Stocking a Better Bar

Stocking a Better Bar

Last time, we talked about how to go about building a better home bar. Once you’ve done that and have all sorts of empty space (because you paid attention, and your bar holds about twice your current supply of liquor, right?), we should now get on to the fun part – how to best fill your shiny new liquor cabinet.

Now I know that I’m going to catch it in the comments by declaring some brands “essential” versus others. I know y’all are a bunch of passionate drinkers, and I also know that in certain areas, y’all have much more experience than I do tasting and thinking about spirits. But that’s not going to stop me from doing just that. The good news? After making declarative statements about which spirits you should have in your bar, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets about how to find rare and discontinued bottles that have helped me in the past. So take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.

I’m a firm believer in Alton Brown’s mantra of buying things that serve many purposes. Unless you’re into a certain segment of the liquor market, you should strive for buying liquor that lets you make as many cocktails as possible. Once you’ve tasted a good representation of what’s out there, decide what to focus on, and buy more of those things, but with the understanding that if you run across something special and hard to find, you really ought to buy it. But more on that later.

Category Recommended brand
Vodka Monopolowa
Gin (London Dry) Tanqueray
Gin (New American) St. George Terroir
Gin (Plymouth) Plymouth
Genever Bols
Rum (French Style) La Favorite Blanc
Rum (English Style) El Dorado 5
Rum (Spanish Style) Flor de Cana 7
Rum (Exotic) Smith & Cross
Rum (Overproof) Lemon Hart 151 (dark) or Wray and Nephew (white)
Bourbon Old Grand Dad 114
Rye Whiskey Rittenhouse 100 or Bulleit Rye
Scotch Whisky Aberlour 10 or Balvenie Doublewood
Brandy Germain Robin Craft Method
Cognac Pierre Ferrand 10
Apple Brandy Laird’s Bonded
Tequila Siete Leguas or Ocho
Mezcal Del Maguey Vida
Dry Vermouth Dolin
Blanc Vermouth Dolin
Sweet Vermouth Cocchi or Carpano Antica
Exotic Vermouth Punt e Mes
Exotic Aromatized Wine Bonal
Orange liqueur Cointreau
Herbal liqueurs Benedictine and Green Chartreuse
Funky liqueur Luxardo Maraschino
Anise liqueur Herbsaint
Apricot liqueur Marie Brizard Apry
Chocolate liqueur Marie Brizard Crème de Cacao
Bitter liqueurs Fernet Branca, Campari and Cynar
Bitters Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange #6, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole
Syrups Simple, Grenadine, Orgeat [editor: B.G. Reynolds, Small Hands, homemade, or similar] , Dark Sugar Simple (I have 2:1 piloncillo)

As for tools, I like the OXO line – I have a double sided 1/1.5 oz jigger, a muddler, a three piece steel shaker, and a small plastic cutting board and knife from them. I have a few Hawthorne strainers, and a barspoon with a twist handle and a counterweight, which doubles nicely for cracking ice. Sadly, my wife won’t let me install a Kold Draft machine in the kitchen – I use some trays for normal sized ice and a few Tovolo King Cube trays.

Let’s now talk about liquor spelunking. You’d be amazed at how much old liquor sits on store shelves waiting for the lucky (and knowledgeable) consumer to walk in and buy it. Being vigilant and knowledgeable will lead to rewards. Many rewards.

Rule #1 – Location, location, location

One of my favorite places to go spelunking is a tiny little liquor store next to a Kroger in a fancy part of Houston. It’s got bars on the windows, and most people are there for pints of vodka from behind the counter, but if you’re willing to lay on the floor, you can find all sorts of things – I’ve found 1994 Zwack Unicum, 50 ml bottles of Pierre Ferrand Abel (45 years in barrel!) for $4, and 80’s era Punt e Mes there – within the last three years.

Red Hook

12ozSweet vermouth, Carpano Punt e Mes
12ozMaraschino Liqueur
1 Maraschino cherry (as garnish)
Stir, strain, straight up, cocktail, garnish

You should get into the habit of popping in to out of the way liquor stores. Not the ones that look new, are well lit, and clean. And you’ll probably want to avoid the ones that are obviously dangerous looking, unless you’re with a group and feel comfortable. Don’t dress up. I once bought three bottles of 1964 Broadbent Bual Madeira from a liquor store for $40 a bottle (replacement value? $325)  while wearing a stained T shirt from a barbecue joint and not having shaved for two days. The places you’re looking for look like they’ve appeared on an episode of “Hoarders”. If you’re crafty, and the store has a website, check and make sure they’ve been around a while.

Rule #2 – Be Polite

I sell wine for a living. I know that the only thing that separates me from my competitors is my personal relationship with my buyers. When I was in retail, I wanted relationships with people who bought wine, and wouldn’t hesitate to dig through shrink wrapped pallets for that one case of allocated wine they wanted. If you’re going to look for old, weird liquor, you need to make friends with the staff pretty quickly. Be polite. Tell them you like weird old things – you never know what might come out of a back room. If you can, develop a relationship with the staff, which might involve you buying a bottle you don’t necessarily want to reap greater rewards in the future.

Once they trust that you’re not there to steal from them, don’t be afraid to get down on the floor and look. Customers don’t glance at low shelves. Look for obvious signs of old things: dusty bottles, faded front labels, bottles that are obviously out of place. At the same time, check high shelves as well. I almost had a mid-70’s era Campari bottle from a store in Taylor, Texas a few years back. It was behind the counter as a “display”, but it was full.

Rule #3 – Be Knowledgeable

Google Image search is your friend. Seriously. Once you’ve settled on something to hunt, go type it in to Google Image and look at the labels that pop up. Today’s label should be easy to spot – you can also walk into any liquor store and see it. Google Image will also show older labels, which can at least give you something to look for. This is how I found a pre-Diageo Zacapa 23 at a store in San Marcos, Texas… the wicker covering is distinctive and it was the last on their shelves.

You should also know (for example) that Campari lost its carmine coloring in 2006, and that metric volume on liquor bottles was required after 12/31/1979. Lack of government warnings and UPC codes can also date bottles pretty well.

Mai Tai - Trader Vic's

1ozJamaican rum (dark, 7-15 year old)
1ozRhum Agricole, St. James Ambre
34ozLime juice
14ozSimple syrup
1spgMint (as garnish)
Shake, pour into low-ball without straining, garnish
Use Smith & Cross for the Jamaican rum. Cointreau will work fine for the curaçao.

If it’s Bourbon you’re after, things become a little easier and much more complex at the same time. Bonded whiskey is required to state the DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) where it was produced and bottled (if different). Knowing that DSP 16 is Stitzel-Weller and hasn’t produced a drop of whiskey since 1992 is something that most people aren’t going to be able to decode from a quick glance at a label. Or that Ancient Ancient Age used to be a 10 year old Bourbon and is now called “10 Star”. Or that many domestic whiskey bottles have a two digit code stamped into the glass at the bottom of the bottle which are the last two numbers in the year – this doesn’t mean the whiskey is from this date, but it helps date the bottle more than looking at a label can.

Hunting for domestic whiskey is almost beyond the scope of this article, and I encourage those of you who want to read more to look at Chuck Cowdery’s blog or visit the fine folks at Straight Bourbon.

Let’s talk about pricing for a moment. It is not your job when you’re buying dusty liquor to tell everything you know to the store staff. At the same time, don’t be a jerk. Moving price tags or shelf tags is a quick way to be banned from a store. Don’t do it. But if things are not marked with a price, don’t be afraid to ask – once you’ve checked to see there are no price tags on or around what you’re looking for. Don’t offer a price – let the staff make that decision. That mini bottle of Ferrand’s Abel I bought was surrounded by a bunch of the 10 year old minis. Did I want the 10 year minis? No. Did I want the Abel that was missing a price tag right next to them? Sure. I bought half a dozen 10 year minis and the Abel, and the clerk charged me $4 for each of them.

You should also use technology to your advantage. Winesearcher is a good resource to check pricing. We’ve talked about Google Image to check labels, but also, if you type in the UPC of a product, someone, somewhere might know just what it is, or that it doesn’t exist anymore.

Finally, a word for all of you stuck in benighted control states. It’s ok. So you can’t find a lot of dusty bottles of old things because the state owns all the liquor. Oregon is that way, and it frustrates me to no end. But Oregon at least has a posting of all price changes on their nice, neat state website, and checking this list every month is a great way to find out what’s discontinued and marked way down – this month, the winner is 200 ml bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label for $45. Do I want the stuff? Not really. But it’s $10 less expensive than the going rate.

The important thing is to have fun doing it. The thrill of the hunt is exciting, and while it can take a lot of preparation and the right amount of luck, walking into a liquor store and getting the feeling that a special bottle will soon be yours. And even if you don’t necessarily want something you find that’s old and rare, chances are you know someone who does, and you can brighten their day. After all, sharing what you’ve learned makes this a great place.

Also see Brand Recommendations



Bitters display?

Where did you get the tray for the bitters on the bar top? I'd love one exactly like that for our expanding collection. Thanks!

Bitters tray

Zachary Pearson's picture

I had it made by the same people who made my bar. I would think that any custom cabinetmaker/woodworker could do it for you - just make it a bit more than 2x as deep as your widest bitters bottle.



Great read, as always

bevx's picture

I took a road trip a couple weeks ago, and passed one tiny-town liquor store after another. I had to keep kicking myself for not scheduling enough time to stop and explore. Seeing this article made me kick myself again. ;)

And, since you kinda asked for it, my 2 cents on recommended ingredients: for a standard-proof bourbon, I tend to fall back on Evan Williams 1783 or (as a wheated option) W.L. Weller 12 Year (or Special Reserve)... Also, regarding apricot and chocolate liqueurs... The Brizard stuff is okay, but a few better options are now both reasonably priced and fairly widely available. Rothman & Winter Apricot (and Peach, for that matter) seems pretty ubiquitous in both bars and liquor stores these days; personally, I prefer Luxardo Albicocca. Both are made the "proper" way, with apricot pits/kernels, and are around the same price. For chocolate, I can't recommend Tempus Fugit's Creme de Caçao highly enough. Rich and decadent, with a touch of vanilla. Sooo good.


Zachary Pearson's picture

I like your recommendations, especially the Weller 12. And while I agree that there are better things out there than Brizard's Apry and white creme de cacao, the TF is vanilla heavy and shows through in drinks, and I figure that it's probably easier to find Apry than Albicocca (I've never seen a bottle, but I'd love to try it) or R&W (which is good stuff).



Good stuff

bza's picture

This is the advanced course to the beginner's steps that I wrote on my own site:

But that advice obviously isn't for anyone who frequents this site. It's sad how intimidated people are by putting together a decent home bar, so stuff like this is so helpful - I know I would have loved an article like this when I was beginning my own bar!

@bza - I like your article

Dan's picture

@bza - I like your article too. One way to control bottle count creep is to make yourself finish up a bottle that you took a chance on and didn't love before you take a chance on some other bottle. I suck at this, however.

Yeah, it's especially hard

bza's picture

Yeah, it's especially hard with liqueurs, as it's hard enough to finish a bottle of something you like when you are only adding an ounce at most each time you pour. With whiskey, I usually spend a week or so making old-fashioneds until a bottle is kicked and I can move on to something I like better.

Excellent recommendations and advice.

DrunkLab's picture

I would add Calle 23 as a great 100% agave tequila at an excellent (~$20) price point. And a peaty Scotch (like Bowmore Legend or Black Bottle at the budget end or Aberlour 10 or Lagavulin 16 a few shelves up) has a lot of use in contemporary cocktails, while something like Glenmorangie 10 or Speyburn 10 is both cheaper and more reminiscent of a standard Scotch profile than the sherried (and excellent) Balvenie and Aberlour. But these are quibbles. I'll forward this series of articles to friends who are interested in building their own home bars.