In retrospect, I think I could have saved a lot of money in my 20’s if I’d been more deliberate about stocking my liquor cabinet at home. Instead, I scoffed at the $30-$40 pricetags on single bottles of hard liquor and went and spent that amount on 2 or 3 drinks at the bar instead. Ah, the money mistakes of my youth. You’re better off to stock a home bar.
Older and wiser (and also more of a homebody since having a baby), I’m redirecting my efforts to stocking my home bar. Since I am now in the habit of doing things within reasonable price constraints, I’m pursuing this endeavor with the goal of maximizing value while minimizing costs.
That said, stocking a home bar is not a cheap undertaking. Alcohol is expensive, and the blow to your bank account can really be felt at high volumes. But like most things in personal finance, if you’re deliberate and patient, you can end up with a pretty sweet end result over time.
How to stock a home bar on a budget
Going out is great, but entertaining at home can be even better. Not only can you save some serious cash by avoiding the bar markup, you can talk to people you actually like without shouting over the music you don’t. Furthermore, being able to put together a cool cocktail is as fun as whipping up a great dinner recipe. While you’re early drinking days may have been about buying whatever could get you drunk the fastest with the least dollar amount spent, you can now make drinking a fun and creative endeavor all on its own.
A well-stocked home bar can let you impress friends (or dates). It can also give you something to sip while you work or watch your favorite tv show if you need to unwind at the end of the day.
Home bar essentials
The first rule of stocking a home bar is to buy what YOU personally like and what YOU personally drink. It’s your house, after all.
Start with your favorite hard liquor and your favorite bottle of wine before you move on to your second choices. If there’s a particular kind of alcohol you don’t like (or simply have bad memories of), don’t buy it. If you think it will leave your liquor cabinet wanting and your friends that prefer it feeling rebuffed, then purchase the smallest quantity of a decidedly unfancy brand. The only way to really waste money on a home bar is to buy alcohol no one will drink.
What you need to stock a home bar
The easiest way to start building a real liquor cabinet is to buy 1 bottle each of the main hard liquors (vodka, gin, rum, and whiskey), a few bottles of wine, and an assortment of beer. Once you have that base down, you can branch out to more variety.
I’m a vodka drinker, so this always has a place in my liquor cabinet. It might be my favorite for cocktails because good vodka has almost no taste! In any case, this clear liquor is a great base for many drinks and a must have when you stock a home bar.
What you need it for: vodka soda or vodka waters, martinis and cocktails
I’m not a gin fan, but it is one of the most useful liquors to have on hand for cocktails or the people that don’t like vodka. The taste of gin is stronger than that of vodka, but it might be just what you’re looking for in certain drinks. Keep a bottle on hand!
What you need it for: gin & sodas, martinis, and cocktails
Rum is one item I haven’t yet picked up for my home bar, but if you’re a fan of even a simple rum & coke, you’ll want to keep a bottle in your own home. Consider picking up both a bottle of dark rum and light rum, depending on what drinks you’ll be missing.
What you need it for: punch, rum & coke, cocktails, and some cooking.
I’m not a whiskey drinker but I use bourbon generously when I bake pecan pies. Nevertheless, many people love to sip this dark liquor all on its own or use it as the base of a cocktail. The category “whiskey” encompasses other familiar liquours like scotch and bourbon, so over time, you may end up with a small collection. Fun fact I learned on the Tim Ferriss Podcast: it’s spelled “whisky” if its made in a country with no letter e in that country’s name, and “whiskey” with the “e” if the country does have an e in its name. That’s why Americans make whiskey and Canadians make whisky. Scotch is actually Scotch Whisky, with no “e” because it’s Scotland.
What you need it for: to serve people who prefer dark liquor, cocktails, cooking and baking, and to impress people with your knowledge of when it’s spelled “whisky” and when it’s “whiskey”
You might question the idea of purchasing tequila on purpose, but I would still consider this a must-have in a home bar. I love Mexican food and nothing goes better with tacos than margaritas!
What you need it for: margaritas, cocktails, and shots (joking!)
Tonic water, dark pop and clear pop ($20)
You don’t need actually need to go to bartending school to be able to serve your friends before a night out, but you should have something to mix your liquors with so you’re not just handing them a glass of pure alcohol.
You need at least 1 bottle of red and 1 bottle of white on hand at all times. You can add a bottle of rosé if you’re trendy.
What you need it for: guests who do not want to drink cocktails or hard liquor, sangria, to pair with dinner, cooking, and as a gift if you’re invited to dinner at someone else’s house.
Mixed Beers ($20)
Sometimes you just want something simple. A sampler case of mixed beer is the easiest way to make sure you have something to please any beer drinker that visits your home.
Cash leftover? Get these extras: liqueurs, juice, garnish, and syrups
If your liquor cabinet is stocked with all of the above, you can step up your game with the following if you really want to impress.
Liqueurs will cost you as much or more than your base liquors in your bar cabinet, so buy carefully. These should only be picked up when needed for a specific drink. Thankfully, because you typically only use them to enhance the flavor of a cocktail based on one of the liquors listed above, it will take you a lot longer to burn through your supply, making the price tag more bearable.
- Triple sec
- Irish cream
- St Germain
- Tomato juice
- Orange juice
- Cranberry juice
- Pineapple juice
Essential produce and garnishes
These are best picked up from the grocery store the day before or the day of the party you’re hosting.
- Cocktail Olives
- Tabasco sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Agave syrup
This list is lengthy enough, but you might also want to consider bitters, barware, and even a cool bar cart to display your collection when you stock a home bar.
See? some adulting is fun!
Great post…but as an amateur home bartender, I have to say you have a couple essentials definitely missing (and super CHEAP)
1) Simple Syrup – an essential for a LOT of cocktails
2) Vermouth – Martinis, and used in a lot of classic cocktails (negroni, boulvardier, etc)
Also, curious if you have any recommendations on cheaper liquors? A few of my cheaper favorites:
– For Rye Whiskey the Canadian Club 100% rye is a good budget
– Evan Williams Bourbon is an okay option for some mixed cocktails, but personally i’d splurge and get a nice bottle of bourbon.
– I’d recommend never paying for a “premium” vodka…because like you said, vodka has no taste…so why pay extra for it 🙂
Also, I like to have grapefruits on hand as well…great for garnishes/zest and some great grapefruit juice drinks as well. Feel free to check out the “BAR” section on my site for some more advanced cocktails if you are interested 🙂
My goodness! I must not go out much because my first thought was “my goodness that’s a lot of liquor, it’s going to take years to drink that”. I think the last two parties I hosted were kids birthday parties and there wasn’t really a heavy drinking crowd ; )
Nice list though, I might stock a couple of these items ‘just in case’, my favorite at the moment is mojitos because we have fresh mint in the back yard.
lol it should actually take years to drink!! …unless you party pretty hard 😉