Saturday night! Aw, yeah. The weather’s good, and you’re feeling fine. Have you lost weight? Man, those skinny jeans look really good on you. That’s a good choice. So where to tonight? Smart Bar? The Mid? The dive around the corner? The world is your oyster, let’s dig in.
Sunday morning. Headaches. Waking up in last night’s clothes, tangled in blankets and sheets. What was that girl’s name? You can’t remember. But it’s fine! It was a good night. Then you get an email from your bank, asking if it was really you who rung up a $250 bar tab drinking nothing but long island iced teas. Maybe it wasn’t such a great night after all.
Listen, going out is a favorite pastime here in this great city, and it’s always good to see friends and make a fool of yourself on some bar along Clark street. Because you always end up along Clark street.
However, it’s just not cost-effective, or really even possible to go out every week and get sloshed on $12 cocktails. You’ll end up saving a lot of money (and making a whole bunch of new friends) simply by spending time stocking your own bar.
First and foremost, there are a few tools that you should have if you plan on having people over and making cocktails for them. Perhaps most important is a bartending app that you like, so that even if you don’t know how to make a certain drink, you can at least fake it when friends ask you for one. I’m partial to Mixologist, but there are plenty of others available for all smartphone platforms. Here’s Lifehacker’s rundown of 5 of their favorites.
Other tools aren’t really necessary, but it’s nice to have a jigger, a shaker, and a strainer as well. You can make most common drinks without these, but they’re all inexpensive, and if nothing else, will make you feel really freaking classy.
In terms of what you actually need to stock your bar, most guides will tell you to buy pretty much every bottle of liquor at Binny’s and turn your quest for frugality into a $400 nightmare. The truth of the matter is that when you are stocking your own bar, you can focus on the ingredients you need to make the drinks you like.
As a basic guide, here’s a list of ingredients that every home bar absolutely should stock, given how ubiquitous they are in cocktail recipes:
- Light or Dark Rum
- Whiskey (whatever type you like, it’s your bar, not mine)
- Sweet and Dry Vermouth
- A Jar of Olives
- Simple Syrup (you can make this at home. Just mix equal parts sugar and water.)
- Rose’s Lime Juice
- Assorted garnishes (cherries, oranges, lemons, etc…)
- Assorted mixers (juices, Coke, tonic water, club soda)
Anything on top of that is gravy, and should be informed by your tastes.
Now, I realize this is a little daunting. That’s a pretty long list, all just for a basic bar. But hear me out. Liquor, all told, really isn’t that expensive. You can get away with smaller 750ml bottles of all of these spirits, and your friends won’t care if you don’t splurge for expensive vodka, gin, or rum. You really shouldn’t be paying any more than $20 per bottle for any of those spirits since they’re mixed with other, more flavorful ingredients most of the time, making their taste less important.
As far as whiskey and tequila are concerned, you will want to plunk down a bit more cash. These spirits are often drunk neat or on the rocks, and even when they’re not, they impart a large amount of flavor to the cocktails they are included in. Taste matters here. That said, you can find decent bottles of tequila and whiskey for under $30, even if you’re looking for the snooty aged stuff.
As a sidenote, most well-stocked home bars carry multiple types of whiskey (rye, bourbon, etc…) for use in different cocktails. This is fine! It’s also expensive. The great thing about building a bar in this way is that you can add to the bar as you need to, so if you get an urge to make yourself a sazerac, you can just head to Binny’s and pick up some rye and absinthe. In doing so, you’ll also be upgrading your bar.
All in all, even if you stock your bar fully with nice spirits, juices, and fancy artisanal bitters hand-hewn in Portland, you’ll probably end up spending somewhere between $150 and $200 for a bar that will last you ages. Compare that with the $150 to $200 you spent at that bar in River North last weekend. You’ll get a lot more for your money this way.
Keep in mind, when you have a bar like this, each bottle of liquor will last longer, since it’s being mixed with all the delicious other ingredients you now own. And when the bottles do run out, it’s only around $20 to restock. I usually only have to restock a bottle every 6 weeks or so, despite the fact that Chicago sports fandom forces me to mix myself more old fashioneds than is probably healthy.
If you take care of the bar and keep it stocked, you’ll find that you and your friends will go out to the bars less, and instead have stronger, cheaper drinks hanging out at the apartment watching Netflix. Plus, you’ll be able to unwind with a Manhattan after work instead of a crappy Bud Light.
So shake off the chains. Do not be beholden to bartenders when you want a mixed drink that requires more ingredients than “rum” and “coke”. Stocking your own bar and learning how to make your own cocktails is fun, social, and will end up saving you a lot of money in the long run.
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