Ok, so you've selected a short list of products that you need to pick up in order to get ready to make your first cocktails, but how do you know which products to get, and how do you fine tune your selection on future shopping trips?
What To Buy? How Much To Spend?
When you are faced with stocking your home bar, one task in front of you is to simply know what different ingredients to pick up. But once you have decided to go buy some Gin, Brandy, Vodka, Tequila, or any one of the other various liquors, you soon learn that there is another daunting task in front of you, and that's figuring out exactly which one to buy.
If this is the position you are in, most likely it isn't just a single ingredient you want to pick up. You are probably on a shopping trip to stock your bar for a party, which means you probably aren't motivated to pick up the "best" product in each category. You'll be standing there in front of the daunting array of products, and down on the bottom shelf you see a bottle of no-name Gin for $6.95, while placed right in front of your gaze is a fancy bottle of premium gin for $46.95… which to choose, which to choose. Is the premium gin really worth an extra $40? Will your friends even notice? Will you? If your only choice was between these two brands, then the answer could be arrived at fairly simply. Obviously the premium gin will be a lot better then the no-name gin, and so if it is within your budget you will definitely be doing your friends a favor by spending the extra money. However between these two, you will most likely see countless other brands, at various prices. Which just makes all of this even more confusing.
When I first made a serious approach to building out my home liquor cabinet, I decided to make my first shopping excursion as painless as possible and went cheap. I of course didn't go down to the "rot gut" level, that wouldn't be doing anybody any good. But I did stay on the lower shelves, after all, I had a lot to buy, and my wallet wasn't feeling terribly heavy. I knew that some of the products I was picking up were probably not good choices, but they were "a" choice, and they would suffice until I had an opportunity to discover for myself which specific brands best suited my tastes.
A Plan Of Attack
As I mentioned in my previous article, Stocking The Bar, rather than just randomly buying every liquor you see, it is best to focus on just the ingredients that you'll need to make a handful of specific cocktails. Probably the worst thing you can do at this stage is to pick up very specific products. By this I mean don't go for things like Jagermeister, Goldshlagger, Southern Comfort, Rumplemintz, or some of these other products that you don't have any cocktail recipes for. While your college buddies might have been able to go on for hours at how great each of these were, most of that is simply marketing hype, and once you've discovered how great cocktails can be, they'll end up just gathering dust on your shelves. Except when your college buddies drop by.
Your shopping list will start out with the ingredients for your selected cocktails, exactly what these are will of course vary depending on the drinks you're going to focus on for a while. There are however, some additional ingredients that you'll want to add to your list if it doesn't include them already. Core to your liquor cabinet will be the base spirits: Brandy, Gin, Rum, Tequila, Vodka, and Bourbon (whiskey). To this you'll also want to make sure that you have Dry Vermouth, Sweet Vermouth, and Triple Sec. There will of course be additional ingredients that you'll discover you'll need over time, but with your original list, and these few basics, you should be pretty well set.
Once you've made your first pass at stocking your bar, the fun part is still ahead of you, and I don't just mean mixing cocktails. Like me, you will no doubt have made some, uh, mistakes in some of the brands you picked up. Some of the products you picked up were either cheap for a reason, or perhaps you bought one of the more expensive brands, when actually a less expensive product would have been just as good or even better. The fun part I was talking about was in discovering your mistakes, and correcting them.
As you progress through your mixology experiments on the cocktails you chose, you will no doubt start running low on several of your original shopping trip, and it will be time for another one. The important step here is to make sure that you restock while you still have some of the original product left. For a replacement, never buy the same brand you picked up the first time. Instead select a different brand, a cheaper one, a more expensive one, or something in the same price range. It doesn't really matter, the goal is to be able to compare one product against another, and use this to help you notice the differences that will allow you to make even better cocktails.
To compare your different brands, don't try making a cocktail, there will be too many other flavors involved, and it will make it harder to be able to notice which is the better product. Instead you'll want to compare them straight. If you can, a "blind" taste test is best, so that preconceived notions about price, brand marketing, or other aspects won't sway your judgment.
A Blind Taste Test
Have a friend pour out one glass of one of the spirits, and two glasses of the other. This should be done of course without you being able to see what is poured into which glass. You then taste each of the three glasses and determine two things. First, which glass contains the spirit that you prefer, and second, which two glasses contain the same spirit. If you get the second part of this wrong, then it doesn't really matter what you select for the first, since the products are so similar that it doesn't matter. In which case you know that the cheaper of the two is the better choice.
If you want to run some of these taste tests without waiting to go through an entire bottle, then you might want to try picking up a variety of "mini-bottles". While you are paying more per ounce in these little bottles, it is a reasonably good way of being able to get a broad cross-section of liquor without having to buy full bottles of all of them.
Eventually, as you work your way through various spirits, you'll get an idea for which brands you prefer, and your home liquor cabinet will start taking form.