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The 10-Bottle Bar - Spirits

So if you've read my theory, the idea is that you can start a quality bar at home with just 10 bottles of spirits plus a handful of bitters, syrups and other bar accoutrement.  This page covers the 10 spirits that you will need to embark on your home mixology journey.

 

Bottle #1 - Vodka:

Vodka is a tough spirit for mixologists.  Hard to argue with vodka's popularity.  It is, after all, the highest-selling spirit in the world.   But it is also generally regarded as the least interesting spirit out there with which to mix cocktails.  While mixologists may have a hate/hate relationship with the stuff, its certainly has enough utility in a number of basic cocktails to make it impossible to stock a home bar without a bottle. 

A few tips:

  • Be sure to get an unflavored vodka.  You only get 10 bottles here, don't waste 2 of them on vodka!   
  • Don't lose a lot of sleep about which brand to buy. We're talking about a neutral spirit here, after all.

The Ace recommends:

Russian Standard, Stolichnaya, Absolut, Ketel One

Vodka Cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Bloody Mary
Martini
Moscow Mule
Vesper
White Russian - My apologies to The Dude.  I may enjoy a White Russian from time to time, but i can't abide putting Kahlua in the 10-Bottle Bar.  But just in case you already have a bottle in the house, I'll include on this list just for kicks.

 

Bottle #2 - Gin

Now we start to get a bit more interesting.  Gin can come in a number of styles and varieties.,  There are heavy juniper distillates, subtle gins with citrus or herbal qualities and finally those big, brawny genever gins that start to take on whiskey-like flavors.  

But the gin in our 10-bottle bar must be able to stand out in a martini as well as lay back a bit more in other cocktails.  Luckily there are a couple of wonderful options that do just that.  

The Ace Recommends:

No. 209 Gin is my personal favorite gin at any price.  Its a little harder to find than some brands, but if you can find it you won't need another gin in your cabinet. 

Boodles and Plymouth also fit the bill here.  Please stay away from Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray (too juniper-flavored for our needs).

Gin Cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Aruba
Aviation
Clover Club
Corpse Reviver No. 2
Gaby De Lys
Martini
Martinez
The Million Dollar Cocktail No. 1 
The Plantation
Ramos Gin Fizz
Vesper 

 

Bottle #3 - Tequila

You might think it strange that a spirit can get into the 10-Bottle Bar on the weight of just one cocktail - but that's just what tequila does.  A fresh, well-made margarita is just that damned good.  

The Ace Recommends:

Many people out there probably already have their favorite brand of tequila (you can see mine at right).  But rather than lecture you on a brand, I will instead implore you to try using reposado tequila in your margarita.  Reposado tequila's smoky flavor and aged smoothness add a lot to the rest of the margarita flavors.  

Tequila Cocktail in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Margarita
Paloma 

 

Bottle #4 - American Whiskey

Easily the most difficult slot to fill in the 10-Bottle bar.  There are now so many wonderful bourbon and rye whiskey options out there to be had that its a fool's errand to pick the best whiskey to place in the 10-Bottle Bar.  One could spend hours just trying to decide whether to select a rye or a bourbon for the bar.  

So its worth re-stating here the goal of this exercise - to get the beginning home mixologist started on a quality home bar with just 10 bottles of spirits.  If you decide that you enjoy home mixology enough to expand your bar then whiskey is probably the best place to start.  

 

The Ace Recommends:

I have listed out below (loosely in order of best "bang for your buck") the ryes and bourbons that you should consider when you start your home bar.  Generally speaking, ryes will be slightly spicier, whereas bourbons will have more brown sugar and/or vanilla notes.  

Note that this is not intended to be a list of the "best" ryes or bourbons on the market.  The problem is that the premium whiskeys out there are generally better consumed as sipping whiskeys than as cocktail mixers.  For this reason I have left them off my recommended list below and will speak of them later as you move beyond the 10-Bottle Bar.  

Ryes:

Rittenhouse rye (I prefer the 100 proof - but the regular stuff is great too)
Sazerac 90-proof straight rye whiskey
Old Overholt 

Bourbons:

Old Weller (either the Special Reserve or the 107-proof are good options)
Elijah Craig 12-year
Woodford Reserve
Buffalo Trace 
1792 (Ridgemont Reserve)
Bulleit
Basil Hayden's

PLEASE don't cut corners and try using Maker's Mark or Jack Daniel's or Wild Turkey here.  Life's too short - drink good whiskey! 

Whiskey cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Manhattan
Old-Fashioned
Mint Julep
Sazerac
Whiskey Sour
Police Gazette 

 

Bottle #5 - Aged Rum

On to rum, which, until the recent rum craze started catching sometime in 2009, has historically been the most under-appreciated spirit in any bar.  Contrary to common perception, rum is a very complex and interesting spirit.  Each Caribbean island has its own way of processing the sugar cane or cane by-product.  In addition, different island nations  may age their rums in different casks.  Bottom line - there are hundreds of different rums out there, each with its own flavor profile.  

Rum is therefore an extremely interesting spirit with which to mix cocktails.  Rum has even spawned its own cocktail genre and culture - Tiki.  And before you scoff at Tiki's kitsch, try the Tiki classic Mai Tai for yourself.    Chances are good that you'll see the light.  

The Ace Recommends:

Given that we need this rum to wear so many different hats, I recommend that you go with either Bacardi 8 or with Appleton V/X rum here.  While the Bacardi is a Puerto Rican rum and the Appleton is Jamaican, they both have notes of brown sugar and a light spice.  Both of these brands should be widely available as well.   

Aged Rum cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Agricole Mule
Bananas Foster
Castle Harbor Special
Daiquiri
Gantt's Caipirissima
Hemingway Daiquiri
Hotel Nacionale Special
Mai Tai
Pina Colada
Tom & Jerry

 

Bottle #6 - Cognac

Cognac is a fine grape brandy that is aged in oak barrels.  Cognac is aged for a set amount of time to achieve certain class levels: V.S. (very special); V.S.O.P (very special old pale) and X.O. (extra old).  In theory, the longer the cognac ages in the barrel the smoother it will become.   Cognac has a super-premium cachet associated with it - but it shares much of its heritage with British and Irish whiskey-making techniques.  It is used in cocktails today very much like a lighter version of its whiskey relatives.  

 

 

The Ace Recommends:

A V.S. level cognac should do just fine.  Pick your favorite brand - Remy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier, etc. If you're feeling fancy then get a V.S.O.P.  

Cognac cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Between the Sheets
Lalla Rookh
Sidecar

 

Bottle #7 - Orange Liqueur

The first of the specialty spirits to make the list, orange liqueur is extremely useful across a number of cocktail genres.  It really makes a margarita go, and it also is critical in a number of Tiki drinks.  It evens adds depth and character to some classic whiskey-based cocktails.  

The Ace Recommends:

There are a number of inexpensive curacao and triple-sec brands out there (DeKuyper, Hiram Walker and Potter to name a few).  These liqueurs tend to be very syrupy and will make your drinks cloyingly sweet.  And for Heaven's sake don't buy any of the blue curacao liqueurs...  Do yourself a favor and don't buy on the cheap here.  Cointreau and Combier are more expensive, but much better alternatives to lesser brands in this case.  

Cointreau or Grand Marnier are good baseline options here.  They are available at nearly any liquor store, and will do the trick just fine.  You get nice orange aromas from these spirits, although they are a tad sweeter than I would 

If you can find it, I highly recommend getting L'Original Combier.  For whatever reason, this Triple Sec (referring to its triple distillation for smoothness and clarity) has been slow to gain distribution in the U.S.  I have found it at a handful of SF Bay Area liquor stores (Cask in San Francisco and Ledger's Liquors in Berkeley) but hopefully it gets picked up in broader distribution soon.  

Orange Liqueur Cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Margarita
Mai Tai
Police Gazette 

 

Bottle #8 - Sweet Vermouth

Please don't overlook this item in your home bar.  Many bars out there will serve "well" quality vermouths like Noilly Prat or Cinzano in their $14 Manhattan.  Don't make this mistake at home!  

The Ace Recommends:

Carpano D'Antica - period.  It yields smooth, raisin-like sweetness that compliments whiskey perfectly.  Rarely do I recommend only one option, but this is the one.  Your Manhattan (and your guests) will thank you for it.  

Sweet Vermouth cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Manhattan
Police Gazette 

 

Bottle #9 - Maraschino

No - I am not talking about that sticky red syrup in the jar of cherries that you put on top of your ice cream sundae.  Maraschino is a liqueur made from a distillation of the marasca cherry - including the cherry pit.  The resulting spirit has a slight nose of cherries, but the taste is very almond-like (thank you cherry pits).    

Maraschino is a classic spirit used in many prohibition-era cocktails.  It hit it big with the fancy cocktail joints about 3-4 years ago and is a must-have in your home bar today.  

The Ace Recommends:

Luxardo.  This is by far the most common brand out there, and it is the best as well.  There is another brand out there called Maraska as well.  If all you can find is Maraska, then go with it.  

Maraschino Liqueur cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Aviation
Police Gazette 

 

Bottle #10 - Absinthe

And we finish up the spirits section of our 10-Bottle Bar with absinthe.   This spirit is made from neutral alcohol along with a series of herbs (often anise, wormwood and fennel).  The wormwood was blamed for any number of social ills back when it was banned from the U.S. in 1912.  Without going into the details, science has essentially debunked the supposed dangers of drinking absinthe.  Much of the remaining mysticism around the product today is supplied by companies that market absinthe.  

We will use absinthe as a trace component of a handful of cocktail recipes in our 10-Bottle Bar.  It adds a lovely anisette quality to cocktails, which tends to float around the drink like a ghost.  

The Ace Recommends:

For this particular use, almost any absinthe product will do.  Lucid (pictured at left) is quite representative of mid-tier absinthe.  If you are thinking of making the absinthe cocktail (straight chilled absinthe with sugar) then I would recommend the Absinthe Verte from St. George distillery in Alameda, CA.  

Absinthe cocktails in the 10-Bottle Bar:

Sazerac
Gaby de Lys 
Absinthe Cocktail