The essential (and mostly affordable) home bar booze

by Jessie O’Brien

Having a home bar stocked with beautifully bottled spirits is far classier than storing a half-drunk 1.75-liter bottle of Hornitos with 99 cent bargain-barrel flavored shooters on top of the fridge. It’s time to grow out of the college ways and build a home bar fit for Don Draper. Keep in mind that it is an investment to purchase everything at once. The key is to start small with spirits you enjoy drinking and gradually build from there. Like a good pair of jeans or shoes, a fine bottle of alcohol warrants forking out a little more cash, but that doesn’t mean you have to reach for the top shelf. There are mid-range brands that are smooth and worthy of showcasing.

With insight from Xania Woodman – an Ivy league cocktail whiz and a career nightlife, dining, and beverage writer and editor of more than 15 years – we put together an exhaustive list of what you need to build the foundation for an impressive home bar. Keep in mind that the prices listed refer to 750-milliliter bottles and might be different from liquor store to liquor store.

The spiritsVodkaTito’s Vodka out of Austin, Texas has become the go-to for many vodka drinkers, and for good reason. The spirit does what it’s supposed to, which is to not taste like much. Although, because it is distilled from yellow corn instead of wheat or potatoes like most vodkas, it gives the clear stuff a sweet aftertaste. From there, Woodman suggests Belvedere, Chopin, Ketel One, Hangar One, or Elyx.

GinWith this flowery spirit, it’s best to start with a London dry style, Woodman said. The juniper and citrus flavors in London drys are what most think of when they consider classic gin flavors and brands such as Tanqueray and Beefeater. For something lesser-known but in the same price point, try Fords Gin. The spirit costs around $20 and has prominent flavors. You may notice the oil from the nine botanicals used to make the gin swirling in the glass, which is why Fords continues to steal the spotlight when used with a mixer.

RumWhite rums are mostly used as mixers shadowed by Coke or a little umbrella in a tiki drink. Don’t sweat purchasing an expensive bottle. Go for Bacardi Superior for $10 instead. For an aged rum, El Dorado 8-Year is one of the best around for its value. At about $20 per bottle, the smooth and somewhat sweet sipper, with hints of tobacco, dried fruit, and caramel, is a steal.

TequilaWoodman suggests stocking both a blanco and a reposado if possible. Blancos are harsher because they have not been aged, while reposados sit in wooden casks for at least a couple of months, which creates a smoother feel with more complex flavors. The price tag of Milagro, around $20, makes this brand a good starting point. But tequila is one of greatest gifts Jesús has given the world, other than dying for our sins, so it’s worth dropping a little more on Casa Noble or Fortaleza, each around $60, if or when you can afford it.

BourbonWoodman said to look for bourbon at local distilleries to find something special. Durango Craft Spirits Cinder Dick bourbon is aged in American Oak for two years and goes for $60. Too much? Honey House Distillery makes Colorado Honey Whiskey, a blend of four and six-year bourbons with Honeyville wildflower honey to make a sweet and smoky spirit for the sweet price of $35.

Rye As with bourbon, buying local is the best choice. The problem is neither Durango Craft Spirits nor Honey House make rye whiskey (a mash consisting of at least 51 percent rye). George Dickel Tennessee Rye, around $30, has a 95 percent rye mash bill and is the only rye filtered through maple wood charcoal after it’s distilled, giving the spirit a distinct flavor that is suitable for old fashions and manhattans. More expensive and difficult to find is Angel’s Envy Rye, $80 or more, but this smooth spirit could be the centerpiece of your home bar collection if you want to purchase a bottle for special occasions. “If you find a bottle of Angel’s Envy Rye, you call me,” Woodman said.

Blended scotchThe Famous Grouse, $20, makes for a proper starting point for Rob Roys, rusty nails (drambuie and scotch), or even sipping on its own, Woodman said. Scotch has to be made in Scotland, where they are famous for their single malt whiskeys, meaning the spirit is defined by one grain – usually barley. But you can purchase an American single malt for an interesting twist on traditional scotch.

Irish whiskeyJameson, $28, is the standard for late-night shots and whiskey gingers. A bottle of Jameson or Tullamore DEW, $22, are a treat with your beers. Boilermakers, anyone?

The modifiersAperitif/aperitivo liqueursWoodman said you need a low-alcohol bittersweet agent for those critical pre-dinner negronis (you can’t beat Campari, $22) and spritzes (Aperol, $20, Cynar, $35, and Suze, $30). She also suggests a new entrant in this category, one that most likely you or your guests haven’t heard of – Pilla Select from Venice. Also worth noting is Martini & Rossi Rubino.

Sweet and dry vermouth“The success of manhattans, martinis, and oh so many other cocktails depends on fresh, high-quality vermouth. Dolin Rouge ($15) and Dry ($10), but you might like Carpano, Cinzano, Martini & Rossi.

“Tip: Err on the side of affordable if it means that you won’t hesitate to dump them when they are past their prime. What good is an expensive vermouth if you’re going to let it go bad and hang on to it anyway because of the investment you made? Better to pick up a fresh $6 bottle on the way home every Friday (and always refrigerate – it’s wine, dammit!),” she said.

LiqueursHalf-bottles of Cointreau ($15), Luxardo Maraschino ($15), absinthe, crème de violette and green Chartreuse ($30) will get you pretty far with the classic cocktail canon. St-Germain elderflower liqueur Domaine de Canton, a ginger liqueur, can be used for more modern cocktails.

SweetenerWoodman said you can make your own. At the beginner level, “Heat equal amounts of white sugar and water till dissolved. Done,” she said.

201 Level: Try it with Demerara sugar, a refined light brown cane sugar. For the purple belts, “Let’s talk runny honey,” she said. “Cut some local honey from your farmer’s market with a little warm water to make it more readily dissolvable into cocktails.”

And for experts – “Ever heard of piloncillo?” Woodman said. It’s the most unrefined sugar you can find, and is sold in a solid form after the sugarcane juice is evaporated. She suggests going to the local Mexican market, which might be a problem in Durango.

Citrus and fruitsLemons, limes, an orange, a grapefruit. Feeling frisky? Meyer Lemons, yuzu, Key limes. Or use what fruit you have around – peaches, plums, apples or whatever is in season.

Herbs“Herbs have a limited shelf-life unless you have them growing in your kitchen window or garden. But if you’re a home chef and happen to have some mint, basil, rosemary, and thyme around, good things can happen to your sours and smashes,” Woodman said.

Other garnishesDo not even think about buying neon red maraschinos. Go for Amarena/Marasca cherries. And, of course olives, olive juice, and pearl onions. Woodman suggests Filthy brand garnishes that mostly cost between $7 and $15. “Maybe throw a jar of hibiscus flowers in there for good measure,” she said.

Wine A brut sparkler for spritzes, and by the glass, a crisp white wine, such as a sauvignon blanc or vinho verde, and a dry yet fruity red blend will do the trick, Woodman said.

Jessie O’Brien


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