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How to Stock a Bar

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By this time I hope you have shaken off what's left of that New Year's hangover. It's time to assess the damage to your bar. Your vodka and rum supplies are running a little low, right? You're just going to go out and replace it with Smirnoff? That's what everyone does. This year, why not do something a little different, be a little bolder? With that in mind here is how I stock my bar with some lesser known, high-value, high-quality liquors on a budget.

Basic Liquor Tips

  • Know when to break out the good liquor - If your boss is coming over, don't offer him Beringer White Zinfindel or Mad Dog 20/20. Stick to bottles that are made of glass, not plastic. Save the cheap stuff for you and your buddies.
  • Go frugal when mixing - A mixer like cranberry juice will mask much of the taste of hard liquors. Why pay a premium price when you aren't getting premium taste?
  • Fill older premium bottles with cheaper liquor - It's with my tongue in my check that I offer this "tip." This is definitely a controversial practice and probably one that won't win you a lot of friends. However, I would venture that most people can't tell the difference between a good and a great liquor - the bottle and reputation seems to play a large role in people's judgment. I've never tried this (it makes me uncomfortable thinking about this deception), but from a frugality standpoint alone it almost makes sense.

Vodka

Tito's Vodka

Best Vodka

Vodka is probably the most-consumed hard liquor in the United States. It seems to mix well with anything. This should be a staple of your bar. When hosting a party, it's wise to have an extra bottle on hand and it will surely go the fastest.

  • Best Value Cheap Vodka: Popov Vodka - Why Popov? It's made by the people, Diageo, that make Smirnoff and Ketel One. It isn't the same quality as those brands, but it's not turpentine like some other cheap vodkas out there. I can often find a sale for 1.75 liters for $9.99 at the local drug store.
  • Best Value Premium Vodka: Tito's Vodka - Who's vodka?!?! Chances are you've never heard of Tito's. I have only found one bar near me that carries it (and that's only because the owner is from Texas where it's from). You may think that Tito's would make a better tequila, but just trust me on this one. It's by far the best vodka that I've ever tasted - and I haven't found someone who disagrees with me on that point yet (though the sample size is a small 5 people). Don't use Tito's for mixing, grab the Popov for that. Instead savor it on the rocks or chilled from the freezer. Most places sell it for less than $30 for 1.75 liters. This is one rare instance where get quality without having to pay for the fancy bottle.

Gin

Best Gin

Best Gin

Gin is my favorite of the hard alcohols. For some reason it seems to be underrated. When I go to a bar, the majority of gin choices are martinis. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there's more choice out there than martinis. Maybe it's because "the kids" are all drinking vodka and rum. Gin has a place at the front of my liquor cabinet though - even before the vodka.

  • Best Value Cheap Gin: Gordon's - This is a solid gin for mixing. Fits well in a Tom Collins. The price is right and you won't breathe fire after drinking it.
  • Best Value Premium Gin: Tanqueray Ten - Some may prefer Bombay Sapphire. It was my favorite until I tried Tanqueray Ten. I haven't gone back. Like Tito's Vodka above, don't let me catch you mixing this. It's hard to call this a value (often a little over $30 a liter), but there are worse values for your gin dollar out there. The bottle also can be turned into a cheap, stylish soap dispenser for a kitchen.

Rum

Best Rum

Best Rum

When Money Magazine decides to buy out Lazy Man, I'll move down to Aruba. Of the million different rums in the Caribbean, I'll be happy to spend $10 on a bottle of Aruba's Palmeira Rum - a great rum that is impossible to find in the United States. Even with my Money Magazine millions, I'll still kick it frugal style and keep it real. (Note: spend some of the millions learning some of the cool slang.)

  • Best Value Cheap Rum: Barcardi's Gold - This is more of a mid-range pick - I can't recommend anything in plastic value unless it's under $10... and you like headaches. Barcardi's Gold is good for the price.
  • Best Value Premium Rum: Mount Gay Extra Old - A typical third-grader may get a chuckle from the name, but this drink is no laughing matter. The difference between this and most other rums is huge. On a side note, I've had the good fortune to tour the Mount Gay distillery facility. I want to make a special mention here to Captain Morgan's Private Stock - it's in the same class with Mount Gay Extra Old and similarly priced. It was almost a coin flip between the two.

Tequila

Best Value Tequila

Best Value Tequila

I've always been against tequila - can't stand the stuff. You are in luck though, because one of my friends (owner of this collectible bottle online store) is a tequila connoisseur. I spent 10 minutes chatting with him (no tequila was consumed by either party during the chat) and learned that some $300 tequila's aren't as good as $100 ones in his opinion. I'm at a loss that people would pay so much for something that I find wretched, but everyone's different (and I'm more different than most ;-)).

  • Best Value Cheap Tequila: Jose Cuervo Silver 1800 - If you have a budget of $20 or under, Jose Cuervo is the way to go.
  • Best Value Mid-Range Tequila: Tres Generaciones Silver Tequila - This is my friend's standard says that this is the best value for a $30 Tequila. This is his pick for the frugal pick when you are entertaining to make a big impression. He also gave Cabo Wabo Silver a mention which is in similar price range.
  • Best Value Premium Tequila: Casa Noble Silver - For around $50 bottle you can get the value of some much higher priced tequila's. Which brings us to...
  • Best Value Ultra-Premium Tequila: Casa Noble Anejo - At $100 a bottle, I really have trouble mentioning on it a website that tries to extoll the virtue of being frugal. On the other hand, my friend points out that this is better than some $300 bottles of tequila such as the best Gran Patron. In that context, I supposed you are saving yourself $200. Ugh, I can't even convince myself, so I might as well give up.

Bourbon, Scotch, Whiskey?

I'm not a big drinker of any of the above. I've had Knob Creek and Maker's Mark - those aren't bad. If forced to choose, I would probably go with Crown Royal. Other than those brands, I don't have a lot to add. You can help me out with value drinks in these categories by commenting below.

Rounding Out Your Bar

You can't just get buy with a few liquors and call it a day. Here's a brief summary of other things that you might consider when you stock your bar.

  • Other Liquors - there are few other liquors that you'd want to add to round out your bar. I'd personally grab amaretto, triple sec, schnapps, Irish creme liqueur, coffee liquor (like Kahlua). Most of these you can buy in brand name or generic - not a lot of choice after that. When it comes to amaretto, I think you have to decide if your budget can fit Disaronno. If you are one for Disaronno on the rocks, it's probably a wise investment. If you are going to mix it, I'd save my money and go generic.
  • Champagne / Sparking Wine: Prosecco - This lesser known alcohol is made differently than champagne and is often a good quality for much less.
  • Wine - save money on wine to stretch your wine dollar the furthest. Look cool and impress your friends with this electric wine opener
  • Beer - save money on beer is to make it yourself.
  • Mixers - Don't forget the mixers. These are cheap parts that make up a quality bar. Grenadine, lime juice, tonic water, and club soda, are all good choices. You should also have orange juice, cranberry juice, and some soda around the home.

What are your hidden gems? Let me know in the comments below...

Posted on January 5, 2009.

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25 Responses to “How to Stock a Bar”

  1. I absolutely love this post. My bar is pretty much down to the liqueur and shooters right now. Don’t have any of the base choices left. My own personal choices:

    Vodka-Grey Goose/Ketel One
    Bourbon–the one and only Jack Daniels
    Tequila–Patron Silver
    Rum–Captain Morgan Private Stock and Malibu (not for me, I hate coconut)
    Gin–Bombay Sapphire
    Amaretto–definitely the Disaronno
    Shooters–Jaegermeister, Goldschlager, Romano Sambuca (for espresso of course)
    Misc–Kahlua, Martini & Rossi Extra Dry Vermouth, Cointreau, Chambord

    That’s off the top of my head. Have more, just can’t recall right now (and really don’t want to!)

  2. Nick says:

    On the Tequila front I’d also recommend another Sauza brand called Sauza Hornitos Reposado Tequila. I think is fantastic stuff for ~$20-25 a bottle, more of a deal then the ‘three generation’ brand. Anything 100% Agave is OK with me…

    It’s no patron but it’s also not a fortune to buy!

  3. Moneymonk says:

    Vodka- Im a Grey Goose person

    Tequila- gotta be Patron

  4. As for whisky/Scotch, the best value for money is in my opinion Black Label Johnnie Walker.

    Serving on the rocks is of course sacrilege, but mixing it with water can be a good idea as it releases some of the flavors – this can be either 50/50 or even just a few drops. I usually just use tap water. Distilled water is better and the best/nuttiest is to get water from the original spring the whisky was brewed on.

    The flavors start escaping as soon as you pour it so make sure to sniff it asap. There are basically two ways to go about making whisky: blends and single malts. Single malts come from one barrel. Blends are an optimization of several barrels where the goal is to achieve a more consistent taste. In general, the older the whisky, the smoother it is. Whiskies are IMHO best as teenagers. Personally I’m fond of the smoky whiskies from Islay: Talisker, Ardberg, Laphroig and Highland Park. Out of those Talisker is the smokiest and Ardberg is the strongest. If you want to appeal to a broad variety of people it may be better to go with something safer like The Glenlivet or Glenfiddich or other Speyside whiskies.

    What I like about whisky is that you can get almost top of the line stuff for $50/bottle. Unlike wine, you pretty much know what you get and a bottle will last as long as it takes to drink it. I’m still working through a 15yo Ardberg from 3 years ago.

    Get them in this order: Black label JW (most value), The Glenlivet (broadest appeal), Laphroig (this is where the fun starts).

  5. Plantdetective says:

    Check out Flor de Cana 4 year for a value rum. It is really good and can be found for about 15-18$ for 1.75L. They also have 12 and 18 yr rums that are good, but more expensive.

    If you can find it Gran Centenaria makes a great tequila ($19 a liter across the border) more like $40-50 in the States. Corralejo Tequila Reposado is also good and comes in a tall blue bottle.

    I just tried Sobieski Vodka from Costco it is good for a cheap vodka (even though it is in a plastic bottle) about $17 for 1.75L

  6. Lazy Man says:

    Money Magazine did a recent post like this (though I had mine in the works far in advance) and had mentioned Flor de Cana 7 year. I wanted to steer clear of ones that they mentioned because I didn’t want to be seen as borrowing stealing from that article.

    Luckily we naturally differed on most opinions – except for the Flor de Cana, which we got as a gift and is truly good.

  7. Bob the Builder says:

    I am a big fan of Glenfiddich Scotch. Don’t know if I am unrefined, but $35 a bottle or so isn’t too bad and it tastes good on the rocks.

  8. Craig says:

    Cool post. I wouldn’t suggest putting cheap liquor into expensive bottles, most people wouldn’t call you out on it. But definitely not worth the risk. Always have wine ready, and you can get good bottles for $10-$20. I think having one solid bottle is key, the rest doesn’t matter. Just get whatever.

  9. Jeremy says:

    I can’t believe Lazy Man ignored whisky, one of the greatest drinks ever :(

    I like Early Retirement Extreme, he thinks right up my alley. For a standard “house” whisky, I stick to Johnnie Walker. Not the cheapest, but it’s very drinkable without being so expensive you don’t want to share.

    On the little bit cheaper side, Chivas Regal is pretty good too. Of course, this is the whisky that’s flowing through Ted Kennedy’s veins, so that might change your opinion on it ;)

    Of course if you are more of an Irish Whiskey person instead of Scotch, I find either Jameson or Bushmills to be of good value. Around here you can pick up a bottle of either for 20-22 bucks.

    Beyond that if you’re looking for something even cheaper, you’re probably headed to the Canadian whisky where the 1.75L bottles are plentiful for cheap. You got your Canadian Club, Black Velvet, Seagram VO, etc. Of course, not much for drinking straight, but perfect for mixing.

  10. Lazy Man says:

    Ignored? I mentioned it, but couldn’t make any recommendations.

  11. Thanks for the mention… btw, for those interested in liquor collectibles… specifically high-end tequila, check out…
    Teqilla Bottles For Sale

  12. Jeremy says:

    Well, you didn’t completely ignore, but you put it at the bottom of the list and didn’t include a picture :(

  13. DK says:

    Just want to point out to Eric that Jack isn’t a bourbon…it’s a Tennessee whiskey. By law, it must be distilled in Kentucky to be a bourbon.

    Now, as for choices…I like Woodford, but the best bang for the buck is Bullitt Bourbon. A smooth smoky flavor for a great price.

    Great post!

  14. Lazy Man says:

    How could I include a picture of something that I didn’t suggest? A big question mark ;-)?

    I think it generally fits at the end of the mainstream liquors that I mentioned.

  15. guinness416 says:

    If I’m drinking with my boss you’d better believe he’s buying. Or it’s going on expenses, in which case whatever you want boss!

    We drink whiskey occasionally and like everyone else have Johnny Black on hand right now too. You should check out Cardhu if you like it. We have stocked up on Midleton and of course bog standard Jemmie in the past too. Even protestant Black Bush when my uncle brings us gifts :) I worked selling Oban whiskey for a while too and have drank more of that stuff than I care to imagine …. it’s very drinkable for a single malt. (PS, some of the most knowledgeable and experienced old Irish whiskey drinkers mix it with red lemonade when the fancy takes them and would call you a pretentious whippersnapper for saying ice is a no-no).

    You should email Million Dollar Journey about the rum, I saw something on the news the other night that said Newfoundlanders drink more rum than almost any state in north america!

  16. @guinness416 – Ice is not simply a no-no. It is pure evil! As for the newfies … it’s because they’re all pirates, at least more than they are ninjas.

  17. Doctor S says:

    Great post LM! Crown Royal is the best bang for you buck when it comes to whiskey, its a great value buy for an extremely well blended Canadian Whiskey! A nice little guide for what to get when having college buddies vs coworkers over!

  18. 1MansMoney says:

    Awesome post! This is one of the most interesting and helpful posts I have read all week (what does that say about me?).

    -1MansMoney

  19. Tim says:

    i think having something esoteric is good too, because it’s interesting. i probably have a larger stocked bar than most, although I don’t drink at home and I don’t drink very much in general. i like red wine, scotch, and Armagnac or brandy. so my bar consists of (the number means different types):

    8-10 single malt scotches
    2 blended whiskeys
    6 vodkas in the freezer
    10 red wines
    4 white wines
    3 champagnes/sparkling/spumante
    1 rose
    4 gins
    3 rums
    4 brandies
    2 cognacs
    1 armagnac
    1 port
    2 sherries
    2 vermouths
    1 bourbon
    6 grappas and the like
    4 schnapps
    2 tequila
    8 beers
    2 sake
    rice whiskey
    rice wine
    2-4 various slivovic and the like
    jaegermeister
    malibu
    ponche caballero
    various cremes
    pernod
    bitters
    various liqueurs
    absinthe
    baileys
    amaretto
    campari
    cointreau
    southern comfort
    triple sec
    i have odds and ends crap from various places, too.

    you also forgot snacks: nuts, olives, etc. can’t have a bar without some kind of tapas.

    since i’m not much of a drinker, i couldn’t say what is really the best frugal booze in each class. but, the only booze i drink regularily, if you can call that, is red wine..give me a chianti or cab any day.

  20. Money Beagle says:

    Great post! My uncle has a bar that has a little bit of everything. I often wonder how he got there, but it looks like he’s probably got a system such as yours that he uses to keep a well stocked bar!

  21. Impersonal Finance says:

    As the person who I believe introduced you to Tito’s, I am happy to see your endorsement. I use Grey Goose for mixing because I don’t find it good enough to drink straight (Not really frugal, but I had the bottle anyway). Tito’s is my definite straight drink.

    I am a huge fan of Single Barrel Jack as a medium to high end whiskey (probably 35-40 a bottle). Obviously you can spend much more in which case an 18 or 21 year old Glenlivit is the way to go. Can’t think of a low end that I like, but a regular Jack Daniels usually does the trick.

    I don’t drink rum or tequilla so can’t help you there.

  22. AmandaLP says:

    “Stocking” a bar is something that I rarely do. Instead, when I throw parties, I tend to have a theme. For example, at my Mexican food parties I will buy Tequila (And Jose Sucks in almost any capacity), triple sec, and limeade. Then, I have tequila in my bar for the next time. And, the next party, I will choose another type of liquor.

    The mixers tend to be the place where my variety happens.

  23. Muscat Boy says:

    My Bar is not complete without 4 Things
    A Johnnie Walker Black Label, Smirnoff Vodka, Talisker & Guinness.

    These are a must for my different Moods.

  24. Matt says:

    I have a friend who went on a tour of Kentucky whiskey factories. Her favorite is Bulleit. I must admit it has changed my drinking life. Absolutely delicious and complex flavor.

  25. Geoff says:

    On Vodka, I agree that Tito’s is a value vodka for the price, but Popov is not a good cheap vodka. Diageo does not make this product or any other they are a wholesaler/distributor of those products. If you want a good for the money try Burnetts or for a couple dollars more Svedka or sobieski. either of these are better than smirnoff and cost less.

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