Build a Better Bar Part 1: Poppin’ Bottles

Training Wheels

1 1/2 oz bourbon <Woodford Reserve>
1/2 oz Aperol
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/4 oz lemon juice

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass


I’m gonna drop some serious knowledge right here.  The drinks you make are only as interesting as the bottles in your bar.  Admittedly, this is not rocket science, but figuring out what bottles to stock can be a daunting endeavor.  Think of it like cooking.

You may come across an asian recipe that calls for fish sauce, so you go out and buy it for that one dish.  Then you start realizing it has all these other applications.  Then the next time you make an asian dish that calls for fish sauce, you already have it stocked, and you only need one other weird ingredient.  And so your pantry grows.

Same with booze.  You had a drink at a bar and bought the stuff to make it at home.  Now you can start experimenting.  A few weeks later you find another drink you like.  Lucky for you, one of the ingredients is that bottle you picked up for the first drink.  This is how bars are born.

Below, I’ll cover what I feel are key players to have in your rotation, offer up some bottles on various ends of the price spectrum, and show you how a few bottles can lead to many drinks.

Base Spirits

These are the star players of your bar.  They do the heavy lifting in most drinks, and here are the types I recommend stocking.

Whiskey – Your Manhattans, your Old Fashioneds, your Sours, just to name a few, all start with whiskey.  And we’re talking bourbon or rye here.  Save the single malt Scotches for retiring to the parlor to discuss business concerns.  Bourbon and rye are both american whiskies, the main difference being bourbon has at least 51% corn in the mash bill, while rye has at least 51 % – you guessed it – rye in the mash bill.  Bottom line, bourbons are slightly smoother and sweeter while ryes have a bit more spicey bite to the them.


Woodford Reserve  is my house bourbon.  The bar is stocked with it all times.  It’s a very good bourbon with a subtle smokiness that is fairly priced at around $30-35.  When I don’t want to think of a cocktail, I’ll grab this and throw it in a Perfect Manhattan and all is right in the world.


Old Overholt Rye might be the best deal in booze.  For under $20 (I’ve seen it as low as $16), you can get a classic example of a rye whiskey that will make itself at home in any cocktail.

Gin – Martinis, Gin and Tonics, Aviations all share gin as their base.  The classic london dry style is what most people are familiar with, lots of juniper notes with a slightly hot finish (think Tangueray, Bombay, Beefeater).  American gins have started to make a name from themselves, and often dial back the juniper in favor of other botanicals and even some citrus.  Try a few a figure out what you like.

Boodles-London-Dry-GinBoodles is an excellent straight forward london dry I just discovered this summer.  Besides sounding like something an 19th century aristocrat might name his foxhound, its price can’t be beat (often under $20).  There are many american gins to choose from.

aviationAviation from Oregon is a pretty popular one, though I encourage you look for anything distilled closer to home. It’s fun to see how they incorportate local ingredients into the flavor profile.  Most of these bottles can be had for around $30.

Rum – Mai Tai’s, Dark and Stormys, Daquiris, just to name a few.  I would recommend getting a bottle of a light and an amber/dark, as the different flavor profiles work better in some drinks than others.

bully-boy-rumBully Boy White Rum (~$30) from Boston is one of the best white rums I’ve ever had (and that’s not just the homer in me talking).  Lots of molasses flavor.

Puerto-Rico-Caliche-RumCaliche is a good white rum that is friendlier on the wallet and comes in closer to $20.  You can go a in a few different directions with the amber/dark rums.  Keep things local again and you’ll get more of the molasses and vanilla notes from various american distilleries.

appletonHead down to Jamaica (e.g. Appleton) and you get a little more funkiness.  This is a great time to employ some trial and error to find one you like.

Tequila – Hello Margaritas, nice to meet you Paloma.  Three words you need to know in tequila: Blanco, which is unaged will have the most agave-ness to it; Reposado are aged from 2 to 11 months in wood barrels.  Gold to light brown in color, they are a good balance between the agave flavors and smoothness from the wood; Anejo, which are aged for over 1 year, lose some of the agave but pick up more  rich and complex flavors.  Blancos and Reposados work well in many cocktails, while Anejos are great for sipping or Old-Fashioned applications.

lunazul-blancoLunazul is a very flavorful Blanco with a hint of char that you can find for under $25. Want an agave spirit that is a little more challenging, check out Mezcal.  If you love smokiness, than this is the way to go. A more earthy experience than tequilas, these do really well in cocktails as they can stand up to strong liqueurs.


Sombra, Fidencio, and Del Maguey Vida are becoming more widely available and clock in at about $30.

Vodka – Too many drinks to name here, this spirit an all out workhorse.

titosTito’s is my current favorite.  Lots of flavor while still finishing clean, and usually under $30.

Liqueurs and other Supporting Players

These bottles add all the harmony to the rhythm and melody laid down by the base spirits.  By changing one or two of these in a drink, you can get completely different flavors.  The bottles below will give your home bar menu a multitude of options.

Jolly Good

1 1/2 oz Gin <Knockabout>
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1/4 oz Dry Vermouth <Dolin>
Few dashes orange bitters <Fee Bros>

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry

Triple Sec – Can’t make a margarita or sidecar ( or a New Amsterdam) without this orange liqueur.

cointreauCointreau is a brand that is well worth the $30 price tag.  The bottom shelf stuff can work in a pinch, but I find them too sticky sweet.  Cointreau is better balanced with a prominent orange flavor.

aperol_campAperol/Campari – Both of these fall into the italian amari category, a type of bitter liqueur flavored with various roots and spices.  Aperol is the tamer of the two, and can be a good introduction if you’re not ready to buy into the bitter thing.  Campari is by no means shy, with plenty of bitterness up front.  They both have an underlying grapefruity citrus flavor so things don’t get too crazy.  Make yourself a Negroni and find out why Campari has many loyal followers.

5318_Benedictine_BottleBenecdictine – Kentucky Colonel, Vieux Carre would be lost without it.  This brown liqueur has a bunch of plants and spices.  The recipe is closely guarded secret, but all you really need to know is this is a rich, herbally, slightly sweet liqueur that pairs amazingly with any other brown base spirit.  ~$30

Maraschino Liqueur – An Aviation can’t take flight without this for wings.

luxLuxardo is the one you’ll find in most stores.  While the cherry flavor is strong, there is also a subtle funkiness that makes things very interesting.  Works equally well with light or dark spirits. ~$30

green-2Green Chartreuse – This bright green liqueur tastes like you face-planted in an herb garden, in the best possible way.  So floral and fresh, you may be tempted to use it as mouthwash.  The price tag is heftier (closer to ~50), but well worth it cuz now you can make a Last Word or Bijou.


St. Germain – Floral and just a little bit sweet, this bottle was used so often as bars started rediscovering the art of the cocktail, it was referred to as bartender’s ketchup.  Brown or clear spirits both get along nicely with this one. Plus it’s a damn sexy bottle taboot. Check it out in the Maximillian Affair.


Vermouths – you’ll need a sweet and a dry version of these fortified, aromatic wines.  Get a bottle of each, plus a bottle of gin and whiskey, and I’ll happily come over for an evening of strictly Manhattans and Martinis.  Since these are wines, you’ll want to store them in the fridge to keep them fresh longer.  Also buying them in the smaller format bottles means they won’t sit around too long.  Maritini & Rossi and Noilly Pratt are both budget friendly under $10.  If you want to step up the flavor and complexity a bit, try Dolin (~$10-14).


Bitters – as in cocktail bitters.  Think of them as salt for your drinks.  Kicks up the flavors already present and adds it’s own extra dimension.  You can get away with the stalwarts Angostura and Peychauds, but adding some orange bitters (Regan’s, Fee Bros) is something you won’t regret.

There you go, with about 10 bottles you can be well on your way to legitimate cocktails at home.  You don’t have to get them all at once.  Start with a Gin and Whiskey (or whatever two bases you prefer) and get two or so liquers, a vermouth and bitters and you’ll be suprised how many options you now have.  And don’t forget to pick up some lemons and limes at the end of the week so you have some fresh citrus to add to the mix.

Tune in next week as I cover glassware in Part 2 of the Build a Better Bar series.  And don’t forget to post pictures of your bar on instagram/facebook and tag @mrmuddle and #buildyourbar!

6 thoughts on “Build a Better Bar Part 1: Poppin’ Bottles

  1. virginiaemily January 16, 2016 / 10:38 am

    Great advice, I’m just building up my own bar and this is really useful


    • Adam January 16, 2016 / 4:46 pm

      Happy to help! Keep reading to find more ways to put them to good use. Cheers!


  2. Robbie January 17, 2016 / 8:03 pm

    Thanks for coming into RUssell House. Love the blog. Definitely going to keep it on reading list.


    • Adam January 17, 2016 / 8:33 pm

      Thanks for checking it out. It’s people like you (and places like RHT) that put me on this path!


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