Checklist for a Well-Stocked Liquor Cabinet

Karen Frazier
unlabeled liquor bottles

Keeping the liquor cabinet well-stocked with the right items allows you to be ready to entertain at a moment's notice. The trick is to stock the liquor cabinet with items that make delicious cocktails without breaking the bank. What do you need in a well-stocked liquor cabinet? A handy checklist can help you get organized and stocked.

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Essential Distilled Spirits

Distilled spirits are the essential inhabitants of the liquor cabinet. They serve as the foundation for the cocktails you can make. Distilled spirits will deteriorate slowly after opening; generally they'll last about two years once they've been opened.

White Rum

Rum is the key ingredient in mojitos and daiquiris, as well as classic cocktails such as a Cuba Libre. It's also great for adding to the frozen drink mixes you can buy at the grocery store.

  • Budget: Bacardi Superior white rum is readily available in most liquor stores, and it generally costs under $10 for a 750 mL bottle. It has a good, clean, neutral rum flavor.
  • Middle shelf: El Dorado 3-Year White Rum is affordable at anywhere from about $10 to $25 for a 750 mL bottle; look for it on sale. It's a great neutral-flavored rum for blending.
  • Top shelf: Rogue White Rum from Oregon costs around $40 per bottle. It's a full-bodied, lightly sweet, delicious rum.

Tequila

You can't make a margarita without tequila. It's also great for palomas and sunrises or for straight-up tequila shots.

  • Budget: Sauza Signature Blue Tequila costs around $15, but it's a clean and tasty tequila that's perfect for mixed drinks.
  • Middle shelf: Sauza Hornitos Plata blends beautifully with great flavors. It's a 100 percent agave, smooth tequila for about $25 per bottle.
  • Top shelf: Milagro Tequila Silver Select Barrel is a fresh tasting, slightly spicy tequila perfect for sipping, shots, or even mixed drinks. It costs around $60 per bottle.
Assorted cocktails

Vodka

Vodka is the go-to hard liquor because a good one is odorless and flavorless. It's the primary ingredient in a huge number of mixed drinks, ranging from screwdrivers to cosmopolitans. If you're going to splurge on a liquor, splurge here.

  • Budget: Tito's Handmade Vodka costs around $18 for a 750 mL bottle, and it's a clean vodka that has a great neutral flavor for blending in mixed drinks.
  • Middle shelf: Belvedere Vodka not only comes in a cool looking bottle, but it's a clean, delicious Polish vodka perfect for blending or sipping. It costs around $30 for a 750 mL bottle.
  • Top shelf: Jean Marc XO Vodka comes from a distiller in France who truly knows his stuff. It has aromatic hints that make it a winner at around $60 per bottle. Sip it or mix it.

Whiskey

You'll want a relatively neutral, clean whiskey for mixed drinks, or whiskey afficionados can enjoy the various forms of sipping whiskey including Scotch and bourbon. This one is necessary for Manhattans, sours, and the old fashioned.

  • Recommended whiskey for mixed drinks: Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey costs around $25 per 750 mL bottle and is good on its own or blended into mixed cocktails.
  • Recommended bourbon for mixed drinks: Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon is good neat or on the rocks, and it's fantastic in cocktails as well. Expect to pay around $25 for a 750 mL bottle.
  • Recommended Scotch for mixed drinks: Monkey Shoulder Scotch is a blended Speyside Scotch that's reasonably affordable at about $30 per bottle. Expect hints of brown sugar and spice.

Gin

Gin is essentially vodka with aromatics added during distillation. If guests want martinis, you have to have gin. It's also a necessity for the popular, and easy to mix gin and tonic.

  • Budget: Seagram's Extra-Dry Gin is a classic, affordable gin that's available at most liquor stores. It costs $13, and it's dry, mellow, and aromatic.
  • Middle shelf: Beefeater 24 adds some interesting botanicals like green tea to spice up this smooth and aromatic gin. It's around $35 for a 750 mL bottle.
  • Top shelf: Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin is an aromatic and spicy gin with an interesting flavor profile that makes it magnificent in martinis. It costs around $40 per bottle

Alcoholic Mixers and Liqueurs

Along with your straight up spirits, you'll want some basic liqueurs and other alcoholic mixers to add to your bar in order to allow you to make a wider range of drinks.

Vermouth

Vermouth is an aromatized and fortified wine that's a must in classic cocktails like the negroni and vodka martini. Unless you plan on serving a lot of martinis in a short time, opt for a smaller half-bottle, as the aromatics disappear quickly once a bottle of Vermouth is opened. An open bottle keeps for around three months. You'll likely want both a dry Vermouth and an off-dry or sweet Vermouth.

Cognac or Armagnac

If you like to prepare heavier drinks, keep some Cognac or Armagnac in your bar. Its starring role is in the sidecar. Try Hennessey or Courvoisier. These liqueurs will keep for about six months after opening.

Orange Liqueur

Orange liqueurs such as triple sec, Grand Marnier, and Cointreau are de rigueur for cocktails such as margaritas. It will keep for 2 to 3 years after opening, so it's okay to buy a full bottle.

Amaretto

Amaretto is a popular bittersweet almond liqueur used in a number of drinks such as the Amaretto Sour. Once opened, it will last for about six months, so if you don't plan to use a lot of it, opt for a smaller bottle.

Campari

Campari is a pretty red liqueur infused with fruit and bitter herbs. It's used in a number of cocktails, such as the negroni, and it's also sipped as an apéritif. Once opened, it lasts for a year or two. Depending on how much you plan to use, you may wish to purchase a smaller bottle.

Campari on ice

Non-Alcoholic Cocktail Mixers

While a lot of people will be happy to drink liquor straight-up or on the rocks, you'll be a more popular host if you also have mixers available.

Grenadine

Grenadine is a sweet-tart red bar syrup used in drinks such as the Hurricane. Once opened, you can store it in the fridge for up to six months.

Bitters

Cocktail bitters are added to a number of drinks to bring balance to other flavors, such as in a Sazerac. You only use a few dashes, and with the explosion in craft cocktails, you'll find bitters in all sorts of types ranging from regular Angostura and Peychaud's bitters (be sure you have both of these) to flavored bitters such as orange, chocolate, or cardamom. Bitters will keep for up to five years, and they're a great way to introduce interesting flavors to your cocktails. A little goes a long way.

Tonic Water

Tonic water keeps a long, long time before it's opened, and it has a nice, bitter flavor from quinine. You'll need it for classic beverages such as a gin and tonic. After opening, you'll need to consume it in about 2 to 4 days.

Simple Syrup

You can make or buy simple syrup, which is a blend of sugar and water that mixes into drinks easily. It's used to add sweetness to a number of mixed drinks. It will keep for up to six months.

Sugar Cubes

If you like an old-fashioned, then you'll need sugar cubes. Fortunately, they are easy to find and they'll store for months.

Ingredients for an old fashioned

Club Soda

Carbonated club soda is an essential mixer in a number of drinks, as well, such as a Tom Collins or a vodka-soda. It's inexpensive, and it does lose its bubbles within a few days.

Soda

You may want to keep an array of flavored sodas, as well. At the least, cola and lemon-lime sodas are popular mixers, as is ginger ale. For a classic mule, instead opt for ginger beer.

Mixers

You can also keep an array of mixers on hand if you wish, such as collins mix, margarita mix, sour mix, and Bloody Mary mix, or you can make your own mixers with fresh fruits and juices when cocktail time arrives. Since these tend to not keep for long (especially fresh juices), purchase them once you've got your cocktail menu planned for a party.

Must-Have Garnishes

You should also stock some garnishes although it's better to keep them in the kitchen than in the bar if your bar lacks a refrigerator. In general, grab perishable garnishes the day of the party. Others you can keep on the shelf, although once opened, you'll need to use them quickly or toss them after they expire.

Cocktails with garnishes

Garnishes With a Shelf-Life

Essential garnishes in cans, bottles, and jars include:

  • Green olives
  • Bleu cheese stuffed olives
  • Maraschino cherries or bourbon cherries
  • Sugar and salt for rimming glasses
  • Cocktail onions

Fresh Garnishes

Fresh garnishes include:

  • Lemon wedges or twists
  • Lime wedges or twists
  • Celery stalks
  • Fresh fruit
  • Mint sprigs

Essential Barware

You don't have to spend a lot of money on barware. A few key pieces used only for mixing drinks should do the trick:

  • Jigger - Always use a jigger to measure your pours so you have the right amount of alcohol in your drinks.
  • Shaker - You'll need this for any drinks you're serving in shot or martini glasses. It lets you mix with ice without leaving the ice in your drink.
  • Strainer - Put this on top of the shaker to easily pour your drinks.
  • Muddler - Use this to muddle herbs to flavor drinks such as mojitos.
  • Bar spoon - Use it to stir your rocks drinks (ones that have ice in them when served).
  • Stir sticks - Add them to guests' drinks so they can remix them if they separate.
  • Wine corkscrew - This is essential if you're serving wine
  • Glasses - At the least, you'll want to have highball or collins glasses, rocks glasses, martini glasses, shot glasses, and wine glasses. You can add additional glasses as needed or opt for the ever popular red Solo cup.
Types of bar glasses illustration

Tips for Stocking Your Home Bar

You don't need to buy everything at once; most people stock their bar gradually over time.

  • Store unopened spirits in a cool, dry location.
  • Write a date on your spirits and mixers once opened so you know when they were opened and can discard them when they've passed their peak.
  • Keep it simple; focus on one or two cocktails for a party and stock for those. You're not going to have the functionality of a full commercial bar, and nobody expects you to.
  • Consider having a featured cocktail at parties. Then, you can focus on that, and if friends want to make other cocktails, suggest they bring their own ingredients to make and share.
  • For a party, fresh citrus is your friend. You can quickly squeeze fresh citrus juices to make a number of interesting cocktails.
  • Don't forget ice. If you're having a lot of chilled and shaken drinks, grab a bag or two of ice from the grocery store right before the party.
  • You may also want to include red wine and white wine when making your alcohol purchases. This will satisfy people who don't fancy hard liquor or mixed drinks.
  • If you need help stocking your bar, or you're still unsure about what to purchase, ask guests to bring the ingredients for their favorite drinks to your next party. Most everyone loves to share their expertise, and you'll get a good idea of what your friends like to drink so you can be better prepared next time.
  • If you have favorite sipping liquors, such as Scotch or Bourbon, keep some on hand for purists who prefer a whiskey neat.
  • Always have non-alcoholic options available for designated drivers as well.

A Well-Stocked Bar

A well-stocked bar makes entertaining fun and easy. So grab your favorite booze, mixers, and cocktail app and plan your next party.

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Checklist for a Well-Stocked Liquor Cabinet