Determined to stock your home bar like a pro? It may seem like a daunting—and expensive—task, but the rules are pretty simple, and the mission is pretty affordable.
Jeff Johnson, a bartender at Criterion in Durham, compares stocking a bar to the way you'd begin a shopping trip to furnish your home. "You're not going to Rooms to Go and buying a whole room," he says. "Start slowly and gradually build up to the bar you want."
That slow start, though, means grabbing everything you need to make simple classics for yourself and guests. "Do it in one fell swoop, drop a couple hundred bucks," says Mike Caulo, bartender at Dashi's upstairs izakaya. "If you're doing it right, you don't have to do it all over again."
Invest in the basics, and buy what you actually like to drink. But don't scrap value by aiming strictly for the top shelf at the ABC store. Often, the better bargain is a less expensive base alcohol that will stand up to whatever you mix with it.
Local bartenders suggest four or five core bottles, with a few frills to round out the setup.
Personally, I'd skip the vodka and save the extra cash for vermouth and bitters. I'd rather drink a more complex gin. But C. Grace bar manager Matthew Bettinger disagrees. "I don't think any home bar is workable without a bottle of vodka," he says. He recommends Ketel One or, if you can find it, a bottle of Luksusowa Polish vodka. There are craft favorites, too, like Texas darling Tito's Handmade Vodka and Chapel Hill's TOPO Organic Vodka, which imparts a vanilla undertone. If nothing else, Caulo says, a bottle of vodka and another of Bloody Mary mix are great for emergencies (read: hangovers).
As herbaceous as it is versatile, gin gives lighter cocktails a little heft. "Gin is going to cover your entertaining," says Bettinger. Think Negronis in the summer, dirty gin martinis in the winter. Most bartenders recommend Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, or Plymouth. But the realm of gin is vast, with botanical profiles that highlight everything from lavender and sage to cucumber and coriander. If you're looking to boost your gin prowess and the local economy, spend a few extra dollars on Durham Distillery's Conniption American Dry.
An aged rum is great to have on hand even if to simply perfect a tried-and-true classic like a daiquiri. The standard bartender recommendation is a twelve-year El Dorado dark, but you can get away with Cruzan Black Strap for nearly half the price.
For a classic whiskey drink, like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, Bettinger keeps a bottle of Jim Beam rye at the house, or Rittenhouse, which, he says, "is a total workhorse of a rye." Caulo prefers Old Overholt to mix with Campari and vermouth for a Boulevardier, a heavier, sweeter spin on a Negroni.
"I'm a bourbon guy," says Johnson. "My mixing is something basic like Evan Williams 1783. For my drinking bourbon, if I can find it, I'd use Woodford or Buffalo Trace."
To mix a variety of cocktails with the above alcohols, stock the bar with a bottle of Campari, at least one vermouth (Punt e Mes for sweet, Dolin for dry), and classic Angostura bitters. These enhancers, Johnson reminds us, were created when alcohol wasn't as delicious as its modern iterations.
"These additions were used to make things more palatable," he says. "It's like salt. A dash always makes it better." A small bottle of tonic and a pack of ginger beer (any brand you like) round out the mixers.
Later additions to your bar can include a solid tequila, scotch, and, for after dinner or a nightcap, Fernet Branca.
Bettinger reminds folks to "keep fruit in the house." Orange, lemon, and lime are the trifecta for your fruit bowl.
Caulo says you need a good muddling spoon for drinks with sugar. And don't be afraid to try something with an egg white for a frothy treat—just take your time with a simple cocktail shaker and you won't mess it up.
"You can't overdo an egg white cocktail," Caulo says. "I'll watch an episode of The Simpsons while shaking for twenty minutes."
Also: don't forget a stainless steel jigger—all good cocktails are measured.
THE LIST (prices for 750 ml)
Whiskey Wild Turkey 101 $24.95 Old Overholt Rye $22.95 Larceny $29.95 Suntory Whisky Toki $29.95 Woodford Reserve $39.95 Buffalo Trace $27.95
Vodka Tito's $21.95
Gin Beefeater $19.95 Bombay Sapphire $23.95 Plymouth $31.95 Conniption American Dry Gin $33.95
Rum El Dorado dark $35.20 Cruzan Black Strap $14.95
Tequila El Jimador $18.95
Fernet Branca $28.95
Campari $32.95 Angostura Bitters $10.59
Punt e Mes $20 Dolin Dry vermouth $6