Every collection starts small.
Think back to that very first dusty 45-rpm single you found in your uncle's attic, now flanked by scores of vintage vinyl neatly shelved in the living room. Collecting spirits is no different. A road trip through Bourbon County, a dinner-party gift of aged Scotch whisky, and before you know it, your libations have taken over more than their fair share of allotted kitchen-cabinet space.
Congratulations: It's time to acquire a liquor cabinet.
First popular during Prohibition, when liquor was often stored out of sight, the home bar has reemerged alongside classic cocktails as a staple of domestic entertaining. Go-to furniture retailers like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn sell a number of credenzas, consoles and sideboards perfectly suited for wine and spirits storage. But that's presuming you're game for spending upwards of $1,000 on mass-produced furniture.
For those who'd prefer a unique, vintage piece with a little history, home-bar alternatives abound.
"The best advice I have," says Daniel Hyatt, manager at San Francisco's craft cocktail–centric Alembic Bar, "is to be creative. A small bookshelf can make a nice bar; a large rolling-toolbox, like you'd find at an auto shop, also makes a nice bar."
In other words, anything goes.
Hyatt's home bar was found at a second-hand store. But for other spirits enthusiasts, a single cabinet can be too limiting. Mixologist Michael Robertson, who slings drinks at Portland, Ore.'s Driftwood Room at Hotel deLuxe, found potential in an old piano. "I have made four tiered shelves where the keys and top were," he wrote in a recent email. "I took the front panels off and I light it up with candles and rope lights."
Realistically, converting a piano into liquor storage isn't something most folks have the time, ambition or skill to take on. Much less daunting: Browsing for well-constructed cabinetry at flea markets, antique and thrift stores, garage and estate sales, and online auctions. Look for wood structures built with genuine craftsmanship (dove-tail joints are good, veneer finishes are bad), sturdy shelves (preferably a foot between them, to accommodate tall bottles) and latching doors.
Antique wood ice-chests are ideal, given their just-right capacity with built-in shelving and air-tight doors. Fairly common at antique stores and flea markets, they typically sell for a few hundred dollars or less. Several bartenders I spoke with also mentioned adapting vintage Victrola record cabinets, which have ample storage suitable for tall bottles. They're not especially rare, which means they're priced affordably. A quick search on New York's Craigslist found a "circa 1930s Victor Victrola cabinet … currently used as bar," asking price $50.
There are bona-fide vintage liquor cabinets out there, too. I searched for about six months on Chicago's Craigslist before happening upon my custom-built 1930s-era dark-wood bar cabinet, with a built-in light and pull-out shelf for glassware. My bar was listed in the dead of winter, its glass doors and interior light lovingly repaired by its seller, Clarence, who stores and sells his estate-sale finds at an unheated, makeshift storefront on Chicago's South Side. My burgeoning collection of spirits has since graduated from the kitchen cabinet to said liquor cabinet in the dining room — with a nice view of the record collection.
An empty liquor cabinet is about as useful as a well with no water.
You don't have to spend a fortune, but keep in mind that "cheap booze will lead to inferior drinks," says Toby Maloney, co-partner at New York-based Alchemy Consulting, who has designed beverage programs for Nashville's Patterson House and Chicago's Violet Hour, among others. Maloney is among ten boozehounds from around the country whom we polled for recommendations on bar basics, as well as few upgrades. By majority rule, the most recommended basics total about $100, the upgrades another $80-$100. (All prices reflect 750 ml unless otherwise stated.)
— Lauren Viera
Basics: Must-have base-spirits
Gin Beefeater dry ($18) or Plymouth London dry ($30). "Once you start craving that gin bite," says Maloney, "move on to Tanqueray," ($23).
Vodka Austin-distilled Tito's ($20), with a few votes for lesser-known but equally smooth Monopolowa ($13)
Bourbon whiskey Evan Williams ($14), which Alembic's Hyatt says is great for mixing; and the spendier Buffalo Trace ($14 for 375 ml), which H. Joseph Ehrmann, bartender at San Francisco's Elixir, calls an "exceptional value."
Rye whiskey Rittenhouse 100 Proof ($20), "one of the best deals in the industry" according to Rickhouse general manager Erick Castro, in San Francisco.
Scotch whisky Famous Grouse ($20), almost unanimously.
Rum Appleton white ($16) or Flor de Caña gold ($15)
Upgrades: For serious sippers
Dry vermouth Noilly Prat ($5 for 375 ml)
Sweet vermouth Martini & Rossi ($5 for 375 ml)
Bitters Angostura Aromatic Cocktail Bitters ($8 for 4 oz.) or Peychaud's Aromatic Cocktail Bitters ($6 for 5 oz.), for starters. Thereafter, "as many cocktail bitters as you can find," says Hyatt.
Simple syrup Make your own: Bring to a low boil equal parts granulated sugar and water, until sugar dissolves; let stand and cool completely; bottle it up and store in your bar.
Maraschino Luxardo liqueur ($27)
Brandy Laird's Applejack ($18) or Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac ($40)
Aperitif Lillet White ($20)
Tools of the trade
Beyond spirits, experts like cocktail historian David Wondrich emphasize that basic tools are second only to basic recipes. "Beyond that, it's icing on the cake," Wondrich says. "A lot of people will mistake getting the gear right for getting the technique right."
While Wondrich doesn't have a home bar (he admits "there's no way I could fit any of (my collection) into anything but an actual bar"), he relies on a simple bar kit for home entertaining. In it are a cocktail shaker and mixing glass for stirred drinks, a two-part (Boston-style) shaker for shaken drinks, a bar spoon, ice cracker and measuring device.