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Sep 11, 2011 12:39 PM

Need Suggestions for Starter Cocktail Bar [moved from Outer Boroughs board]

Hi there. I am trying to start my first “real” cocktail bar. I need suggestions for the various spirits, hardware, seminal texts and bitters/anything else I should have on hand. I am trying to keep the budget under 4-500 dollars all in. I would like to focus on artisan and low production spirits and bitters that emphasize quality and craftsmanship (and hopefully value) over marketing panache. Tito’s vodka comes to mind as an example. I would also prefer local (Brooklyn/tri state area if possible), but that is not essential.


I imagine I will need a rum, vodka, whiskey, tequila and bourbon. What am I missing?


Some kind of muddling instrument, martini set, stirring sticks…I’m really not sure.


No idea


Straws, salt for rimming glasses etc. Taking suggestions.

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  1. There’s no way to set up a bar that will encompass the huge range of cocktails within that budget. So you need to have a goal in mind. How much of a cocktail drinker are you? Is this a bar for parties or something to have to make drinks when there are a few friends over?

    Most people who are what I think of as a light weight drinkers in that they generally don’t want to taste alcohol in their drinks or just want to get drunk fast will want vodka. Then in my view, the order of popularity would be tequila, rum, gin, scotch, bourbon and rye. Within each of those general types, there are different brands/flavors/styles.

    That’s why I ask what do you drink and who will you be making drinks for? Being a selfish drinker, I set up my bar with the things I need for the cocktails I drink. I have gin and a white vermouth plus olives for Martinis. Replace the olives with pickled onions for a Gibson. There’s bourbon or rye, bitters and sweet vermouth for Manhattans (don’t forget the cherries). Gin and plenty of tonic and limes for G&Ts. Those limes plus tequila and triple sec set you up for Margaritas. Then there are all the bottles of scotch, both single malt and blends that I need (replace bourbon/rye with scotch in Manhattan and you get a Highland Fling). Best cocktail of all is a fine glass of single malt with one ice cube. Finally I throw in the obligatory bottle of vodka for the guests who want wimpy drinks. Add some V8, horseradish, tabasco for a Bloody Mary which as far as I’m concerned is the only cocktail that vodka is good for. But don’t stop there, you need red and white wines, sparkling wines and sherrys for those who don’t drink cocktails. Then there are the aperitifs. As you might infer, I have way too much money held in liquid assets. Start small based on what you like to drink and add as your taste and group of friends expands.

    I think the basic equipment you need is a shaker, strainer and jigger. Add a muddler if you really want one and you plan on crushing a lot of thing. I generally stay away from those kinds of cocktails unless you’re making a pitcher as its takes too damn long to make a drink. Everything else can be readily found in your basic kitchen – spoon, knife, etc. Don’t waste your money on fancy bar equipment set ups. Get plenty of those for gifts and I never use them.

    Here’s an interesting article about craft distilled booze including Brooklyn.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Bkeats

      Hi Bkeats,

      Thank you for your lengthy and thorough response. I'll try to respond to your questions in order. I am a HUGE cocktail and wine drinker. I have something with dinner almost every night. This bar is really just for me and a few lucky friends (I live in a studio apt). I am not including wine or cordials or after dinner drinks in my cocktail bar total. I consider these separate entities. Thus far I have gotten:

      -Tito's Vodka- 25
      -Some french gin (can't remember the name because i'm at my girlfriend's apartment). Will post later. - 36
      -Lemoncello -18
      -St Germain -35
      -Bloody Mary Mix -8
      -Mint Simple Syrup-8
      -15 year old scotch is being donated curtesy of my father's trip.- free

      Spirit Total is about 130 thus far.

      I also purchased some hardware like a jigger, shaker, zester, 11in stirring spoon, larger ice cube tray (for less melt), strainer and muddler for about 100 all in.

      I'm about halfway ($230) to my total budget of 450 and I think I'm doing alright. I know I'm probably going to need a tequila and rum (any suggestions?), bitters (maybe 80 or so?) and some mixers (to be purchased when I'm having people over). Hardware is taken care of and most of the liquor is set. Any other thoughts/suggestions/comments? Do you have a go to cocktail book?



      1. re: ucallthatcb

        Hi Jon
        Nice to know I’m not the only one who thinks having a cocktail before dinner is a civilized way to end the work day and transition to a pleasant evening.

        Tito’s Vodka – don’t know this one at all. Usually pick up Stoli/Absolut/Finlandia ($20-25). These have always been fine to my taste. Wodka is not bad either for $10. My personal view on some of the more trendy brands such as Grey Goose or Ketel One is that you’re paying for a lot for marketing dollars. Since the preferred way to consume these seems to be to take ice cold shots, how much can you really distinguish any flavours? Even more so once you pour in the oj, cranberry or tomato juice.

        French Gin? English, Dutch I get. But French? My basic standbys are either Bombay or Tanqueray ($30). Boring but they taste like gin. Hate the new gins that don’t taste like gin. They’re trying to jump on the premium vodka bandwagon. There is a NY gin I have not tried called Seneca Drums if you want something local. Always have limes around. Need them for G&T. Need to use at least ½ lime per drink. Most important thing to remember for a G&T is that limes are an ingredient, not a garnish.

        Lemoncello – I don’t usually drink the stuff. Once in a while maybe with my after dinner coffee.

        St Germain – never tried it

        Bloody Mary mix – my opinion is you should never ever use prepared mixes. Keep small cans of tomato juice or V8, a jar of prepared horseradish, some Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and you will make an infinitely better bloody mary.

        Why buy simple syrup? Simmer equal parts sugar and water until everything is blended and keep it in the fridge.

        Bless your father and his generous spirit.

        Some suggestions for you.

        I like to have a rye for Manhattans – Jim Beam is a good basic rye. Wild Turkey is also a fine substitute. Should be around $20.

        Bourbon for sipping – Bulleit or Blanton is usually in the house ($30).

        Tequila – another place where there is a lot of marketing dollars being spent on how much agave, barrel aging blah blah blah. If you are mixing it and not doing the tequila, salt lime thing, I think Cuervo is fine and helps your budget.

        Rum – Bacardi/Cruzan are good basic rums (~$20). You can go crazy on different styles of rums but that’s a topic for another thread.

        Cognac – for a Sidecar and sipping on those cold winter nights after you've shaken the snow off. Remy ($50) – probably the priciest thing after the scotch.

        You need red (sweet) and white (dry) vermouth. Noilly Prat is fine.

        Bitters – absolutely must have. I think the whole artisanal bitters thing has gone a bit far, but go out and experiment. There are some cherry bitters I like.

        Campari – need this for a negroni

        Crème de Cassis – so you can make a Kir or Kir Royale for your lady

        Cointreau – for Margaritas, but please not the frozen kind. Also used in the Negroni.

        Olives, cherries, onions, lemons and the aforementioned limes round it out.

        I think I’ve used your budget up. As to books, I have this old one from the ‘50s my wife gave me. Has all the standards. I stay away from trying to make any cocktail that has more than 4 ingredients so these new complicated cocktails are not my thing. Call me inflexible but just because you pour it into a martini glass does not make it a “whatever”tini. My martini has gin, vermouth and 3 olives.

        You should also post you query on the Spirits board. You will get more responses and other opinions.

        1. re: Bkeats

          Cointreau in a Negroni? No way.

          Friends don't let friends drink Bacardi or Cuervo. Cruzan is fine, and there are a whole bunch of 100% agave tequilas in the same price range as Cuervo. I like Espolon and El Jimador.

          Also, consider yourself extraordinarily lucky if you buy Blanton's for $30. I've never seen it under $40.

          OP, purchased simple syrup is the biggest ripoff on the planet. Eight bucks for thirty cents worth of ingredients is a crime against mankind.

          1. re: Bkeats

            Yup, French Gin. It's called "G-Vine." Really enjoy it. Thank you for all your help!

            1. re: ucallthatcb

              What cocktail did you make with the "G-Vine"?

              1. re: hawkeyeui93

                Tell him about the Gin Buck Hawkeye ;-)

                1. re: ncyankee101

                  I was afraid that his gin may be too fancy pants for it, North Carolina Yankee! LOL

                  I have yet to try "G-Vine" ... have you?

            2. re: Bkeats

              I agree re Bloody Mary Mix. Icky stuff. And if you have the basic ingredients (most of which keep well in a refrigerator) you can let yourself or your guests have some choice. There are people who do not like spicy Bloody Marys. Odd but true

        2. My understanding is that you live in an area where virtually anything can be had, so you're one lucky man. My modest suggestions are geared towards both bang for the buck with your limited funds and interesting backstories that you can amaze your friends with as well. Here are a few of the things that my bar never goes without:

          (1) Gin: Here is where more is less. My favorites for all-purpose use are Boodles [$16], Bombay (not Sapphire) [$20], and Seagram's [$12] ... No clever backstory here other than you can tell your friends that buying expensive gin for one specific type of gin drink is not how you roll (but rather like a balanced gin that does it all);

          (2) Rye Whiskey: Templeton Rye [$40]. This is from the State of Iowa and only sold in three places in the country [Iowa, San Francisco, and NYC]. Clever Backstory: When Al Capone said bring out the "good stuff" during prohibition, this is what he served.;

          (3) Single-Malt Scotch: Cardhu [$40]. Good balanced starter scotch. Clever Backstory: Used in several of the Johnny Walker Blends, including the uber-expensive blue label; and

          (4) 100% Blue Agave Tequila: Buy the cheapest you can that says "100 percent Blue Agave Tequila" on the label and start there until you find one you like .... Some of my favorites include Calle Azul Anejo [exclusive to Sam's Club -- $15], Sauza Hornitos Reposado (not the Plata) [$25], or any of the Cuervo 1800 series [$20-25]. All serviceable tequilas for the all important margarita. Clever Backstory: Do not use margarita mix, spend the money on Cointreau [$35] as your orange liqueur/triple sec, and learn to make a real margarita [2 shots tequila, 1 shot Cointreau, 1 shot freshly squeezed lime juice ... and shake in your fancy shaker with ice].

          As far as vodka goes, someone else will give you the "find the cheapest you can tolerate" speech soon enough [and Tito's is affordable enough in my book although for the money, Red Label Smirnoff is a good workhorse vodka]. If you have any funds left, a nice bourbon or another artisan whisk(e)y would be a plus to add. There are literally hundreds, so read a few boards on here for assistance. As far as rum goes, I don't have much to offer and there are others here that do. I always have Appleton Estate's V/X [$18] on hand for others.

          And add a few bottles a month [one interesting liqueur and one base alcohol] and you will have a nice bar in no time. Best wishes ... and Cheers from the fly-over zone!

          6 Replies
          1. re: hawkeyeui93

            Your margarita portions are just like mine. My technique is to juice the limes then add Cointreau to double the volume and then add tequila to double the volume again. Nothing could be simpler.

            1. re: hawkeyeui93

              Since so few people can get Templeton rye, I would suggest two that are much cheaper and somewhat easier to find - Rittenhouse 100 ($20 if you are lucky enough to be able to find it, doesn't stay on shelves long) and Wild Turkey ($20-25, readily available.)

              1. re: ncyankee101

                Agree with the Rittenhouse Rye suggestion. I've seen it on sale at Astor and other places for less than $20. Great for mixing and can stand on its' own as a sipper.

                For a great, interesting mixing rum, look into Smith & Cross Jamaica Rum ( ) . This is very popular with pro mixologists these days because of its' complex spice, vanilla, molasses, yeasty, crazy good flavor. It's a beast though, at 114 proof. British Navy strength- high enough proof to still make gunpowder ignite if there's a spill onboard....I've seen it as low as $24 in NYC.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  Silverjay - Smith and Cross is on my "to get" list along with Scarlet ibis, have heard great things about both of these.

                  Pusser's is also an excellent mixer, though I love to sip it so am reluctant to mix with it - but at the price point of $24 ($21 on sale) it is hard to beat, though I recently got a bottle of El Dorado 12 yr for $20 (from Atlanta) and it is excellent too.

                  1. re: ncyankee101

                    I picked up two bottles of S&C for $24.80 each today, along with a bottle of 4-yr old Willett Rye for just under $30...Thanks for the heads up on those other rums. I'm looking into them.

                    1. re: Silverjay

                      Meant to mention - shopper's vineyard has the newly returned Lemon Hart 151 on sale for $22.99, great price.

            2. You might check out this project, which would be up your alley:

              He focuses on drinks that he can make with just those 12 bottles, plus other common ingredients (citrus, seltzer, etc). You might like exploring his recipes.

              I would try to keep your bottles modest in price to afford more selection. For example, great bourbon, rye, and gin can be had for < $20. Forget vodka unless you entertain those who would demand it. You need at least two vermouths -- buy 375ml Dolin if you can find it and keep it evacuated and refrigerated. Good (100% agave tequila) and scotch tend to be > $20. Read more:

              1 Reply
              1. re: EvergreenDan

                Dan - there are quite a few good tequilas under $20 these days, becoming more widely available - even here in NC - El Ultimo, Espolon, Camarena is not bad, and 30-30 repo is excellent for $20 here in NC but we actually seem to be lower than most on that one (for a change).

              2. I'd say that as far as what kinds of spirits/liqueurs to get, considering how much there is out there, it's probably best to decide what else to buy based on what cocktails you plan on making. I think the most important fundamental ingredients for a bar are the things that you like to drink the most, since after all, that's what it's there for. Although I imagine you're already doing that since, for example, you mention getting St. Germain before any sort of rum, tequila, American whiskey, etc., even though it's not the most common liqueur.

                If you already have/know everything you want, and you want ideas for what to fill it out with, I'd say go with whatever else you enjoy that's also versatile, or that you know you can get a lot of use out of; things like vermouth, Cointreau, and such, which I think others have talked about already.

                In terms of equipment, you might want to consider investing in some sort of juicer, if you don't already have one, since I imagine you're probably going to be squeezing some citrus fruits sooner or later.

                Also, one more spirit that no one else seems to have mentioned: brandy. You can't make a Sidecar without brandy. Unless you use, like, bourbon or something. Or you could just not make a Sidecar. Still, it's a thought.

                1. Since nobody mentioned the books, which I consider to be really helpful, here are my suggestions for a first cocktail book:

                  The Essential Bartender's Guide by Robert Hess
                  The Essential Cocktail by Dale DeGroff (nicer pictures + production but a bit more dated)
                  Mr Boston's Official Bartender's Guide--only the new edition by Giglio, Meehan, and Fink
                  The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan (getting a bit dated but has nice classification scheme)

                  If you want to see what other people said:

                  5 Replies
                    1. re: nickls

                      +1 for DeGroff's Essential most dog-eared "cocktail cookbook".

                      Saw it at the other day for a little over $18!

                      1. re: nickls

                        I have the "The Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide" [20th printing 1961] that I enjoy using ... It was given to me by my great-grandfather and I find it to be a good guide.

                        1. re: hawkeyeui93

                          The reason I said only the new version is that in the 70's and 80's cocktails weren't doing so well, and the Mr Boston books listed lots of terrible drinks.

                          The latest edition was revamped for the cocktail renaissance and gives a pretty solid rundown of the classics, as well as including contributions from lots of top bartenders and drink experts of today.

                          I imagine some of the earliest editions would be more interesting.

                          1. re: nickls

                            Any bar guide that suggests the need for "two" fifths of booze for a party of six is OK in my book!