New to the spirit world...
I'm having a anniversary party in a few weeks and I wanted to know what I need to build up a starter bar. My budget is around $250. What would everyone recommend for starters? Currently I have a bottle of Jack Daniele and not much else. Any help would be appreciated.
Well, for starters, I think you're going to need some whiskey. The bottle of Jack Daniels is fine for people who want to mix with Coke or take shots, but probably isn't so great for anything else (granted, I think it's perfectly acceptable to drink neat or on the rocks, but not everyone thinks so).
I'd start with a bourbon, maybe Bulleit? It's about $25, and is spicy enough that it can be used to make Manhattans, but can also be used to make bourbon cocktails, like an old fashioned, etc. In that same vein, pick up a bottle of Angostura bitters, and some sweet and dry vermouth. They are pretty standard cocktail ingredients.
Then, you should get a bottle of scotch for sipping - I recently tried Bowmore Legend (also about $25-$30), and was very impressed for the price. It's an Islay single malt, so you you get that peaty/iodine taste that is characteristic of that region, but it's not so overpowering as to turn off new scotch drinkers.
Next, you'll probably want a bottle of gin, probably for making martinis, gimlets, etc. I think just standard Gordon's or Bombay is fine, but some prefer Hendricks. Should be about $25-30.
Next, you'll want to get some rum. I'm not a big rum drinker, so no suggestions here, although you can probably get away with standard Bacardi for light, Myers for dark.
Then, maybe some tequila. Again, not a big tequila drinker, so can't offer much help here.
Lastly, vodka. Depending on your guests, and their preferences, this may end up being your "workhorse" spirit - can be used for so many different cocktails. I'd recommend getting a larger bottle (1.75ltr) of vodka. Personally, all vodkas taste more or less the same (that is to say, like nothing), so don't be too picky here. Ketel One is pretty decent, and should be about $35 for a 1.75ltr.
At this point, you should have most of your spirit bases covered, and should about $50-$70 leftover. Use this on various mixers, i.e. cranberry juice, soda water, limes, cola, vermouth, bitters, triple sec, mint, oranges, etc. Also, make a good amount of simple syrup beforehand, and keep it in a squeeze bottle.
My recommendation is to start building up your bar *after* the party. If you try to have a full bar at your party, you'll be stuck making drinks all night and won't really get to enjoy your own party. Trust me on this, I've been there, and it's not fun at all! Keep the alcohol offerings at the party simple. It's perfectly fine (and if you ask me a really good idea) to limit it to just one or two different alcoholic beverages, e.g. red wine and white wine, a prepared cocktail and a beer, or a craft beer and an American macrobrew. Bottled water is a must. Figure 2 alcoholic beverages per person, split down the middle between your selections.
A good way to build up a home bar is to think of a cocktail or two you enjoy drinking while out in a bar, and buy the ingredients for that. This has two benefits: First, you aren't as likely to buy something you'll never touch, and second, you don't have to spend $250 all at the same time.
That said... here's my list of what to get for a starter bar.
Vodka: Once you get out of the budget well brands, the main difference in spirits is marketing. Smirnoff is reasonably priced and works just fine (in fact, it wins blind tastings with surprising regularity). If you have a Costco membership, get their vodka, it's a terrific deal.
Gin: Bombay if you prefer something a bit softer, Tanqueray for something more aggressive.
Rum: White rum is the workhorse, and Cruzan is terrific. Better than Bacardi, and cheaper to boot. You might wish to have a dark rum like Myers's on hand as well, but this is optional until you find out tiki drinks are an awful lot of fun.
Tequila: Make sure it's 100 percent agave; anything else does not deserve to be called tequila. I find that Sauza Hornitos gets me the best bang for the buck.
Whiskies: It's really easy to go overboard on this category. I would get a bourbon (I'm quite fond of Makers Mark) and a scotch (Johnnie Walker black), saving other categories (Irish, Canadian, rye, et al) for other times.
Orange liqueur: Lots of people are going to overlook this, but it is one of the most essential parts of a bar. Without it, you can't make Margaritas, Cosmopolitans, Sidecars, Lemon Drops, Mai Tais, or scores of other drinks. There is temptation to grab a bottle of Bols or DeKuyper, but these all taste less like orange and more like chemicals. Cointreau is king of the triple secs, but has a hefty price tag. I find Patron Citronge strikes a good balance between quality and price.
Optional but worthwhile other things include Angostura bitters, vermouth (Keep it in the fridge once opened!), simple syrup (1 cup sugar to 1 cup water, heat until completely clear, let cool, keep in fridge), grenadine (simple syrup made with pomegranate juice instead of water; add 1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses after removing from heat for a flavor boost, and add a few dried hibiscus flowers or 3 drops red food coloring before heating if you want a more intense red), and some decent martini olives (I'm quite partial to garlic-stuffed ones).
Oh, and one parting thought: Never allow sweet and sour into your bar. Its sole purpose is to ruin any drink you add it to. Use freshly squeezed citrus in your drinks, it makes a world of difference. If a recipe you make calls for sweet and sour, use equal parts simple syrup and lemon or lime juice. Whiskies get lemon; rum, tequila, and gin get lime; vodka relies on its supporting ingredients to lead the way on lemon vs. lime. When in doubt, go for lemon.
I second the idea of building your collection for after the party.
You will find some friends who appreciate a fine single malt scotch, but I believe most people have more simple tastes... a fancy sweet drink (appletinis) for the ladies. Beer for the guys.
Also, I wouldn't buy top shelf liquor unless this party will include business associates.
At the end of the party you'll be left with mixers. Grenadine, Triple Sec, Grand Marnier. All the rum and vodka will be gone. You might have half a bottle of gin left.
It really depends on what you're going for. I agree with other replies that it's probably best not to try to serve a full range of drinks unless you're planning to hire a bartender.
If you are planning to prepare all the drinks yourself, then choosing two drinks you like and think will please your guests is a good way to go. This way you can cut down on prep time a lot by either premixing the drinks the day of the party and chilling them in the refrigerator or just having everything ready to go. For example if you were making margaritas you could have all the lime juice squeezed and potentially mix the tequila and triple sec together beforehand as well. With just two choices you should also be able to make batches of two or three drinks of each drink at a time in each shaker/mixing glass.