Here’s the situation. You are expecting guests, and you would like to serve cocktails, but you don’t know the first thing about booze. Perhaps you prefer beer or wine, or maybe you drink only non-alcoholic beverages?
Fear not, for I will tell you the absolute essentials you need to set up a basic bar, which will please all but the ultimate liquor snob, the type of person who would complain that the bar in the Plaza Hotel did not serve his or her preferred liquor. I do not hold myself out as an expert, but I have had many, many years of experience doing my favorite things – shopping for, tasting and enjoying various kinds of liquor and serving drinks to friends.
The focus here is liquor and a couple other necessities. This is not intended as a mixing guide, although you’ll be happy to know that most drinks that people will want will require only liquor and one of the mixers mentioned below. Besides, a minute or two on a search engine will produce lots of sites containing instructions for making cocktails. Here is one of many such sites.
Most importantly, you need not spend a lot of money. The following guide provides choices to fit your budget.
You will need one bottle each of the SIX BASICS: Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Scotch, Rum and Rye.
Vodka: My first choices would be Ketel One “or Finlandia. Both are widely available and either will keep even a vodka martini drinker happy. If either of those costs a few dollars more than you wish to spend, I recommend Smirnoff. Grey Goose and the other boutique vodkas are generally overpriced and are not necessary.
Gin: My favorites are Bombay Blue Sapphire (the gin is clear; the bottle is tinted blue) and Tanqueray. Either makes an excellent martini, which for me is the true test of gin. However, if you wish to save a few dollars, or if you know your guests are gin and tonic drinkers, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Gordon’s Gin, even for martinis. In fact, a friend of mine, who makes wonderful martinis uses only Gordon’s gin.
Bourbon: The first choices are Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey. Either will please even those who drink bourbon neat (straight). The money saver here is Jim Beam, which is a great bourbon and a staple in my home.
Scotch: It is difficult to imagine a scotch whiskey drinker who would not be delighted to be offered Johnny Walker Black Label scotch. However, if you are seeking to keep costs down, you cannot go wrong with Dewar’s White Label scotch. Avoid the very pricey single malts, unless you wish to buy a scotch drinker a nice present.
Rum: You may not get much call for this, other than from those who drink rum and coke. The sellers of rum tout it for use in martinis and other drinks, but other than its use in tropical drinks (which are summery and are not the stuff of a basic bar), you will likely need it only for rum and cokes. For that, Bacardi rum is really the way to go. It is not expensive. The only time I tried a cheaper brand I did not like it. The dark rums are excellent, but they are not necessary for a basic bar.
Rye: When I was a boy, this was THE drink of choice: rye and ginger ale, rye and club, rye with ginger ale and club mixed, and rye and Seven Up (“7 & &”). Some folks still like it; it is not expensive, and it still qualifies as one of the six basics. I recommend either Seagram’s 7 or Canadian Club. If you wish to spend a couple extra bucks, try Seagram’s VO. Seagram’s also makes Crown Royal, which is excellent, but not necessary for a basic bar.
I suggest one SMALL bottle each of white and red vermouth. There are a couple brands widely available and both are inexpensive. The white is for martinis and the red is for Manhattans and Rob Roys (Manhattans, only made with scotch instead of rye).
You will need ginger ale, club soda, seven up, and tonic water. Any brand will do. I prefer cans or small bottles, as it is easier to have cold mixers available and you avoid losing the fizz from open bottles. In addition, you should have on hand orange juice, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, and perphaps a bottle of pre-mixed Bloody Mary mix (e.g. Mrs. T’s). Finally, I suggest buying a couple bottles of nice bottled water (e.g. Poland Spring) for those who like liquor and water drinks. It just makes a nicer drink than does tap water, which around here is full of minerals.
Buy a couple lemons and limes and slice them into small wedges in advance. You should also pick up a SMALL jar of maraschino cherries (for Manhattans and for non-alcoholic “Shirley Temples” for the kids) and a jar of olives.
By all means, buy a couple bags of clear ice. It makes the drinks look better than they do when made with the milky-white cubes that most home freezers make.
Glasses: You will need some 12 oz plain glasses for most drinks and a few 6-8 oz glasses for those who prefer drinks on the rocks. If there are martini drinkers who prefer martinis straight up, you will need a couple martini glasses. You can spend a fortune on glassware, but glassware from stores like K-Mart will do the trick. As for things like martini shakers, they are nice, but not essential. My friend who makes the best martinis (the Gordon’s gin guy mentioned above) used to make them in a clean mayonnaise jar!
You should be good to go. Here’s to you!!!