Small Home Bar
I'm sure that this topic has already been posted, but I was unable to find it. I want to start a solid home bar (vodka, tequila, rum, whiskey, gin) and I was wondering what specific brands everyone would recommend in the medium grade range ($15 - $25).
A lot of great suggestions so far. But in terms of your price range, if it is a hard ceiling than it might depend where you live.
In the Boston area Plymouth originally sold for $20 or just below (in the Beefeater category). Now it is hard to find for less than $27--I've seen it for $25 at only one liquor store (though I am without car--so that limits my options).
In any case, I personally like the juniper forward taste of Beefeater over Plymouth, which I feel is best used for cocktails where you want a subtle gin flavor. Not a huge fan of the Plymouth martini, especially with a lot of other interesting gins at the same (at least Boston-area) price range.
The bar trade often uses terms like "well", "call", or "Top Shelf" to describe intangibles like quality, and price of spirits. Obviously, you don't want to use a Top Shelf spirit if you are mixing rum-and-cokes. It sounds like you are looking for something that you can make good quality cocktails with, occasionally drink staight, and not cry out loud if a guest pours half a bottle into a glass with Red Bull.
Here are my (very opinionated) suggestions, based on my personal experience.
Vodka: Smirnoff or Absolut or Ketel One
Gin: Beefeater or Tanqueray
Tequila: Jose Cuervo
Bourbon: Jim Beam
Rye: Old Overholt
Brandy: E&J XO Vintage Reserve
Vodka: Sobieski or Stolichnaya
Gin: Gordons or Bombay Sapphire
Rum: Appleton Estates or Goslings
Bourbon: Makers Mark
Rye: Old Overholt
Best (Top Shelf):
Vodka: Zyr or Hangar One
Tequila: Herradura or Patron
Rum: El Dorado Demera
Scotch: Cragganmore or Balvenie
Bourbon: Woodford Reserve or Buffalo Trace
Rye: Old Overholt or Sazerac
Brandy: Remy Martin
On my blog, you can peek at what is in stock in my home bar.
Love this 3 tiered break out and agree with most. (Except Bombay Sapphire - ugh! I hate that stuff. If I need a more floral gin for a martini I go with Hendricks...) I've got quite a collection but most of my spirits are of the clear variety with a heavy lean on gin. I will check out the Ryes and Bourbons recommended above. I am a new fan of unaged corn wiskey and have never really liked oaky tasting libations but I'm always open for broadening horizons.
Also - I agree with JohnEO that the regular Tanqueray is better than the Tanqueray 10 but I use my Tanqueray mostly in G&Ts.
I love Goslings Black Seal Rum for Dark and Stormies. Mmmmmm.
The only problem I see is that you've broken some of them out by perceived quality rather than price. Gordon's costs less than Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray at my liquor store, and Plymouth is in the same price range as the latter two. I use the less expensive Beefeater for mixed drinks and Plymouth for martinis. Boodles is also good. I tend to agree with having Old Overholt in all three though. I generally buy Wild Turkey ryr when I can't find the Old Overholt.
It’s funny how tastes are different. When I first read your list I wanted to challenge you to a duel. But now that I have cooled off, I will respond in a civil and respectful manner….
Tequila: There is no discernable different between base Cuervo Gold and base Sauza Gold. If you are, for instance, comparing Sauza Hornitos to Cuervo Gold then I would agree but since you did not specify, I cannot assume this. Additionally I cannot find any reason to recommend a mixto when for a comparable price you can get 100% agave tequilas like Cazadores or Lunazul.
As for your top shelf selection: Herradura or Patron…. Herradura is good stuff but not top shelf; it’s “Call” tequila at best.
Patron. Ah Patron. The gateway drug of tequila. Look, I do not hate it the way the tequila snobs do but for the price there are an infinite amount of better choices.
Vodka: Your choices are interesting. The New York Times would certainly disagree over Smiroff but I guess you are going on price with this. Absolut, Ketel One, Stoli etc. Aren’t they just interchangeable? I am unsure how you can really break them down the way you did.
Gin: I like Plymouth but don’t see a big difference between Tanqueray & Sapphire. I guess this is more personable preference so again it’s hard to argue one is Well vs Call.
Overall, you definitely made some great suggestions but it is hard for me to understand your pattern. It is partly by price but partly by preference. Either way is fine but your “well” suggestions aren’t all cheap and your Top Shelf suggestions aren’t all “top shelf”
I think it depends on what you want to do with it and your palate. Personally I notice very little difference in vodkas and the cheap handle of burnetts will do just fine for the mixed vodka drinks I enjoy like the cape cod. If you like vodka martinis perhaps you'd want a higher end vodka.
I love Plymouth gin and make gibsons with it, but its expense is wasted in a gin and tonic. In fact I might even prefer a little more traditional in your face juniper flavor for my gin and tonic than the plymouth gives. I personally stock both a cheap bottom shelf gin for such mixing and the plymouth for gibsons and martinis.
Whiskey again is going to be a bit of a personal use thing. I don't see any reason to spend the money on knob creek, wild turkey, or makers mark just to have a guest pour it in a glass of coke. Again it might be preferable to have some favorite sipping spirits and a bottle of cheap mixer stuff for the appropriate drinks. I've not yet found a really good scotch for under $25 and I'm still experimenting with ryes.
The short of it fancy packaging, known names, and high prices aren't always a necessity to make a quality cocktail. Don't be afraid to experiment, buy the bottom and middle shelf products, maybe try to do a blind test, honestly evaluate what differences in drinks you can taste. You may be surprised at how often you don't really have to use the top shelf product. I think a lot of people don't trust their taste and buy into a lot more brand hype than is necessarily true.
Second the Plymouth for gin, as well as the thought of serving Makers Mark and/or Knob Creek to guests who will not be impressed by the label or the taste and waste it in a glass of coke. Personally, I tend to have a bottle of Jim Beam (white label) for 'drinkers' and Bakers/Bookers or Makers Mark for true imbibers. I wouldn't stock your home bar with inexpensive liquors however, primarily because you will be drinking it as well as your guests (and more since it is YOUR bar) and would you really enjoy the drink if you felt the ingredients were in someway inferior? Just a thought
I second the Plymouth Gin. Wins many taste tests as well as my home taste test against Tanq 10 which cost about twice as much.
I would also recommend Ron Del Barilito 3 star Rum from Puerto Rico. Very low priced and when on a cruise to P.R. they had a "hospitality house" ( a free bar that had every rum on the island). After tasting 25 rums the RDB was the standout. It has a fine whiskey complexity and still maintains that true rum base. At $11 a bottle I bought 3 bottles in the Duty Free store adjacent to the ship dock.
If you want to go a little higher I would try Woodford Reserve for you bourbon. Holds its own with many bourbons at double the price.
Ron del Barrilitos Three Star is really good stuff, but it's really hard to find in the continental US, and considerably higher priced. The cheapest I've seen is around $25, plus shipping (DH and I are rummies, and we've been hunting for it). It's still worth it for that, but it's not the screaming deal that we got in PR. It was our introduction to really good rum.
Do you want a mixing rum, or a sipping rum? Are you thinking of mixing with Coke, or making mojitos?
Angostura 1919 is a decent all-around rum- it's good enough to sip, but not so good that it's a waste to mix it.
I've heard good things about the Ron Diplomatico Reserva, which is in your price range, but I don't remember it. Their Reserva Exclusiva is my favorite sipping rum- drinkupny.com carries it for $29.
I think this depends on what type of cocktails you are making. For ones that really feature the flavor of the primary spirit (such as a whisky sour, old fashioned, gimlet, mint julep, etc.) I don't think you can get away with a cheap liquor. If the cocktail has more flavors from other ingredients (such as margaritas, pina coladas, mojitos, etc.) then you can probably go with a lower end spirit. I would not use a top of the line booze for anything other than drinking neat or on the rocks, but that's just my opinion.
Here's an example from my own mixing habits:
1) I'm drinking a bourbon neat - Booker's, Elijah Craig 18, Hirsch 16
2) I'm making a manhattan, sour or on the rocks with water - Basil Hayden, Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig 12, Maker's Mark
3) I'm mixing bourbon into lemonade - Jim Beam, Jack Daniels (I know it's not a bourbon), Rebel Yell, etc.
I take exception with the Margarita comment. Using a 100% blue agave and Cointreau and fresh lime juice makes a noticeably better Margarita.
A great classic rum flavor for mixing and cooking for me is Goslings from Bermuda. Also not expensive. I usually will not mix the Ron Del Barrilito 3 star.