Measure & Stir

I make drinks

02. How to Stock a Bar

This is part of a series on Mixology Basics.


How to Stock a Bar

Before I ever mixed my first Manhattan, I heard this piece of advice: your drink is only as good as the worst thing you put in it. In mixology, these are words by which to live. A small collection of bottles, carefully selected, can give you a vast reach, and a single wrong ingredient can ruin your entire operation. I’m going to start with a black list; things that you should, under no account, use.

It may sound a bit pretentious, but if you find yourself tempted to fall back on one of these ingredients, it would be better to skip the drink in question all together. For the most part, you should eschew artificial flavors. Their bland, industrial predictability will drown out any subtlety you are trying to build.

On the one hand, if you are in a professional setting, you should serve your customers whatever they want. On the other hand, if your friends ask you for drinks with these ingredients, you should get some new friends.

The Blacklist

Now repeat after me: Never shall I ever make a drink with any of the following:

  • Malibu
  • Orange juice from a carton or a bottle
  • Shelf-stable lemon juice
  • Any shelf-stable juice at all, for that matter
  • Any kind of powdered drink mix such as Tang or Kool-Aid
  • Sunny Delight
  • Commercial flavored vodkas
  • Energy drinks like Red Bull or Monster
  • Rose’s Lime or Rose’s Grenadine

This list could be expanded indefinitely, I am sure. You will do well, not only by avoiding the things on this list, but by avoiding ingredients that could pattern match to things on this list. And as with many things in life, what you don’t do is at least as important as what you do.

If you are trying for breadth, you could get by with only a few bottles. Don’t skimp, because unlike the self-serve bar at your last spring break rager, in a properly made drink, there is nowhere to hide bad spirits. Here at Measure and Stir, we endorse quality over quantity, and quiet contemplation over debauched reveling. I’m loads of fun at parties, as I am sure you can tell.

The Basics

The minimum for an excellent bar, in my opinion:

  • A bourbon for mixing, such as: Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Bulleit
  • A bourbon for sipping, such as: Four Roses Single Barrel, Colonel E.H. Taylor, etc.
  • A London dry gin: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire
  • A good dark rum: El Dorado, Mount Gay, Appleton
  • A sweet vermouth: Dolin or Carpano Antica (IN THE FRIDGE)
  • A bottle of Vodka, for the ladies (of both sexes!)
  • Angostura bitters
  • a bottle of Campari
  • a bottle of Fernet Branca

That and a bowl full of fresh citrus fruits will get you pretty far in life. Make a couple of flavored syrups (see below) and you’ll be doubly blessed. Of course my suggestions for brands on your base spirits are entirely down to personal taste. I tried to choose spirits that are widely available, but of course I don’t know much about the vicissitudes of your local market.

You can safely skip tequila and brandy, if you are just getting into the hobby. Most people don’t much care for either. The same goes for more esoteric base spirits. If you are looking to expand beyond the bare essentials, then by all means, expand. I like to keep my selection fairly classic, and my secondary priorities are:

More Advanced

  • Calvados
  • Pure Agave Reposado Tequila
  • Dry Vermouth (Dolin, again, is great)
  • Green Chartreuse
  • Luxardo Maraschino
  • A good coffee liqueur, such as Cafe Borghetti or Galliano Ristretto

It’s tempting to buy a long list of exotic liqueurs, but in my experience, I go through ten bottles of base spirits for everyone one of liqueur, and most drinks that incorporate liqueur end up tasting primarily of that liqueur.

How many cocktails are you really going to make and enjoy with a root beer liqueur, hmm? You’ll try it in a sour, you’ll try it in a BBS (Brown, Bitter, and Stirred), you’ll try it in a Tom Collins and then you’ll realize you should have just bought some small batch root beer and dosed it with a measure of vodka.

And that is the story of most liqueurs, believe you me.