck with me (still almost full) since college reminds me of finishing exams even though I wouldn’t touch the stuff now. I just can’t bring myself to throw it out. You never know when it might come in handy! I used to keep at least four bottles of bourbon on hand at all times when trips to visit Melissa in Kentucky were routine, and I was glad we brought back three bottles of tequila from our honeymoon, especially since I just discovered how lovely it can be to sip a nice reposado on the rocks. When it comes to the at home bar, my mottos are be prepared and more is more!!! which is evidenced by the above photo aka overflow. Putting together a well-organized and aesthetically appealing bar is one of the things I am most excited to do in our new house.
I tend to approach things seasonally: I reach for gin in the warm months and bourbon in the cooler. I’m also from Kentucky, so a bare minimum of two different grades of bourbon on the bar is necessary at all times. If Rob had his druthers, the bar would be mostly bourbon and scotch. Before joining H&H, I mainly stuck to drinking fancy cocktails out at bars and straightforward highballs at home. Now, between experimenting with different drinks and a general lack of excellent cocktail bars in our new town, home bar tending is starting to look a whole lot more reasonable and exciting!
Where to Begin Your Cocktail Odyssey
Since we both set up our first bars, we’ve come to the conclusion that there is no formula for the best bar in 10 bottles or less. One of the best ways to learn what you should keep on your bar at home is to examine your cocktail habits when out drinking. Exploring different flavors and liqueurs at a bar is much cheaper and more rewarding than sinking a bunch of money in a bottle of something that will end up collecting dust. And when we say “out drinking”, we don’t mean a sports bar–unless it’s a sports bar that happens to have stellar cocktails. We’re talking about building a bar for making cocktails, so the places you should be seeking out for experimentation should be places that care about making cocktails. That’s how Melissa found out that small batch tonic syrup is out of this world good and grocery store tonic water is a scourge.
You should also take time to consider the amount of time you are willing to invest in making a cocktail at home. If putting ice in a glass and pouring a glorious amber liquid on top is your ideal of time intensive, you probably don’t need to invest in Cointreau…and you probably wouldn’t be here anyway. However, if you really like margaritas and would love to make one yourself sans high fructose corn syrup, check out our Habanero Margarita.
A note on bar ware: If you are serious about getting into cocktails, you will definitely need a Boston shaker, strainer, bar spoon, something to juice citrus with, and (if you ask Melissa) a supply of adorable swizzle sticks. Tools like peelers and zesters are also very handy to have. As far as glassware goes, it doesn’t matter much when you’re just starting out–as long as it’s glass! However, a beautiful coupe will serve you well for a wide variety of drinks and make you feel incredibly posh. A couple of nice highball glasses can take on the rest of the short drinks that don’t require a coupe. For taller drinks, you probably have drinking glasses that will work just fine.
If you have resisted expanding your glassware collection due to the price of fine glassware, be sure to check out thrift and antique stores or flea markets. You can often find sets of glassware with loads of character at very low prices. In fact, all of Julia’s bar ware has been purchased second hand except for her juicer. Same goes for Melissa’s collection of adorable swizzle sticks.
Now, while we are against limiting the bar to a certain number and configuration of bottles and calling it universal, we aren’t against providing some guidance to those young and not-independently-wealthy who are looking to build a bar at home.
Bar Starter Kits!
Here we offer some options for how to build a bar based around a primary liquor. Once you’ve got the alcohol and a couple of other specialty items, the mixers can be switched up and swapped out to add breadth to your cocktail capabilities. Melissa tends to keep bourbon and gin along with lemons and limes, sweet vermouth, club soda, tonic syrup, olives, and bitters. Julia’s motto is “More is more!” and keeps a bit of everything on hand. Regardless of where you start, as soon as you diversify your mixers, your cocktail options will grow exponentially!
When your pockets bulk up again after the initial investment, try adding some interesting bottles like Fernet Branca (which Food52 fairly accurately describes as “…like being punched in the face with a boxing glove crammed with camphor, eucalyptus, ginger and an alpine meadow”) or Luxardo or fancy bitters or even that giant bottle of St. Germain. And definitely stay tuned for future posts where we will dig into the nitty gritty of how to DIY some bar essentials.
Bourbon: for fans of Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Mint Juleps, Sours, horse racing.
Bourbon is Melissa’s main liquor from about October through the first Saturday in May. Julia always stocks up whenever she makes it down to Kentucky, but you can find great bourbon just about anywhere in America these days. And what great days they are!
- One bottle mixing-grade bourbon
- One bottle sipping-grade bourbon
- Sweet vermouth
- Dry vermouth
- Agnostura bitters
- Mixers to have handy: citrus, ginger ale, maraschino cherries, simple syrup, ginger, tea, mint
Tequila: for fans of Margaritas, sours, citrus flavors, infusions, questionable decision making.
Tequila plays really well with the high acid of citrus fruit, salt, and the heat of a pepper. Experiment with different combinations and proportions to find what you like best. Grab yourself a fine reposado when you’re ready to take it to the next level.
- One tequila you wouldn’t mind shooting, but not necessarily sipping-grade. Must be 100% agave!
- Cointreau or triple sec
- Hot sauce of your preference
- Mixers to have handy: all manner of citrus and lots of it, simple syrup, kosher salt, pineapple juice, hot peppers
Rum: for fans of Daiquiris, Mojitos, pirate tales.
If you’ve never had a real daiquiri, run don’t walk to your nearest liquor store and enlighten yourself with its beautiful simplicity.
- One bottle light rum
- One bottle spiced rum
- Angostura bitters
- Mixers: mint, simple syrup, club soda, tonic syrup, lime, your cola of choice
Gin: for fans of Gimlets, Martinis, G&Ts, infused liquors, Great Britain.
Gin tends to have a lot of interesting flavors to begin with, but it also plays well with others whether they be sweet or savory. One of the most memorable cocktails Melissa ever had was a Rosemary Gin Gimlet and a dirty martini can be magic.
- One bottle medium-grade gin
- One bottle tonic syrup
- One bottle dry vermouth
- Mixers: simple syrup, olives, mint, other herbs like rosemary and lavender, lime, club soda
Vodka: for fans of Martinis, Cosmopolitans, infusions, Bloody Marys, activated charcoal-level purity.
Vodka is like alcohol’s blank canvas. It can take on the flavor of almost anything and is pretty critical for many bar-related DIY projects, so experiment away!
- One bottle medium-grade vodka
- One bottle Lillet: because if you’re going to choose this starter kit, you better have some gin and be able to make a Vesper. Because Bond. James Bond. So classy.
- Lemon and lime
- One bottle dry vermouth
- Mixers: ginger beer, tomato juice (and all Mary fixins), club soda, cranberry juice, triple sec, the list could go on for days…
The options are truly endless and that’s a big part of the beauty of this here cocktail world. Explore! Create! Experiment! Above all, have fun. That’s what it’s all about, right?
Tell us your own home bar regulations and stipulations, what you would never be caught without, and/or your own opinion about the (insert number here) bottle bar in the comments. Any veteran mixologists out there feel free to offer your sage wisdom for those of us just starting out, too!