From the Archives: 3 tips for stocking a Home Bar on a Budget

Photos by Madison Kay Photography

Photos by Madison Kay Photography

Before I was really into making cocktails, one of my friends told me how to make an Old Fashioned. He explained a "quick and easy" way to make one. He would say things like, "some people squeeze an orange peel over the top, but I don't have time for that!" He went on to tell me how he adds orange juice and crushes a cherry with a spoon.

I don't mean to sound precocious here but that's not how you make an Old Fashioned (click here for the right way).

Although I knew virtually nothing about mixed drinks at the time, even I was kind of put off. I was thinking, "you don't have time to squeeze an orange peel?"

Honestly, if you don't have time to make something right, why make it at all?

making cocktails
home bar

I have since learned a bit more about making drinks and have built up a fairly well-equipped home bar. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, so if I see a cocktail recipe I want to try, "close enough" doesn't cut it. If I don't have all the ingredients, I go out and buy them and/or make them myself. 

Like most people though, I'm not made of money and being an at-home mixologist can be an expensive hobby.

It's been quite the challenge of navigating the balance of quality and doing things right, with trying not to spend stupid amounts of money. The good news is, I've found that you don't actually need to drop a bunch of Benjamins in order to start making really good drinks at home. However, here are three things you should keep in mind...

1) Start by buying the ingredients for drinks that you actually enjoy drinking.

When I first started making cocktails, I jumped in with both feet. I bought a bunch of different bottles based on what a certain book said I needed. Years later, some of those bottles are still barely touched.

Do you really like margaritas? Then just start with buying tequila and triple sec and stock the fridge with some limes.

Do you love a good Manhattan in the evenings? Cool me too, just buy a bottle of whiskey, sweet vermouth and some bitters.

Don't purchase a pricey, Italian bitter digestif just because someone said you need it.

Get the stuff you need to make the drinks you'll actually drink, and you can grow from there.

2) Two bottles are better than one.

It's hard building a collection of something that you are always using up.

When I started making drinks at home, I knew I liked bourbon so I bought a bottle of bourbon. All it took was a few evenings experimenting with some different cocktail recipes, then a night or two of making drinks for friends and I was down to just a few drops.

A bartender friend later recommended that I buy two different bottles of bourbon at a time. I know that sounds really simplistic since you're basically just spending twice the money, but hear me out.

If you just have one bottle to experiment with, you're going to feel like you blow through it really fast. If you get two different brands or styles of the same spirit, you can alternate between the two when making drinks. You don't use up your collection as quickly (giving you some time to save up) and you get to develop your pallet and experience the differences between styles or brands of the same liquor.

3) Higher price does not always equal higher quality. 

This one can be trickier to discern on your own. Sometimes when you buy a fancy bottle of liquor, what you're paying for is just that... a fancy bottle. Next time you’re out at a good cocktail bar, ask your bartender what bottles are in their well (provided that they aren’t slammed and have a minute to chat). Those are usually the more economically priced bottles that they use for making the majority of their drinks. But if it’s a quality bar, they’ll only use quality stuff.

Some of my go-to's and favorite spirits are on (or near) the bottom shelf. Generally yes, you need to pay for quality (there is almost nothing worse than a cheap tequila) but rest assured that there are plenty of good options out there that won't break the bank. Here are a few of my favorite "budget bottles" that are also really good:

  • Old Overholt Bonded Rye Whiskey - around $20

  • Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila - around $19

  • Beefeater Gin - around $19

  • Casa Magdalena Rum - around $19

Want to know more bottle recommendations? Check out my list of favorites by reading “Stocking a Home Bar for Beginners.”