As much as I love to dive into wine, distilled spirits has dominated my beverage landscape as of late; it comes with the territory of running classes in this category at the store. As a result, I have managed to build up a bit of inventory in my home bar over the past year, all while understanding some of the differences among the huge range of options available to us all.
For those of you who are attempting to build your own inventory, my guess is there are mixed feelings out there. There is the camp of people who have brands they love and will always go to with ease, while others don't know what to seek out and spend hard-earned money on. It can be difficult for the latter group; you want to have a complete set of bar staples for guests or mixing cocktails, but you may not be sure what to drop $20-$40 on that will deliver for you.
Wine lovers, you may remember when we built a case of wine together that goes easy on the wallet; our task was to keep the case to $120-$150. If you were to buy the spirit essentials you need, you will easily spend more since the average price per bottle of quality spirits are high than it is for wine. Fortunately, you can do this for about $250. That's right...a full bar that gives you versatility, enjoyment, and outstanding value for roughly twice what we paid to get the wine inventory started.
Let's do this thing. I find that as long as you have one of each of the following spirits/mixers, you can make most classic cocktails, plus give yourself some things to sip straight if you like. In no particular order: Blended Scotch Whisky, Bourbon Whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, Tequila, Cognac, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, orange liqueur, bitters, and tonic water. Yes, I know tonic water is non-alcoholic, but there are some great artisanal options for you to choose from these days and can be a major component in cocktails. Pick up some lemons, limes, and a small bottle of hot sauce, and you are in business.
Now for specifics on the Big Twelve bar essentials. You will be able to get away with spending no more than $35 on any of these bottles. These are all solid. Please note that spirits pricing can fluctuate depending on where you live, how much your retailer can buy to keep costs down, or depending on whether a category is generally trending up or down.
For your whisk(e)y:
Famous Grouse or Johnnie Walker Black Label blended Scotch whisky ($35 ea.)
If you are a fan of the Rob Roy or Rusty Nail, then you need some good blended Scotch whisky. Alternatively, each option can be enjoyed as-is. For my fellow Scotch nerds and newbies alike, Famous Grouse is a blend made from the malt whisky of Macallan and Highland Park, two distilleries owned by the same company as Famouse Grouse: The Edrington Group. The red grouse on the label is Scotland's national game bird, and Famous Grouse is the top selling blended Scotch in Scotland. This is gentle and well-balanced.
Johnnie Walker is the top selling blended Scotch in the United States and worldwide, with 40 different whiskies making up the blend. The peated portion of the whisky comes from Caol Ila and Talisker, and all whiskies used in the blend were aged at least 12 years. Johnnie Walker is notably smokier than Famous Grouse. Despite Scotch being incredibly popular with prices on the rise, both Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker Black remain solid values and you can't go wrong with either.
Bulleit or Larceny Bourbon Whiskey ($28 ea.)
I once again present two options. When it comes to Bourbon, there are two fairly distinct groups: low-rye and high-rye. Consider this to be similar in a way to peated or unpeated Scotch. The higher the rye content, the more aromatic and assertive its flavors will be. Less rye means corn's soft texture and sweetness will come out.
Bulleit has a citrusy and spicy character, and bottled at 90 proof, it can withstand the addition of other ingredients that will tamp down some of the rye in your Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Larceny, a new product getting a lot of play out on the market has not only a lower rye profile, but also some wheat, making for a gentler Bourbon. Larceny has more of a honeyed, toffee-like character that is definitely suited for sipping.
For your brandy:
Camus VS Cognac ($30)
Hennessy is very popular, and has the skyrocketing price to match. I know it wasn't that long ago that I wrote about it, but it should be a bar staple.
For your Tequila:
Cazadores Silver ($25)
Am I being lazy? Maybe, but again it will deliver on the price for you as I wrote in my classic cocktails post on Margaritas.
For your rum:
Plantation 3 Stars White Rum ($20)
Created by well-respected Cognac producer Maison Ferrand, Plantation 3 Stars is made up of rums from Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica. Some components from Jamaica and Trinidad are aged, while other Jamaican components and Barbados are unaged. Ferrand uses a "proprietary filtration process" to strip out color from barrel aging without stripping away flavor (which can happen in many instances with charcoal filtration). The result is a full-bodied and complex white rum that you can mix or drink straight with a little chill on it. This is one of the best bargains I have seen in any spirit category and is worth the extra $3-$5 over the better-known Bacardi.
For your Vodka:
Tito's Handmade Vodka ($23)
Tito Beveridge (a name that seems destined to be in this industry) created this Texas-based pot-distilled vodka that is now the top-selling spirits brand in the United States. Pot-distilled vodkas have some body to them (a la Ketel One), making this a vodka you could sip neat if well-chilled. I can also testify that this made a killer base for a Bloody Mary during a football tailgate party! Despite the brand's overwhelming success, Tito's is still very reasonably priced.
For your Gin:
Gordon's London Dry Gin ($20)
For the traditional, juniper-forward gin drinkers out there, this should fall right in your strike zone. Tanqueray is another option as well, which is bottled at a higher proof (great for not losing delicate citrus and floral aromas/flavor when mixing cocktails), but you may spend a few more dollars. Gordon's is the top selling gin brand in the world with its mass appeal and easy mixability.
For your vermouth:
Martini & Rossi Sweet ($11) and Dry ($11) Vermouth
There's no need to get too fancy here. If you are on a limited budget, the M&R products are the way to go. They do the job just fine when you are getting started. Sweet vermouth works for your Negroni, Manhattan, and Rob Roy, while the dry vermouth will mix fine with your Martini or act as a flavor-booster in your cooking (a fine addition in Carbonara pasta, for the record).
For your orange liqueur:
Agavero Orange ($23) or Caffo Solara Triple Orange ($25)
This comes down to what you like to do with your cocktails. If you are REALLY into Margaritas, the Agavero is a Tequila-based orange liqueur that meshes nicely with Tequila (thanks, Captain Obvious!), also costing you less than the Patron version. If you seek versatility in cocktails, where many of them call for triple sec/orange liqueur, the Caffo from Italy gives you good, fiery orangey flavor. As a reference point, Cointreau (as much as I adore it) hits the $30 mark in some markets. Again, we are seeking value, so either of these will do a solid job for you.
Angostura Bitters ($6)
This is a staple that can't be overlooked. Yes, it is everywhere and readily available, but for good reason. It is solid. As you continue progressing in building your inventory, we can talk about that...and we will (how's that for a tease?)!
Fever Tree Tonic ($6/4-pack)
Here's your "splurge" product. I can't say enough about the clean flavors Fever Tree provides. Aside from the flagship tonic, they have flavored versions such as lemon and elderflower that will add extra depth of flavor to your Gin (or Vodka) & Tonic. Don't believe me? Taste Fever Tree alongside Schweppe's or Canada Dry and you will become a convert!
So there it is! This is an outstanding starting point for building up your personal bar. These twelve items will help you get the ball rolling and serve as your baseline for branching out...and we will cover that sooner than later!