To the average drinker not a great amount of thought goes into the content or composition of the liquor cupboard. When spirits are needed spirits are purchased, and after a number of parties, dinner parties, superbowls and new years have gone by one might be left with an aging bottle of ouzo, a half empty jug of pina colada mix and some aborted homemade Limoncello.
It is only when one has the desire for a cocktail that the barren nature of the collection becomes evident.
But where to start? What to buy? How much should one purchase to be reasonably comfortable?
A myriad of sources will try to sell you on what the fully stocked bar resembles and how many of their advertiser’s products you should keep on the shelf. Some people do a passable job of getting some of the point across. The one that inspired me to do a better job of explaining my philosophy was Doug at everydaydrinkers.com. He starts to ramble a bit after the first couple of minutes but he does give a basic goal. You should stock your bar with things *YOU* like to drink.
Where he starts to go wrong is to put the search for what you like to drink into the hands of a novice. If you don’t know how to stock your bar you can spend a long time in the wilderness of flavors before you find the one or two go-to drinks that you personally enjoy.
Worse yet, you may find some drinks that you think you like. But having had much experience in bartending, might never be able to reproduce a drink you had once in a bar. Sort of a Dunning-Kruger for cocktails, not knowing what you like you can’t figure out what to buy to figure out what you like.
I think in this feature I’m going to answer the question of how to understand what you want to drink, and how to get the widest exposure to different kinds of alcohol flavors without having to put a lot of money into bottles up front.
To that end my first recommendation is: airline bottles. The 50ml size bottle dates back a long way before the airplane. Cognac distributors have been making 50ml size bottles of their product for tasting since the early 1800’s.
These bottles offer you just over an ounce and a half of product. Generally enough for most any cocktail you could want, and for some mixers enough for two or three drinks. This is something of a bargain in most cases. Consider that a normal bottle is 750ml at about $20+ per bottle. That works out to about two and a half cents a ml or about 1.33 for a 50ml bottle. Most of the bottles I’ve purchased clock in at anywhere from $1-3, which means you can pick up a half dozen for less than what you pay for a full bottle of one spirit.
Not every distiller or distributor is going to offer this size of bottle, and worse still a lot of stores don’t carry a very big selection of them. The ones they do carry tend to be from bigger companies with recognizable names.
For instance I found a 50ml of Grand Marnier at the place down the block for a buck fifty. Tasting this can tell you if you’re ready for barrel aged spirits or if you should stick to bols triple sec. Instead of dropping $43.00 on a full 750ml bottle of Grand marnier and being stuck with most of a bottle you didn’t like.
This can also be a way to try out boondoggles like Glazed donut vodka or the new Jack Daniels honey whiskey. Sure it sounds interesting, but once you have it on the tongue who knows if it’s going to be sweet, cloying, metallic or artificial.
They also tend to be perfect for camping, travel or picnics. I have a 50ml of Clear Creek Kirshwasser that I refill for some of my limeade projects when I need something to fit into my travel case and inside of a shaker.
This still doesn’t solve the problem of what to drink, but at least you’re not putting all your money into a few risky bottles at the outset.
If you’re wondering that’s a picture of my own bar selection from a couple of months back. Left to right you have Brandy, vodka, gins, whiskey, bitters. At the back, some spice liqueurs, chocolates, coffees, followed by fruit liqueurs, and syrups. And yes if you look at the bottom right you can see four 50ml bottles. Jack Daniel’s Honey Whiskey, St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, Grand Marnier and Cointreau.
The cointreau was for a project, the Grand Marnier is for an article about the differences between triple sec, grand marnier and curacao. The jack is a boondoggle and the St. Germaine was because I’ve been burned on overly floral concoctions before and I wasn’t about to invest in a big fancy bottle of eau de toilette.
For reference the St. Germaine is fantastic stuff and deserves a much longer article which I will do justice at some point.