Stocking a home bar on a budget is a lot like packing for a two-week trip with just a small carry-on: It’s a bit of a puzzle, but when put together right, it’s even better than having no limitations at all.
The common mistake when building a bar with limited funds is overshooting your budget on one or two top shelf spirits. While we would never suggest you opt for low quality beverages, you don’t have to spend the most amount of money possible to get good quality spirits and mixers. Choosing all-purpose bottles that are good enough for straight sipping and versatile enough for use in cocktails is key, and there are plenty of good options around $20 (or less) per bottle.
There is a simple formula to follow to give your home bar a wealth of diversity and cover a lot of different taste preferences. The formula is Whiskey + Vodka or Gin + Wild Card Spirit + Vermouth + Amaro + Aromatic Bitters = Everything You Need.
With the addition of a few simple garnishes (which you probably already have in your kitchen), you can make a host of classic cocktails including Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Negronis, Americanos, and a whole array of Sours like Whiskey Sours, Daiquiris, Gimlets and Margaritas, depending on your wild card spirit.
Prioritize your bottles. If you spend a little more on one thing, spend a little less on another. Avoid prohibitively expensive spirits like mezcal, most single malt whiskies, Japanese whisky, etc., so you can afford the basics (ask for the pricey stuff for holiday and birthday gifts). Buy the essentials first and see what’s leftover for the wild card bottle and work within your budget. Since you’re trying to get the best bottle for the money, you might have to stray from the big brand names in some cases, so chatting with your local liquor salesperson is a good idea. Follow this formula and you’ll have a fully functioning home bar—you may even have some dollars leftover for fancy garnishes.
Whiskey: Opt for an all-purpose whiskey based on your personal tastes; whether you’re a bourbon drinker or a scotch fanatic. Avoid highly specialized bottles that have particularly strong flavors or are overpowered by one characteristic. If you want to experiment or indulge in specialty bottles like an overproof bourbon, a heavily peated scotch or a port cask-matured whiskey, save that for your wildcard spirit.
Kentucky Tavern Straight Bourbon $11
Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon $18
Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye $23
Rich & Rare Reserve Canadian Blended Whiskey $12
Speyburn Bradan Orach Speyside Single Malt $25
J&B Rare Blended Scotch Whiskey $20
Paddy’s Blended Irish Whiskey $20
Vodka or Gin: This is your most basic mixer for spiking punches or making super simple cocktails like Gin & Tonics and Vodka Sodas. Again, think about your personal preference here. Are you a gin or vodka drinker? If you are into really unique gins with experimental botanicals, save that for your wild card spirit, and consider a neutral vodka here to ensure you have something easy to mix with and to satisfy your less adventurous guests. If you are bored with vodka and see no place for it in your bar, go for a classic gin that is clean, refreshing and works across all cocktail platforms.
Citadelle Gin $25
Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin $13
Reyka Vodka $20
Sobieski Estate Rye Vodka $11
Wild Card Spirit: This is where you get to give your home bar some personality. Go with a bottle that piques your interests and tastes buds. Don’t be afraid to double up on spirits; it’s OK to have two different whiskeys or two gins on your bar, especially if that’s what you love to drink. That said, venturing out to other spirits like rum, pisco, tequila, brandy or even a liqueur will exponentially expand your drink making capabilities. Have fun here, and use this space as an opportunity to explore new spirits.
Saison Rum $20
Ron Viejo De Caldas 8 Years Old $12
Alto De Carmen Pisco $19
Familia Camarena Reposado Tequila $19
Azteca Azul Blanco Tequila $20
E&J XO American Brandy $16
Woody’s Northwoods Honey Bourbon Cream Liqueur $22
Vermouth: Aside from being completely delicious and totally underappreciated, vermouth can turn simple spirits into spectacular cocktails. When it comes to vermouth it can be confusing to choose just one, since there are many styles. A classic red sweet vermouth will be most versatile for classic cocktails, but if you’re a serious Martini enthusiast, go for a dry vermouth. Buy a small bottle and keep it in the fridge once opened to ensure maximum freshness.
Perucchi Red Vermouth $15
Dolin De Chambery Rouge $10 (375-ml)
Dolin De Chambery Dry $10 (375-ml)
Amaro: Amaro is technically an Italian bitter liqueur, but any bitter mixer will do. The idea is to have something that will contrast sweet vermouth. While commonly overlooked while stocking a home bar, amari open the door to more complex drinks when mixed with spirits and with non-alcoholic beverages for low proof cocktails. If you’ve never used bitter liqueur before, this will be the perfect opportunity to take your home bartending skills to the next level.
Aperol Aperitivo $20
Peychaud’s Aperitivo $19
Aromatic Bitters: Aromatic bitters are the salt and pepper of cocktails. These days, there are dozens of artisanal bitters companies selling crazy flavors like mole, habanero and chocolate. This is one area of your home bar that you can grow with relatively low investment to maximize diversity. To start, there’s really just one that you need.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters $10