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So, I have to thank my fraternity brother, Dusty, for his question today.

The Question

This is the first time in my adult life that I am living on my own, no roommates to drink my booze. I can now safely have a bottle of Grey Goose or Saphire in my freezer and not wonder what happened to it the next day (OK, well that part still happens, but the suspects are more significantly limited).

Anyway, I have a the beginnings of a bar. I have all the appropriate glasses, and shakers, even whiskey stones… the problem is, I really only drink a couple of things (vodka and gin… and even then, only with olive juice or tonic). In about a month, it is my turn to host some people from my program for cocktails. I want a solid, all-around bar set-up, so that I can make pretty much any basic that people want, but I don’t want crap… I want it to taste good, and lets be clear, I want it to look good. :-)

What do you suggest for a good starter bar? What should every bar have (cherries are being brandied as we speak)? Decanters or original bottles? What mixers should one keep on hand (other than tonic and soda?)

The Answer:

First and foremost, despite what people think, no bar should have alcohol that people don’t drink. It’s like keeping meat in your freezer if you’re a vegetarian.

Bare Bones Bar

Second, if you want a good bare bones bar set up and don’t know what your guests drink, here’s what I suggest:

The smallest bottle of dry and sweet vermouth you can find. They’re technically wine and can go bad. I have never had a problem with them going bad, but they can. You should refrigerate them, but I don’t. I don’t know anyone who does (but then we’re all heretics.)

If you don’t know if anyone drinks dark liquor buy one (1) and only one bottle of rum and one an only one (1) bottle of whiskey. Whiskey and rum are out of fashion now and few people drink either if they’re over the age of 22.

If you have someone who does drink either, they’ll appreciate you having a decent bottle on hand. For rum, I suggest Bacardi Silver. It’ll be rare to find someone who likes Black or Gold rum and does not appreciate whiskey. I think flavored rums are never necessary for a fully stocked bar, much less a bare bones bar.

Whiskey is a complicated beast: American Rye or Tennessee, Canada, Irish, or Scotch? Go with a good American. I suggest either Jim Bean as a Rye or Jack Daniels as a Tennessee.

You don’t say this but I want to be clear. Expensive vodka is rarely necessary. If you’re having a party, hide your $40 bottles of vodka and buy a good $20 bottle like Polar Ice or Svedka. Most people use mixers that hide the “uncomfortable” vodka taste in a $20 bottle but not a $40 bottle. They’re still good in a martini.

Do the same with gin. If you can get it, New Amsterdam is a great gin that’s inexpensive. In Raleigh, I can get it for $12 a bottle. Hide your Hendricks! (But keep it for yourself.)

I like tequila, but tequila is NEVER necessary for a cocktail party. Outside of margaritas and shots, most people don’t know what to do with tequila.

For wine, go to Trader Joe’s. Pick up Charles Shaw aka two buck chuck. I’ve had dinner with millionaires and that’s what they served. If it’s good enough for millionaires, it’s good enough for graduate students.

For beer buy PBR, Bud light, whatever you’ll drink.


You should have club soda and tonic water on hand.

Keep juices on hand that you would drink. Cranberry juice is a great mixer.

Buy at least one 2 L of or lemon lime soda and one 2 L of cola. If you’re feeling especially fancy, buy ginger ale.

Cut up limes and lemons before hand, so people can have a piece for their drinks. May I suggest putting them in a ramekin?

Angostura bitters. I love them.

Serving liquor

Having all the necessary bar ware is important and you need at least the following three items: rocks glasses, wine glasses, and martini glasses. I’m a simple is best kind of guy, so I think that plain glass is best, because colors and patterns go out of style but pure glass is forever.

If you want to toss the glasses, grocery stores generally have pretty 6 to 8 ounce clear plastic glasses. Stemware rarely looks classy in plastic, but can be a must if you’re serving champagne.

Decanters aren’t necessary so long as your bar area looks clean and chic. If you have them, use them, but I’m not convinced they’re worth buying if you have a dedicated bar area. Some people have liquor all over their house. They have a dedicated bar area, and then they’ll use decanters if it’s just a bottle or two over their house. If you have decanters, you should consider investing in silver name plates, so people know what the liquor is (including yourself.) You don’t want to be a little boozy and try to make a vodka martini with silver rum.

The House Cocktail

I think it’s really nice to have a house cocktail that you have premade in a glass pitcher. I recommend Gimlets, Cosmopolitans, Cape Cods, or Sangria. Something slightly sweet that has an alcoholic bite. This gives people the opportunity to have a drink before getting completely settled. They can take a look at your selection while enjoying a delicious cocktail. Often a pitcher of a delicious strong cocktail can be made for $20 or so dollars.

Hosting, serving, and food.

Food is important at cocktail parties. Something delicious to snack on. Like melon wrapped in prosciutto. Mini beef wellingtons. Mini brownies. Select both savory and sweet.

Serve on white, clear, glass, or silver. No patterns.

In conclusion:

1) Only buy things you know people will drink.

2) Only buy mixers YOU as the host will drink. You’re going to be stuck with them after the party and will have to dump them the next if you don’t drink them.

3) Have great food.

4) Make sure your house looks clean and chic in whatever style that is for you.

5) Have a great time!

6) And, as always, happy and safe drinking.