The holidays are a time to get together with friends and family. Whether you are celebrating the joyous occasion with those close to you or enduring the extended family for the obligatory once a year visit, you probably should have some whiskey on hand. Like butter and bacon, whiskey tends to make everything better. Even when it’s not holiday time, if you’re a fan of the water of life you might want to have a well chosen selection at home for personal perusal or entertaining. If you’re a one brand one bottle kind of person then that’s fine. I’m not judging you but if you and/or your guests only drink one thing all the time with no exception then this article probably won’t interest you.
I’m assuming that you probably already have a bottle or two if you’re reading a whiskey blog so let’s move beyond the “if I only have one/two bottle(s)” question and talk about stocking a home whiskey bar for yourself and guests. Before we start I want to clarify that we’re talking about a whiskey bar, not a whiskey collection. A collection, whether by design or accident is a different beast entirely. Oh, and if you think you can’t collect by accident let me tell you from personal experience that it can happen very easily. I’m in the process of rectifying that transgression in my own supply so let me know if you want to stop by and “help” with that. 😉
“How many bottles should I plan on getting for a base stock in my home whiskey bar?”
It depends. If you’re just looking for bourbon or scotch then probably three well chosen bottles will get you started. If you want a nice cross section of multiple styles then I would say five to eight. It really is up to you. However, I will caution you that once you get north of 10 bottles and start heading towards 20 you starting getting into collection territory. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a slippery slope. 😉
“How much should I plan to spend?”
You can spend as much or as little as you want. I’ll try to give you a few examples at various prices for each category. That way you can decide how much you want to spend based on personal preference and financial situation. Please note that the prices listed are for a standard U.S. 750ml bottle.
“Where do I begin?”
With scotch and bourbon a good framework would be to get a mixer, a classic, and a gem. Now when I say “mixer” I’m really referring to a table whiskey. You should use the same rule of thumb for mixed drinks and cocktails as you do for cooking with wine. That means that even your table whiskey should be something you wouldn’t mind drinking by itself. There are plenty of inexpensive and tasty whiskeys out there so you shouldn’t have to buy rot gut just to use as a mixer. Here are some examples.
Scotch – Johnnie Walker Black, Chivas Regal 12 Year Old, and Glenlivet 12 Year Old can all be had for around $30.
Bourbon – Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond ($20), Buffalo Trace ($20), and Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($22)
Your “classic” whiskey should be something that typifies the category. That $1,000 bottle of Macallan 30 Year Old may taste like heaven but when I say classic I’m thinking of a reasonably priced dram that is pleasant and displays many of the standard characteristics of scotch or bourbon. Again, here are a few examples.
Scotch – Highland Park 12 Year Old ($40), Compass Box Great King Street Blend ($40), and Cragganmore 12 Year Old ($50)
Bourbon – Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old ($40), Old Forester Birthday Bourbon ($40), and Blanton’s ($50)
Now let’s talk about that gem. Up until now you’ve probably dropped between $100 to $150 on four bottles of whiskey (2 bourbon, 2 scotch). The gem category is where you can be as reserved or crazy as you want. The notion behind these bottles is to have something exceptional. Think of it as a special whiskey or two. You can lay these on your snobby or aficionado friends to get the approving nod or you can use them to show somehow something really good tastes. Alternatively, you can think of these bottles as a little more aggressive or obscure in taste. If Glenfiddich is your middle of the road then maybe one of these bottles can be a super peaty Ardbeg. You can drop $50 on one of these or $500. It’s up to you. Below are a few suggestions but let your interests guide your decisions.
Scotch – Lagavuling 16 Year Old ($80), Macallan 18 Year Old ($130), Dewar’s Signature ($180)
Bourbon – Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit ($55), George T. Stagg ($75), Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old ($120)
Now you may have noticed that I’ve listed both blends and single malts for scotch under each category. This is intentional. Both are very tasty and should be considered equally. I really think that you should consider getting at least one blend and at least one single malt. One is not inferior to the other regardless of what you hear from scotch snobs.
Scotch and bourbon are great but there’s a wider and ever expanding world of whiskey out there waiting to be sampled. Personally, I would recommend a good rye that you can drink and mix as a staple. Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond ($20) or Sazerac Rye ($27) are great examples. If you’ve only ever used bourbon in your cocktails then get ready for a treat. A good rye cocktail is hard to beat.
I also think you should have a bottle of something a little different. It will allow you and your guests to expand your whiskey horizons and give you something interesting to compare and contrast. A nice bottle of Yamazaki 12 Year Old Japanese Whisky ($40), Redbreast 12 Year Old Irish Pot Still Whiskey ($50), or Amrut Fusion Indian Whisky ($60) would all be nice additions.
“What about other spirits to have on hand?”
Believe it or not, I don’t only drink whiskey. I often enjoy other fine brown spirits. Around the holidays I especially enjoy a nice brandy after a big meal. Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac ($35), Germain-Robin Shareholder’s Reserve ($75), or Kelt XO Cognac ($150) are all nice examples.
If a nice aged rum is more your speed then maybe a bottle of Cruzan Single Barrel ($28), Appleton Extra Jamaican Rum ($35), or Bacardi Reserva Limitada Rum Anejo ($100) would give you something nice to sip with guests.
“Is there anything else I need?”
It’s probably a good idea to have a few other basic ingredients on hand for cocktails. Below is a suggested list but you can add or subtract as you see fit. Remember, this list is focused on whiskey cocktails. If you’re doing a White Russian or a Sex on the Beach then that’s something entirely different.
- Simple Syrup (make your own)
- Sodas (Coca-cola, diet cola, ginger ale, club soda, tonic water, etc.)
- Bitters (Angostura, Peychaud, etc.)
- Fruit – Juice and whole fruit (Lemons, oranges, maraschino cherries, etc.)
- Vermouth – Sweet and Dry
I would recommend that you actually look at the kind of cocktails you plan to make and back into a list of additional ingredients instead of blinding buying stuff that the guy on the internet said you had to have. Having a huge selection of cocktail accoutrement looks cool but if you never use it then it’s a waste.
“Wait a minute. What about vodka and tequila?”
Like your mom said about little Scotty Powell down the street…”You don’t need friends like that.” In all seriousness, we were talking about stocking a nice selection of whiskeys. I could go on and on with my belligerent opinions of the vodka and tequila culture that’s exploded in the last 15 to 20 years but that’s not the point of this article. Look, if you need to have vodka and tequila, and a good host probably should, then you don’t need to fret over the bottles as much as you might think. Probably about 99% of vodka and tequila consumption in the U.S. occurs with some type of mixer. As long as you’re not buying the stuff off the bottom shelf in the plastic jugs you’ll probably be okay with the majority of brands when making a vodka tonic, vodka and cranberry, or margarita. Personally, I buy Kirkland Signature brand vodka and anejo tequila at Costco. Both are very good quality and ridiculously well priced. If you’re worried that your snobby friends will scoff because you have Costco brand or Stolichnaya vodka instead of Grey Goose or Ciroc then pick up a nice decanter to keep it in. It will class up your bar a little and then if they ask what it is you can tell them whatever the hell you want.;)
If you’re in a quandary the next time you go to the liquor store to stock up then I hope this helps. As always, these are merely my opinions on the subject. Let your taste and wallet be your guide. If you have any questions or need additional suggestions please send me an email. Enjoy the holidays and share some good whiskey with good company.
Drink wisely my friends,