It can often be overwhelming to have guests over when you don’t have much alcohol on hand. Especially, if you know, you’re going to be having a drink. Perhaps most of your friends have built up a home bar over the years, but for you, it consists of a cupboard in the kitchen with one or two bottles of liquor that may not even be that popular which is why they’ve sat there for the last five years.
Perhaps you’re a last minute man, picking up a case of craft beer or a bottle of wine to go with dinner. Maybe you find that when you do have alcohol in the house, you run through it too quickly, or it could be that while your friends have been spending $80 on a bottle of Scotch, you’ve been putting that money into developing your wardrobe. We all have different pastimes and passions. If building a bar isn’t one of them, it can sit on the back burner for years.
The fact is that developing a home bar doesn’t mean having to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There are tricks to making you look like a veteran host with just a handful of spirits on hand, and if you follow my advice, you’ll develop a reasonably sized bar without much effort or investment.
The basics of a good gentleman’s home bar can be found in four basic spirits:
The trick to making those four spirits standout is all in the presentation.
Rather than buying 20 or 30 inexpensive bottles of booze, begin by spending a higher amount on those mentioned above. Pick quality branded or craft spirits which will prevent you from guzzling them since you now see more value in them, and you can trust they’ll taste good in basic cocktails or sipped on their own. For specific recommendations, please refer to the specific guides above.
If you take a look at our various spirit guides, you’ll learn a ton about the drinks and even see some of our top picks. However, here are a few tips:
- A good bottle of bourbon is just as wonderful and yet far less expensive than a bottle of Scotch. Consider a bottle of Blanton’s to start off your bar.
- Stick with a VSOP or an XO brandy. Armagnac is often less expensive than Cognac but just as incredible. That or opt for something more unique like a Spanish brandy and use it as a discussion point. Anytime you can have a discussion about a spirit; you’ve put value into your bar.
Design of the Bar
If you only have a handful or a small selection of liquor in your bar, it’s going to look rather silly in a large liquor cabinet. Instead, pick up a bar cart and organize them neatly on it with a set of bar tools and some crystal glassware. All of a sudden, it doesn’t look like a small bar but looks like a fine selection of spirits.
If a bar cart is out of your price range, you can always put a simple shelf or two up and use some track lighting to showcase the spirits. For a rustic and DIY look, consider refinishing old wooden pallets or check websites like Pinterest for inspiration.
Equipment and Mix
If you only have a handful of bottles on hand, it’s important to be able to do as much as possible with them. Keep a stock of mixes such as club soda, tonic water, cola, ginger ale and fresh juice is an excellent way to offer base cocktails. Keeping a few lemons, limes and oranges in the fridge add a garnish.
In addition to alcohol, one thing worth getting at the start of the bar is a bottle of Angostura bitters since they’re called for so much in cocktails. As you build the bar, you can begin to add things like grenadine, various flavored bitters and other bar mix to the collection.
For cocktail recipes, it pays to invest in a cocktail / mixology book. We prefer an actual book because it works at all times and is easier to read than a phone screen when you are mixing a cocktail.
Mixing everyone’s favorite cocktail at a party not only requires you to have all the ingredients but you also need the time to mix all of them and if you have one shaker, you have to clean it in between etc. To prevent that, say: “tonight we’re doing old fashioned and the classic gin & tonic. What can I make for you?” By offering set options, you’re not only ensuring ease of serving, but you can also prepare some drinks ahead of time, or, at least, the garnishes. And it is much easier and quicker to prepare 4 drinks of the same kind than it is to do 4 different ones
For cocktail or dinner parties, consider choosing cocktails based on a theme.
Increasing the Bar
When I started to build my home bar, I made a point to budget a bottle of alcohol at every grocery shop. Once you manage to acquire base spirits (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, etc.), you can start adding the other bottles to the mix which will quickly increase the size of your collection. Depending on how much you drink, your collection might quickly die off. That’s why it’s important to keep budgeting a bottle of alcohol the same as you would buy steaks.
Wine is a Staple in any Home Bar
If you enjoy wine, now is the time to buy it. Many wine stores offer boxes called cottage cases throughout the year. Usually, it’s a selection of 12 bottles, and you can pick red, white or a mix. Some of the bottles will be terrible which makes it perfect for bringing to your Aunt Bertha’s house for the holidays, and usually, there will be one or two bottles worth the purchase. Overall, the concept is simply to develop stock and build a wine bar.
Now that you have a dozen bottles, you need to keep adding to it. Keep track of wine you’ve tried and enjoyed or wine you want to try. If your spirits collection is already fairly sturdy, you can start picking up a bottle of wine with the groceries. At first, try to pick a wide variety of wine, even if it’s not your taste. This way, when you do have guests, you can offer them a selection to choose from.
Bring on the Beer
The next thing you’ll want to start collecting is beer. If you enjoy beer, focus on buying bottles that aren’t your favorite so that you won’t run the risk of plowing through them by yourself on a hot summer day. Try to stock a variety if you can, and it’s always a good idea to invest in a bar fridge for it. Rather than buying new, check sites like eBay or Craigslist for great deals. Try to build a collection of popular varieties with some local craft beers and specialty beers thrown in the mix. Since a 24 pack of domestic beer is so inexpensive, it’s an excellent way to really build the bar, and most men will opt for a cold beer when given the choice.
Everyone has their own definition of what a fully stocked bar consists of. Most bartenders will argue it just means being able to make a wide variety of cocktails and have a selection of each type of liquor. However, some argue you need to have a range of each product. One whiskey isn’t enough. You need all the different styles from every region. That can get expensive.
My home bar currently consists of about 300 bottles of alcohol. However, I remember the day not so long ago when I had a bottle of Dalmore 12 Scotch and a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP. I have a clear recollection of wondering how the hell I was going to build a bar. It seemed the alcohol vanished faster than it appeared. However, with time, patience, consistency and self-control, you will quickly be able to build up a bar that soon will only need an occasional bottle of alcohol to keep it stocked. However, if I’m honest, I can tell you that my bar which is larger than most home bars will never be fully stocked in my opinion. I am always working to build it. My wife on the other hand thinks I’m nuts.