For many, a well-stocked bar means a lot of space— and money. Rather, a well-stocked bar is not a matter of quantity, but instead has meaningful selections available for those who are using it. Think about the last banquet you attended, even for hundreds of people. The bar had one brand for each liquor category. As a bar manager, I was always able to convince myself that I needed just one more brand to provide a well-rounded selection. As a banquet manager, I learned how to edit. Below are the categories needed to make a variety of quality drinks, as well as my ideas on how to decide what and when to buy.
The name of the category may sound displeasing, but they are critical to a well-made cocktail. Citrus, alcohol, syrups, and soda all have sweet and acidic properties which must be balanced. A few shakes of bitters add rich base-tones, rounding out and balancing the drink. This is first on the list because it is required. If you can only have one bottle of bitters, buy traditional aromatic bitters like Agnostura. There are many companies that make aromatic bitters, but the original aromatic bitters is from Trinidad and Tobago. Orange bitters are a highly recommended second purchase. A 4-ounce bottle of bitters will last you the rest of your bartending career, and for around $20 for the pair, it is the easiest way to increase the quality of your drinks.
Lemons and Limes are the cornerstones of a bar’s citrus selection. I would suggest grabbing a couple of bags of each. The bright acidity of fresh juice alone is worth the purchase, but there is no replacement for the oils in the zest, which provide a surprising aromatic wallop on the top of any drink. Add a few oranges and grapefruit to the citrus bowl on the bar. You will be surprised how easily they integrate into your drinks.
Liqueurs are alcohol that has been flavored and intentionally sweetened, and the category is expansive. Typically, this category represents the largest diversity of a bar’s inventory, but there is no need to buy one of everything. The subcategories are separated by ingredient themes, commonly: fruit, nut, coffee, chocolate, herbal/floral, and cream. I would be willing to bet you have a couple of these in a cabinet already, as some are common ingredients in baking as well. These items are used in small quantities and are responsible for bringing personality to each cocktail. I recommend purchasing the core liquor categories first then adding in diversity with cordials. The easiest way to accomplish adding liqueurs to your bar is by picking a signature cocktail each season, holiday, or occasion, and buying the ingredients you need then. Because of the alcohol and sugar contents, they will last on your shelf for years.
The foundation of the bar. Aunts and uncles, In-laws, best friends—most of us have a favorite spirit. Listed below are the main categories of spirits. Start with purchasing a single option from the categories you know will be consumed and add a core spirit from the remaining categories as time allows. After you have each category represented, you can begin to add variety. I have added my thoughts on how to select a quality spirit, even if you don’t typically drink from the category.
- Vodka – “Flavorless, colorless, odorless—pointless,” is my joke in class. While this is not how I feel about the category, the truth is, vodka is a great study in marketing. Vodka drinkers usually fall into two camps: drinking it alone or with a primary ingredient. For those who drink it alone or in a martini, try a potato or rye-based option, as these ingredients have a more pronounced aroma and mouthfeel. If you have friends who drink vodka with another ingredient, buy the brand you have heard of that is under $25 for a 750 ml bottle.
- Gin – The original flavored vodka! London Dry is the primary style produced and is what most people expect when ordering gin. If you have gin and tonic drinkers coming, the established, familiar brands are built to work excellently in this application and are always a safe purchase. If you are going to use gin as a base for other cocktails, consider American-style gins, which are lower in juniper aroma and higher in citrus tones, allowing them to integrate well with multi-ingredient cocktail recipes. I recommend trying American-style gin in a Southside cocktail: gin, simple syrup, lime juice, and fresh mint.
- Rum – Rum is an undervalued category in the US and provides a very high-quality beverage for the price. A silver rum is a must due to its versatility. If you have a spiced rum drinker coming, look for options made in the Caribbean or Louisiana, as they more commonly use whole ingredients, rather than chemical flavorings, which offer wonderful complexity. If you don’t have spiced rum drinkers coming, buy it anyway along with some quality ginger ale. Together, they taste like a cream soda and are an easy way to convert almost anyone. For those brown-spirit sippers, aged rums offer an interesting break of routine for American whiskey drinkers.
- Tequila – A spirit that is too frequently looked over. Silver tequilas have a pleasant herbaceous and grassy aroma backed with a refreshing zing. Grab that grapefruit in your citrus bowl and make yourself a Paloma Royal. Reposado is the category that shows a little color, usually light to deep yellow. If you have a bottle in your hand that has color but doesn’t say “Reposado” on the label, put it back. Añejo, meaning aged, is a perfect alternative for your brown-spirit sippers. While they may notice it is not their usual, I would bet the price of the bottle they won’t mind. If I were to only have one, it would be reposado. Reposado both mixes very well and can hold attention by itself. Regardless of which you choose, this is a category to spend a little more money. You really do get what you pay for here.
- Whiskey – Ireland, Scotland, Canada, USA, Japan, and Australia all make whiskey that is respected around the world. I love them all, so don’t write me letters advocating for your favorite, unless you represent a nationally available brand—in which case, I love samples. For the rest of us, here is a very quick way to categorize the options: light, sweet, and smokey.
- Light-profile whiskey is often blended, which many of us incorrectly believe means lower quality. The nuance and delicacy show restraint and care on the part of the distiller. Canadian, Irish, and blended Scotch whiskeys all fit the bill here. About $35 and name recognition are all you need for a great sip.
- For sweet options, turn to bourbon. Bourbon is a reasonable one-bottle option to cover all your brown-spirit needs.
- Unless you have a known peated-Scotch drinker coming, a reasonable argument could be made for skipping smokey whiskey, though that does make me sad. Attention, care, and true love went into making and watching over that liquid. Buy a bottle with a number on the label and share it with those closest to you. I cannot think of a better allegory for the holidays.
- Brandy – Many of us have forgotten about brandies, unfortunately, but I think every house should have a bottle of California brandy. Not only is it a great ingredient for cooking, but it also mixes seamlessly into many of the fall and winter cocktails, since brandy was the spirit many cocktails were built upon. Over time, due to availability and politics, bourbon replaced brandy for US Americans. If you want to sip brandy but the price of Cognac has you choked up, look to Spain for excellent options. Then use it to try a Daisy, Metropolitan, or Champagne cocktail this holiday season. You’re welcome!
Rory Brown '06 is a Lecturing Instructor of Hospitality and Service Management
at The Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, New York
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