Building Your Home Bar on a Budget

Serve drinks that don’t taste like paint thinner without breaking the bank

Even before you throw budget into the mix, putting together a serviceable bar can be a difficult proposition. Liquor stores can be intimidating and overwhelming at times, and while we’re seeing a definite push here in the US to make them more friendly places to shop, you’ll still often encounter employees who just don’t know much about their products. When you throw budgetary concerns on top of that, it only adds to the problem – sure, it’s easy to guess that the $60 bottle of bourbon is going to be good, but which $20 bottle won’t taste like cistern water filtered through stove ash?

Primer and I are here to help with this guide to building a bar on a budget. I’ve started by splitting our list into two sections: must haves, and nice-to-haves. The goal of the must-haves section is to give you the most versatility with a minimum of bottles (and expense). The nice-to-haves will round out your bar and greatly enhance the number of cocktails, both classic and modern, that you can craft. In addition, I’ve listed a “next step” option for most bottles, in case you’re feeling particularly flush and want to splurge (a bit).

As with anything, you can keep on climbing up the price scale, and we could just as easily put together a bar where the least-expensive bottle on the list cost upwards of sixty bucks. The truth, though, is that you can make extremely delicious cocktails without breaking the bank, and that’s what we’re here to show you.

Oh, one last thing: all prices are approximate, and represent the cost of a standard 750 ML bottle except where noted. Many types of liquor also come in 1.75 L bottles that are cheaper than buying two 750’s (and even give you 250 ML of extra booze). If you have the storage space, this is another way to save money. I just keep some old 750’s around and, with the help of a $2 plastic funnel, refill them when necessary.

Let’s get to it.

Must Haves


When it comes to classic cocktails, the only way you’re beating gin for sheer numbers is if you combine all of the different types of whiskey, and even then I’m not sure about it. There are an amazing number of gin drinks because gin plays well with just about every flavor known to man. The classic clear liquor, gin fell out of favor with Americans post-prohibition, but is making a major comeback. You simply can’t build a bar without it, and for our budget bar we recommend New Amsterdam. Priced at a modest $13 per bottle, it’s clean and smooth enough to use in a dry martini (I find it has a slight sweet note up front that plays well with citrus bitters), but is also versatile enough to use as a mixing gin.

Next Step: You’re going to have a hard time finding a more versatile, drinkable gin for twenty bucks than good ol’ Tanqueray.


I had a hard time putting vodka on the must-have list while leaving bourbon off of it, but the simple fact is that too many modern cocktails use vodka to ignore it. Also, you have to spend a bit more for bourbon to find real quality. Essentially an unflavored relative of gin, vodka is imminently mixable. You can drink it straight, too, but it’s best when playing host to other flavors. Post-prohibition classics like the Cosmopolitan and the Black Russian make excellent use of vodka. We recommend Svedka, which at $12 averages about a buck cheaper than New Amsterdam, and works just as well.

Next Step: I find Ketel One to be as crisp and clear as Grey Goose, with a slightly thinner mouth feel, for only $20.


Before Prohibition, Rye was America’s brown spirit of choice. It has since been supplanted by bourbon, and the two can often be used interchangeably. It’s that versatility, coupled with the fact that Old Overholt rye is an absolute steal at $13 per bottle (it’s better than many ryes that cost twice as much), that lets me move bourbon to the second list. Use this rye in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Sazerac, and you’ll enjoy a nice spicy finish that will leave you wanting more.

Next Step: Rittenhouse 100 is a big, bold over-proof rye that is surprisingly gentle to sip. At $22 for a bottle, you can’t go wrong.


Rum is a truly American spirit, born in the Caribbean colonies and an essential part of our country’s history (both good and bad). You can’t make many tropical drinks without it, and it also plays very well with autumnal offerings like mulled cider. Aged rums take on many of the best qualities of aged whiskey, but for inexpensive versatility, standard golden rum is your best bet. I recommend Cruzan gold, which will set you back about $12 and can be used in any rum cocktail recipe other than the Bacardi cocktail (which must, by law, use Bacardi in order to be so-named!).

Next Step: Ron Matusalem's Gran Reserva is a delicious golden rum with enough subtlety and nuance to be enjoyed neat in a snifter. At $25, it’s a bargain.


Named after a tiny tropical island off the coast of Venezuela where its namesake oranges are grown, Curaçao is a sweet orange liqueur that will cohabitate happily in a drink with any base liquor. As a result, it’s the only liqueur on our must-have list. It may also be called Triple-Sec (which will technically be somewhat less-sweet than standard Curaçao), and it sometimes comes in bright blue. Bartenders I’ve surveyed are torn on this; some think it’s hysterical, others associate the color with tacky drinks you find at chain restaurants. Our brand of choice, Bol’s, comes in both colors and either should cost around $11. The blue coloring adds no flavor, but it will make many drinks turn, well, blue. I say: go with what you like.

Next Step: Patron Citronge, a recent entry from the company more famous for its tequila, is very tasty and only costs around $20 per bottle.

Sweet Vermouth

Vermouth is a fortified wine. The sweet, or Italian, version uses red wine, and is a component in an extremely large number of cocktails, including arguably the most famous of whiskey cocktails: the Manhattan. Noilly Prat makes an absolutely delicious version that only costs about $6 for a 375 ML bottle. Why half-size? Because unlike the other items on this list, vermouth can and will go bad and start to taste lousy. The smaller size lets you turn it over more frequently. Keep it in the fridge, and try to use it within a month or two.

Next Step: I find that Dolin sweet vermouth has a bit more of a spicy kick to it, and at $12 for a 375 ML bottle, it won’t break your bank either.

Dry Vermouth

Winston Churchill may have only waved to his bottle of dry vermouth while making his martini, but if you want to make the real thing, you’ll want at least a 3:1 ratio of gin to vermouth. Made from white wine, good dry, or French, vermouth brings a lot of subtle flavors to a drink without being cloyingly sweet. Once again, Noilly Prat is hard to beat here at just $6 for a 375 ML bottle.

Next Step: Just like with the sweet version, I like Dolin. It’s a bit more aggressive, but at the reasonable rate of $12 for a 375 ML bottle, you can easily try it out and see which you prefer.

Angostura Bitters

The oldest surviving American bitters, Angostura has been producing this time-tested recipe for more than 150 consecutive years. These are the only bitters you’re likely to find in a standard supermarket, and they’re used in more classic cocktails than it’s possible to count. Bitters are an essential part of the cocktail’s history; if you want to make good drinks, you need bitters, and if you only buy one bottle, make it this one. $8 will get you 10 OZ of bitters, which at a dash-or-two a drink divides out to a fraction of a penny per use.

Next Step: There is no next step. Your bar needs a bottle of Angostura on it at all times.

Must Haves Total Cost: a mere $83


If I were stuck on a desert island with an infinite supply of one type of liquor of my choice, I’d choose bourbon. So why did I leave it off the must-haves? As explained in the rye section, it’s pricier than other base liquors (scotch being the exception), and you can sub Old Overholt rye for bourbon in most cocktail recipes. Jim Beam makes the bourbon that most bars use for their well drinks, but I think it tastes like charcoal, so I recommend Buffalo Trace. Yes, it’s a few more bucks. Yes, you will notice the difference. It costs $24 for a bottle, is good enough to be enjoyed neat, and will work in any bourbon cocktail out there.

Next Step: Maker’s Mark recently introduced their Maker’s 46 variant. It is the best bourbon experience I’ve had in its price range (around $35), and I have tried many. Drink it with only a single ice cube or use it in a Manhattan. It’s superb.


One of the least-used base liquors in cocktailing, right up there with tequila, scotch is nonetheless a vital ingredient in several classic drinks, particularly the Blood and Sand and the Rob Roy. More than any other liquor, scotch flavor varies heavily by brand, ranging from light and sweet with caramel notes, to big and bold with complex burnt-peat flavors. There is no other way to learn what you like than to experiment, and don’t be surprised if your taste changes over time. For our base entry, I’ve chosen White Horse blended scotch whiskey, which offers nice honey flavors up front and a bit of smoke at the end. A bottle can be yours for a mere $12.

Next Step: Johnnie Walker Black is smoother and less smoky than the cheaper red version, and I like it much better, but it will cost you around $28 for a bottle.


An oft-overlooked part of the American bar, brandy is essential for a wide-variety of pre-prohibition drinks. Distilled from wine and thus dependent on quality grapes, arguably the best brandy you’re going to find comes from the Cognac region of France, and I’ve chosen Courvoisier VS as my recommendation. There are cheaper brandies out there, but I’ve not found one yet that’s brought me back for a second bottle. At $26 per bottle, it won’t shatter your budget, and it will work in any recipe that calls for brandy or cognac.

Next Step: Remy Martin VSOP is a fine sipping cognac, with lots of dried fruits notes, along with nuts, caramel and spice. At $36 for a bottle, it’s worth a splurge.

Irish Whiskey

There aren’t that many cocktail recipes that call specifically for Irish whiskey, but there are plenty that make a general call for “whiskey” without specifying the origin, and with its softer and less-aggressive character than scotch, the Irish variety works with many of them (also good: Canadian whiskeys). For price, quality, and nearly unlimited availability, it’s hard to beat the old standby, Jameson, at $20 per bottle.

Next Step: Bushmill’s Black Bush is a significant upgrade from Jameson, in terms of depth of character. Bottles go for around $36, and I recommend enjoying it neat with a few drops of water.


Like scotch, tequila tends not to play as well with other ingredients as most base liquors. Its unique, vegetal flavor can be overpowering. As a result the vast majority of tequila drinks, including the Sidecar’s much more famous younger brother, the Margarita, pair the liquor with lots of citrus, which can hold up its end of things. I don’t drink cheap tequila, period, and this is the only time in this article that I’m listing a budget item that I do not personally like: Sauza Gold at $12 per bottle. I don’t love the taste, but it works in Margaritas and it won’t make you sick.

Next Step: I use 1800 Reposado (gold) tequila for my bar at home, and came close to listing it as my budget pick even at $24 per bottle. If you have the cash, it’s a significant upgrade. Tequila’s complex … I haven’t found a “sipping” version that I like for less than fifty dollars.

Anise Liqueur

As a base flavoring for liqueurs, there may be no more common ingredient than anise, which gives a distinctive black licorice quality (of varying strength) to dozens of cordials, from sambuca to the heavyweight of the category: absinthe. Anise liqueurs are common secondary or tertiary ingredients in cocktails, often being used simply to “rinse the glass,” as they are quite strong. A bottle of Pernod – a French absinthe substitute from the period where wormwood was outlawed in drinks – costs $26 but will likely last you for months or more (my bottle is currently on its third year).

Next Step: If you have $60-plus burning a hole in your pocket, then move up to a real absinthe. The addition of wormwood does subtly change the flavor, and contrary to the beliefs that led to its banishment, it does not make you hallucinate or poison you. Try the Lucid or Mythe brands.

Herbal Liqueur

The family of herbal liqueurs is wide-ranging, and it’s hard to recommend just one bottle for the bar because each is quite different in its flavor. They often bring a pleasant depth of flavor to mixed drinks, and there are many cocktails that you simply can’t make without them. While each is different and I recommend exploring, they can usually be substituted for each other without throwing things too out of whack. On a budget, I would go with Benedictine, which at $35 is about the least-expensive of the bunch.

Next Step: Green Chartreuse, at 80 proof (40% alcohol) is stronger than most cordials. It is also, by far, my personal favorite liqueur. It’s not called for in that many cocktails, but it’s delicious on its own or mixed with gin and a little lemon to cut the sweetness. At $62, though, it’s not exactly a budget item.

Cherry Brandy

I hesitated between cherry, peach, and apricot brandies for this item because all of them are routinely called for in classic cocktail recipes. In the end, I went with cherry because I like it the best. There are other options, but at only $24 for a bottle, there’s really no reason to choose anything but Peter Heering’s Cherry Heering. It’s darker and has a stronger flavor than anything else out there. Note: Maraschino liqueur, while made from cherries, isn’t really a cherry brandy. It’s closer to Curaçao, while the brandies have a much more pronounced cherry flavor.

Next Step: honestly? I haven’t encountered an entry I like better than Cherry Heering. I’d recommend getting a bottle of peach or apricot brandy in addition, instead of upgrading the cherry entry.

Peychaud’s Bitters

Formulated by a New Orleans pharmacist, Atoine Peychaud’s delicious bitters are not as commonly found in stores, nor as often called-for in drink recipes. They are still close to a must-have, however, for two reasons. First: you can’t make a Sazerac without them. Second: they get along with nearly everything and are an excellent change of pace from Angostura’s warmer, spicier flavor. They’re just $8 for a 10 OZ bottle that will last for years, so there’s really no excuse not to pick them up.

Next Step: There is a world of craft bitters to explore, but I have yet to find one that’s terribly similar to Peychaud’s unique character. If you know of one, drop me a line!

Regan’s Orange Bitters

A much newer entry on the list than Angostura or Peychaud, Regan’s Orange Bitters are the creation of noted cocktail historian Gary “Gaz” Regan, who realized that while many older recipes called for orange bitters, none had been on the market in several decades. After much experimentation and several failed recipes, he finally found one that really works. Recipe #6 is the one you’ll find on the shelves of local liquor stores, and at $9 for 10 OZ, it should be on your bar as well.

Next Step: Both the Fee Brothers of Rochester New York ($8 for 4 OZ) and the folks from Angostura ($10 for 4 OZ) have released orange bitters, each with their own unique character worth exploring.

Nice-To-Haves Total Cost: $196

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website,


  • Reply March 13, 2012


    Incredible post! This is why I love Primer. Keep it up!

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Buffalo Trace is good, but I prefer Bulleit Bourbon. Similar price but more of the rye taste you mention above.

    • Reply April 30, 2014

      Eric Henao

      W. L. Weller 12yr, i like even better for a mixing bourbon.

    • Reply November 11, 2014


      Agree! Bulliet Rye is my favorite also.

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    I like Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight 10 year old Bourbon Whiskey. It goes for about $25 and has the distinct corn sweetness of bourbon while being very smooth and easy to sip. I’m also a vodka snob and have a hard time with cheaper vodkas, including Ketel. I find Cold River Classic Maine Potatoe Vodka to be very crisp and smooth, perfect for making Vodka tonics with flavored tonic. If I want to bring it down a notch and mix something with soda, I usually go for flavored Stolichnaya and sprite (or something similar) and a dash of unsweetened cranberry juice. Finally, regarding scotches, seeing as it is uncommonly mixed in drinks (and never mix a single malt with anything else) and people may be more apt to sip it neat (never drink SMS with ice), I would suggest taking time to find an SMS that you love. Some distilleries put out samplers and some scotch tasting events are free to attend. I would highly recommend that you want to take a step up from the dregs of blended scotch whiskey, you look into investing in a bottle of finer SMS. Macallan 12 (on the sweet, dried fruit side) goes for about $40 and Lagavulin 16 (smoky like a New Orleans jazz club) goes for about $55. Both are well worth the price and are launching pads into the amazing world of SMS. (Never drink with ice!)

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    This is excellently done. Christopher (or any readers), I’d love to know your thoughts on 2 spirits (If you’ve had them):

    Hendricks Gin and Prairie organic vodka.

    Thanks and keep up the good work over here fellas.

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    Zach M

    One often overlooked ingredient necessary for any bar is ICE!

    Tovolo King Cube Ice Trays are great. Yes, they’re slightly pricey for an ice cube tray but try them out…you’ll be glad you did.

    Also, as Matt said, Bulleit Bourbon (and Rye) are a great bang for your buck.

    As Greg_S said, check out Hendricks Gin. It’s not much more expensive and it’s a great mixing gin to use when not making the typical gin/vodka tonic (I believe this is due to its lighter juniper berry flavoring).

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Great post!

    I’ll throw in recommendations for Sobieski Vodka ($10-$12) which is a great price and very pleasant.

    Also, if Blue Coat Gin from Philadelphia Distillery, which may not be widely available, but is a great find. Less juniper and more citrus. I prefer it to Tanqueray and Bombay Saphire and it should cost less than both.

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Great post!

    I’ll throw in recommendations for Sobieski Vodka ($10-$12) which is a great price and very pleasant.

    Also, Blue Coat Gin from Philadelphia Distillery, which may not be widely available, but is a great find. Less juniper and more citrus. I prefer it to Tanqueray and Bombay Saphire and it should cost less than both.

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    Wow, thanks for all the great comments. I’m glad people enjoyed the piece!

    Matt – I like Bulleit too, but it’s about $10 more than Buffalo Trace in my market. It’s the same price as Maker’s 46, which I like a ton (as mentioned in the article), so I usually go with that.

    Max – I’ve never had Eagle 10 Year. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it. Ditto for Cold River vodka, though I must admit that I don’t use vodka very much. More of a gin guy. As far as single-malt scotch goes, one could easily write an entire article on the subject! I didn’t address it in this particular article since it’s pretty hard to find a good single malt in the price ranges we’re mostly dealing with here. Our current house scotch is Lagavulin 16, but I’m also fond of Oban, which is basically on the far other side of the spectrum.

    Greg – I love Hendricks. That and Tanqueray Ten are my go-tos for premium gin martinis at nice restaurants. Unfortunately, it’s a bit pricey to list in a budget article. I bought a bottle of Prairie Organic Vodka a couple of years ago and liked it, but I can’t say I remember it well enough to give a definitive opinion on it.

    Zach – That’s a very good point about ice. I use the slightly smaller-sized version of those Tovolo trays (the ones that make 12 cubes), and I love them. I also try to turn my ice over as frequently as possible so that it doesn’t pick up any nasty flavors from the freezer. If I were being a bit more picky I’d also use filtered water, but the water here in Rhode Island isn’t terrible so I usually don’t worry about it.

    Snootypants – I’ll keep an eye out for Sobieski and Blue Coat. Always interested in trying new stuff, especially from small batch / artisan distillers!

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Awesome post. Thanks.

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Awesome post, you all should check out Status Vodka, it’s the smoothest vodka you’ll ever come across. Also just one correction Angostura Bitters isn’t from America.

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    Christopher – Trinidad and Tobago is geologically a part of South America and culturally part of the West Indies / Caribbean which is generally included in “North America”. So technically speaking they are American bitters, but I agree that usually when you say “American X” people think “USA” so I probably should’ve been clearer.

  • […] latest article has gone up over at Primer Magazine. It’s an extensive look at how to put together a really […]

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    Richard White

    Evan Williams Black Label is simply the best value in bourbon. I challenge you to find another $11 bottle that is as enjoyable neat.

  • Reply March 14, 2012


    Great post! But I disagree with you on the gin – martinis demand a gin closer to 94 proof than 80 proof, and New Amsterdam – while more than serviceable in a gin & tonic – makes a crap martini.

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    Dan – I like the soft sweetness that New Amsterdam brings up front in a martini. Most of the gins that I prefer for Martinis, though, are in the 82-88 proof range (Hendricks, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray Ten), so I might just like softer martinis than you do!

  • Reply March 15, 2012

    Tommy A

    Guys – why dont you put together a “buy a basic backbar” shopping cart. Link it to a website that sells all the bottles you suggest perhaps for a slight discount?

    UK reader here and we have plenty of websites that sell the bottles separately (not sure if US law allows this for all states…) but if the reader has all the basic materials you could do follow up articles with cocktails based on the materials from a basic back bar?

    My 2¢

  • Reply March 15, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    Hi Tommy,

    Unfortunately, every state in the US has different laws about what alcohol can and can’t be bought online (several US states don’t allow alcohol to be shipped to private addresses, period). A lot of online liquor stores in this country only service the state they’re in, and even huge sites like only ship to about half the states in the country.

    I’ll definitely be doing followup articles about crafting various cocktails from the ingredients listed here, though. 🙂

  • Reply March 15, 2012


    THis blog is AWESOME. This article is just another reason why this blog never ceases to amaze me. I will truly begin to spread it amongst ALL of my guy friends. I have no interest in sharing with the ladies, it feels good to have a place where I can go to kick my e-shoes off and enjoy the feeling of a e-man-cave. NO WOMEN ALLOWED.

  • Reply March 16, 2012

    Steven Kippel

    Clearly anyone who gets into cocktailing will develop their own preferences. With that caveat, I want to make a few suggestions, starting with vermouth.

    Do not buy cheap vermouth (especially sweet vermouth). If you wouldn’t drink the vermouth neat, you shouldn’t be mixing it in drinks. I prefer Dolin, only because it hits this requirement for me without being too pricey. There are better sweet vermouths out there, but we’re looking at $36 for 750ml. In a Negroni, the top-shelf vermouth is almost a necessity.

    The Old Overholt is so amazing, and the price so worth it, it’s very hard to persuade me to spend more on a whiskey.

    I have Angostura bitters, of course, but I also have Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters. It has a special character that works well with rye whiskey.

    With those three suggestions out of the way, a Manhattan with Old Overholt, Dolin sweet, and Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters is amazing, and my preferred drink in most cases.

    Moving on, I have an affinity for the Texas-made Tito’s vodka. It has an X factor I can’t really describe that makes it stand out, and for ~$20 for 750ml it’s at a price that is really affordable. It’s probably due to its corn base, and pot still production.

    Speaking of drinks with character, I’m a Bombay Sapphire gin man myself. A Gin Cocktail with Fee Bros. orange bitters, or a very dry martini are amazing. Of course the Sapphire Collins is quite refreshing. And since gin is used in greater measures than other spirits in cocktails, I get the Costco sized bottle for just over $30 after sin taxes are paid.

    But not to sound completely aloof, this is a great article, and definitely worthwhile for anyone looking to expand their horizons. Bravo!

    • Reply January 22, 2016


      I agree. Tito’s is my pick for budget vodka – great in cocktails! I would sip it neat, too, but not all night.

  • Reply March 16, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    Great set of recommendations, Steven, thanks. Fee Bros’ old fashioned bitters are way up on my list of bitters to try out. Just haven’t picked up a bottle yet!

  • Reply March 17, 2012

    John Tinker

    @TOMMY A

    For stocking a bar with a few key bottles, try 12 bottle bar. I’ve learned alot form their approach to cocktails

  • Reply March 17, 2012

    Chris Buecheler

    I love 12 Bottle Bar. Great site with a ton of good info, and I read pretty much everything they post. But they don’t worry much about budget, which was the focus of this article. Their brandy and absinthe suggestions alone cost more than my entire set of “must-haves” 🙂

    Also, I personally disagree with their inclusion of both genever and Irish whiskey. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both fine liquors (I’m still learning about genever but I’ve sample many an Irish whiskey, and look forward to sampling more). It’s just that they have extremely limited uses in modern cocktailing.

    The beauty of the cocktail renaissance, of course, is that we have these things to argue over. Thirty years ago, it was all bad vodka and cheap whiskey!

  • Reply March 21, 2012

    Tommy A

    @John and Chris

    Thanks for the recommendations – 12 bottle bar now in the bookmark list. Also the oversized ice cube trays someone recommended above are amazing for short cocktails, gives a manly vibe to any drink:

    “I have an iceberg in my drink!”

    So there isnt a booze website in the US that tailors the site depending on the location of the user?

  • Reply March 30, 2012

    M Boan

    That’s actually a bottle of 12 year Jameson, which usually costs between 35-40, and beats the heck out of Black Bush.

  • Reply April 18, 2012


    my input: amsterdam is great if you don’t like juniper, otherwise sapphire.try to find luksosawa for vodka otherwise cheapest store brand. include the pronunciation for coor-a-show (it’s portuguese) so no one asks for kur-a-kow. grand marnier if you can. knob creek for straight bourbon if you can afford it. jw red or macallen or chivas century if you can find it. don pedro (mexican)for brandy (very dry). Armagnac not cognac. jameson kills anything from bushmills. sauza hornitos tequila (you can thank me later). drambuie. otherwise spot on. i will have to try the rye, never had it, although when we go see jane monheit at the smith center the serve a sazerac that i want to try.

  • Reply February 15, 2013


    I was slightly disappointed at this for a number of reasons. I disagree with bourbon not being a must have. You put a lot of weight on versatility, but you’re an American, putting together a bar list read mostly by Americans: bourbon should be on that list for heritage alone.

    Your most glaring error is calling brandy a fortified wine—completely false. The only fortified wines on your list are vermouth; brandy is distilled (using wine) just like everything else on the list.

    Also you’re doing everyone a disservice by recommending anything that isn’t 100% agave. Try El Jimador; that’s reasonably priced.

    What really caused you to lose credibility is recommending Black Label, which tastes like ten dollar plastic bottle whiskey. This reminds me I still have a dusty bottle of it sitting in my cabinet that I’ve been meaning to pour out or give away.

    But hey, I like the rest of your site and you generally give good advice. Keep it up.

    • Reply February 15, 2013

      Christopher Buecheler

      To address your complaints in order:

      Bourbon is my favorite spirit, but I stand by my opinion on it. If you’re on a super budget and can only stock one whiskey, American or otherwise, you can’t beat Old Overholt’s price to quality ratio as a mixing or sipping whiskey. If you really care about heritage — and personally, I don’t — rye has as much tradition in this country as bourbon does. One could argue more, in fact.

      You’re absolutely right about Brandy and I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Even a year ago, I was well aware that Brandy was distilled — must’ve been a synapse misfire. I’ll get Andrew a correction.

      El Jimador’s a decent tequila and while it’s more expensive than Sauza, it’s not enough of a step that it would break the budget. You’re right, I probably should’ve picked a 100% agave entry. I was focused very heavily on budget for this article, but still.

      I like Johnnie Walker Black. Sorry. It’s not the greatest scotch in the world by any means, but it’s a perfectly drinkable option at under thirty bucks (most 12-year scotches will set you back $35+). It’s well-reviewed by a wide variety of credible scotch sites and publications, so it’s not like I’m alone in this opinion.

      Again, this list is HEAVILY focused on budget. There are few bottles here that I stock on my own bar, these days, but I’m not a post-college young adult trying to make it on an entry-level job. When $100 was a lot of money to me, I wouldn’t have wanted to waste it on something as godawful as Jim Beam bourbon when Old Overholt rye was sitting right there for less.

      • Reply January 22, 2016


        I agree with your assessment of the tequila. Hornitos silver (100% agave) is a very good budget brand in my opinion AND goes VERY well with the Pátron Citronge that you recommend in your curaçao category.

  • […] recommended New Amsterdam before. It’s a fine gin made better by its price point. It’s soft and well-rounded, and does […]

  • […] it’s made out of base components that, if you’re at all into cocktailing, you should be stocking at home. Don’t underestimate the impact of the sweet vermouth – a spicy or herbal variety will lend […]

  • […] in one’s arsenal. It’s simple to make, it uses ingredients that you should definitely have in your home bar, and you can quickly and easily adjust the proportions to match anyone’s tastes. It’s one […]

  • […] Everyone should be able to make this one at home. If you don’t have a bottle of decent gin and a bottle of Angostura on your home bar, well … you don’t really have a home bar! They’re both essentials and neither is expensive. […]

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    Eric Henao

    E&J Brandy XO is fantastic and can be had for less than $20. Perfect for mixing.

    Tullamore Dew is another excellent sub for Irish Whiskey that’s inexpensive and a great mixer.

    I know that the list is focused on budget and it’s great. Anyone who follows this will have a great starter bar. Drink it all up and then focus on upgrading each as you replace. Your palette/bar education has begun!

  • Reply April 30, 2014


    Fantastic article! This is exactly the post I needed to get my bar cart started. Thanks!

  • Reply April 30, 2014


    Been trying to put a bar together myself and have been wanting some guidance perfect timing and great post!

  • […] of these cocktails are fast and easy to make, and exclusively use inexpensive ingredients that you should always have on hand. […]

  • […] is a good one to make at home. Bourbon and sweet vermouth should obviously be in your home bar, and a bottle of Campari’s not a bad expenditure either. It’ll only set you back about twenty […]

  • Reply December 6, 2014


    I just made a new blog about how to create a home bar, It will have tips and tricks and advice. Please check it out at

  • […] with these articles, the goal is to use mainly easy-to-find ingredients (preferably stuff people already have at home), but you might need to hit the local liquor store for a few items. I’ve picked a warm drink to […]

  • […] My inspiration was found: Here,   here,    here,   here,    and here. […]

  • Reply November 21, 2015

    Peter Rivera-Pierola

    Christopher, bravo on this piece. You are quickly becoming my go-to home cocktail guru. Thanks to you and Robert Hess for educating me on the wonderful world of spirits.

  • Reply December 24, 2015

    Peter Rivera-Pierola

    Awesome post Chris! Question on the Curaçao recommendations: I’m running low on a gifted bottle of Cointreau and was wondering how it compares to your picks. I know it’s a pricier bottle; will I sorely miss it if I go with one of your recommendations? I mainly use it in Margaritas and Sidecars…

  • Reply January 22, 2016


    I really enjoyed this article; as someone who is very into home bartending (although only as an amateur), I am always looking for resources to make my bar comprehensive yet efficient. I also got a lot from reading the comments.

    The only big surprise is that you didn’t include maraschino liqueur (notably, Luxardo) in your nice-to-haves category. A splash in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned makes a nice variant, and, of course, it’s essential in a Last Word (along with your Chartreuse) and an Aviation. I thought that Luxardo and Cherry Heering were interchangeable for a while, but your article is correct that there is a big difference! You did a nice job explaining that distinction.

    One addition that I would suggest that is relatively new to the market is Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters. In fact, bitters in general provide a wide versatility of flavor while being relatively inexpensive. (And, as you mentioned, one bottle goes a long way!) I have flavors like grapefruit, cherry, mint, and even celery (great in a Bloody Mary or an adventurous vegetal margarita) bitters.

    I realize that St. Germain and Domaine de Canton are perhaps “splurge” or boutique items, but they can be included in a variety of drinks and add a great depth of flavor!

    Finally, I know that when I do my alcohol budget, I always forget about the cost of quality mixers and garnishes. I feel like it’s important to invest in great-tasting mixers (from tonic and sodas to fresh citrus for juicing) and attractive garnishes (such as brandied cherries or candied ginger), but I always end up spending an extra $20-30 a month on these types of ingredients. Worth it, IMO, though obviously not essential staples.

    All of these are just my thoughts, which expound on an already-great article. Very good writing and suggestions — thanks, Christopher!

  • Reply August 18, 2016


    Seriously people! This article is not at all about “building a home bar on a budget” or otherwise. It’s clearly about buying budget liquor but even that is a stretch. Most of the brands featured are top shelf. To refocus; if you need actual plans to build a home bar on a budget, check out you won’t be disappointed.

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