How to stock your liquor cabinet on the cheap

It’s Friday night. A few friends and I are debating whether or not to go to the college bars down the street to get a drink when my friend Steve chimes in that his apartment is just up the way, and says, with his chest slightly puffed, “I have a fully stocked liquor cabinet — something for everyone.”

Steve obviously likes to keep his apartment ready for impromptu entertaining. There’s ample seating, surround sound, and yes, a bar separate from the kitchen that’s almost equal in size. Behind the bar he keeps bottles upon bottles of spirits, all lit from underneath. He puts on some Miles Davis and takes his spot behind the bar.

“What are you having?” he asks me.

“What kinds of whiskey do you have?”

“Makers Mark.”

“What else?” I ask, expecting somewhere in the umpteen bottles to be a second choice.

“Nope. That’s the one. That’s my whiskey.”

Steve takes the strategy of stocking his home bar with one of absolutely everything in hopes to appeal to every taste. Just looking over the bottles on the shelf, I don’t doubt that his liquor cabinet (which is less of a cabinet and more of a display rack) must have neared the $1,000 range. I wondered if there wasn’t a more cost-effective way to stock a home liquor cabinet.

Economize and Personalize

Jeremy Coffey, sommelier at Sofia Wine Bar in New York City and home mixologist (his fiancée gave him that second title, even though he rarely goes much more intricate than a gin martini, an olive if you’re lucky) says the key is to economize and personalize. “No one likes to be a home mixologist, not even mixologists,” he says. “It’s just too much work.” Jeremy says that your liquor cabinet should be a reflection of your taste — quite simply, what you drink. When company comes over for a cocktail, let them try one of your favorite drinks.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, we’ll use Jeremy’s liquor cabinet. He lives with his fiancée and neither of them like vodka drinks, so why have vodka in the house? He divides his purchasing needs into whiskeys and clear spirits. He’ll have a whiskey on hand, a gin, and his fiancée’s favorite tequila. He usually keeps a rye, especially during the winter months and substitutes that out for a more summery liquor when the temperature shifts. He makes his own bitters and likes to sink a drop of port into mixed drinks instead of vermouth. Let’s look at the cost:

  • Whiskeys: $48
  • Scotch or bourbon : $28. Jeremy recommends Pig’s Nose, which he describes as “very soft and not at all grainy.” For a slightly cheaper option, try the Elijah Craig 12-year, which costs around $24 a bottle.
  • Rye: $20. He’s a fan of Rittenhouse 100. Why keep a rye on hand? Manhattans and hot toddies. Rye is a winter crop, and it’s sure to warm you head to toe.
  • Clear spirits: $37
  • Gin: $22. Jeremy’s gin-of-choice is Bombay Sapphire: — lemony, crisp and many of layers of taste.
  • Tequila: $15. Try Sauza 100 Anos Reposado Tequila — 100% agave, organic, delicious, and cheap!

Jeremy gets a cheap bottle of port for around $10 and makes his own bitters. Going from an empty cabinet to fully stocked costs Jeremy about $180. He doesn’t consider the what-ifs or impromptu hellos essential considerations for his liquor purchases.

What about planned events? Instead of putting out a couple of bottles of wine and hoping that people bring more, what can you make for a small gathering without your guests drinking away your last paycheck?

Have them sip on one of the following:

French 79

  • 1/3 Canton Ginger Liquor — $26
    1/3 Gin — I have a friend who swears by Gordon’s London Dry Gin, which you can pick up for around $12 a bottle.
  • 1/3 Simple syrup — Simple (and basically free) to make yourself
  • Champagne topper — Let’s use a cheap bottle of cava instead for around $10.

With that, 10—15 people would be happily in drink for under $50. Have it be your cocktail of the night; let them supply the wine.

Rye Manhattan. Try it with a tawny port. This one is a winter favorite of Jeremy’s and has quickly found its way into my calmer Friday nights.

  • 2 parts rye whiskey
  • 1 part port
  • Dash of homemade bitters

Garnish it with an orange twist, and warm yourself from the inside. After one of these, I can save money by turning the heat off.

Jeremy also recommends any good old-fashioned party drink. He says that not many people complain with a splash of rum in their punch or a decent, well-made sweet and sour mix for margaritas. You can get the store-bought stuff for cheap, but if you have any inclination, a little bit of time and just slightly more cash can yield a better drink. Here’s the punch I had a recent party (and consumed enough vitamin C to keep me scurvy-free for decades):

Homemade Fruit Punch

  • 4 cups frozen strawberries
  • 2 fresh peaches, sliced
  • 1 cup fresh pineapple chunks
  • 1 cup fresh mango, sliced
  • 32 ounces 100% juice. (You can pick your poison here. I really like the R.W. Knudsen juices.)
  • 4 liters club soda
  • Agave syrup to taste
  • A pour of rum (or whatever suits your fancy)

As Jeremy advises, remember to stock your liquor cabinet not for breadth of options but for individuality. Try not to fall victim to the thought that you need to please all tastes and get over the marketing that tries to make us think we need to buy the top shelf liquor to shake up a decent cocktail.

What are some of your favorite party drinks either from hosting or attending? How do you economize when it comes to entertaining?

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