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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Stocking Your Bar – Part 1

The first step in stocking your bar is to take stock.  Most amateur mixologists are not starting from scratch.  By the time you decide that you want to learn how to shake and pour your own cocktails, you have probably been imbibing alcohol in some form or other for a while and mixing simple drinks.  What kind of liquor do you have around the house?  What bottles have your friends left after parties?  Gather it all together and see what you have.  Don’t bother with wine and beer at this point; you’ll need to have some around for parties and everyday consumption, but I don’t consider them to be part of your cocktail bar.

Space is also an issue.  It’s often a better deal to buy bigger bottles, but you may not have room for very many of these in your bar.  I prefer 750 ml. bottles for my bar due to limited space; I already have an overflow area in the pantry.  I do buy 1750 ml. bottles when they’re a good deal, but I use them to refill the smaller bottles that I keep in my bar.  Don’t try to deceive your guests by refilling expensive bottles with cheap booze; you will fool very few people, and hurt your reputation in the process. 

Begin by stocking a basic bar.  As you buy needed ingredients for cocktails, your bar will grow and evolve (this will happen organically if you start a drink-of-the-month club).  If you’re on a budget, don’t try to buy everything at once.  If you buy bottles as you need them, you will be able to afford better brands.  If you and your friends lean toward a certain type of drink (e.g. rum or gin), address those needs first.  You should also consider the types of cocktails you will be pouring.  If you plan on making gin or vodka Martinis you will want to buy better quality brands than if you plan on making Vodka Collins or Tom Collins. 

All spirits can be purchased across a broad spectrum of quality and prices.  There is a loose, but not absolute, correlation between these two factors.  Some assign themselves higher prices in an attempt to make you think they are better than they are, much like some people you may know.  Search the web for brand comparisons if you’re not sure which ones are the best, or ask your friends.  If you discover any great bargains, post them as responses to this post so that others may benefit.  To find out more about any type of liquor, try the Wikipedia. Here’s what you need to make a good start on your bar:

Rum – There are three varieties of rum: light, gold, and dark (not to mention all the flavored rums now available).  For flavor, I like dark rum the best (Goslings Black Seal Rum® is my favorite), but you will need the light and gold varieties for cocktails (try to buy Bacardi® or better).  If your budget is limited, start with a bottle of light because it will not impact the color of translucent cocktails.  Add a bottle of dark to float on Mai Tais when you can afford it, and fill in the gold as you go along.

Vodka – There are countless varieties of vodka, and you may acquire several as you shake different cocktail recipes, but start out with a bottle of unflavored vodka, versatile enough to go into a large variety of cocktails.  All brands have their fans and detractors.  Many say that potato vodkas are the best, and indeed my current favorite is Teton Glacier® potato vodka.  There are many excellent grain based vodkas; French vodkas are currently in vogue.  Last year my wife and I did an unscientific blind tasting of straight-from-the-freezer shots of Grey Goose®, Costco® French vodka (not available in Utah, I’m sad to say), Absolut®, and Skyy®.  Grey Goose barely edged out the Costco, but not by enough to justify the price differential for the Goose.  Those two brands scored well ahead of the others.  For mixing in cocktails, buy Smirnoff® or better, for Martinis go with one of the better brands, Absolut or better with Teton Glacier highly recommended.

Gin – Once again, variety is the name of the game.  Basic gin is flavored with juniper berries for starters, but different brands add other flavorings.  Bombay Sapphire®, for example, is flavored with “ten carefully selected botanical ingredients”.  The most common type of gin in the US is London Dry gin.  The appellation “London” used to indicate that the gin was made in London.  Plymouth® is a brand name, but also a distinct type of gin, and probably the last type of gin the pilgrim fathers had before sailing to America.  Bombay and Plymouth are good for Martinis.  Feel free to move quite a bit downscale for a gin to mix in cocktails, but don’t go below Seagram’s®.  

You should also stock Bourbon, Tequila, Brandy, and Whiskey; for mixing cocktails, you will also need a selection of liqueurs and mixers.  I’ll cover those in another post.

A quick note on bar safety.  If you have children in your home, keep your bar locked or out of reach.  By the time they’re teenagers, locked is the best option.  Alcohol and kids do not mix.  We used to keep ours (bottles, not kids) in a cabinet above the fridge You may think you can trust your kids, and you may be right, but what about their friends? Be safe and avoid heartbreak.

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