How to Stock Your Bar on a Budget

throwing a party

We’re in the full holiday swing, and while some might rent out posh venues for blowout fêtes, or arrange tasting menus at chichi restaurants, there’s no need to drop serious dough to celebrate.

Instead, have friends and family over for a good old-fashioned cocktail party — all the swank at a fraction of the price. We’re not talking Two-Buck Chuck or BYOB, either. It’s all about stocking your bar cart strategically.

From being choosy about spirits to upping your game with mixers or a bold punch, here are all the elements you need to make your holiday party a smash. What you do after you get smashed, though — that’s on you.

Entertain on the Cheap

Entertain on the Cheap

We’re in the full holiday swing, and while some might rent out posh venues for blowout fêtes, or arrange tasting menus at chichi restaurants, there’s no need to drop serious dough to celebrate.

Instead, have friends and family over for a good old-fashioned cocktail party — all the swank at a fraction of the price. We’re not talking Two-Buck Chuck or BYOB, either. It’s all about stocking your bar cart strategically.

From being choosy about spirits to upping your game with mixers or a bold punch, here are all the elements you need to make your holiday party a smash. What you do after you get smashed, though — that’s on you.

Just the Basics

Just the Basics

There’s no need for your home booze selection to mirror your favorite bar’s. All you need is four bottles: vodka, gin, whiskey, and rum (or tequila, if you prefer). With those four, you have “all the classic cocktails covered, from a French 75 to a Manhattan, Negroni, a Russian Mule, and a classic martini,” says Maximilian Kast, wine director at The Fearrington House Inn & Restaurant, a five-star Relais & Chateaux resort in North Carolina.

But how cheap can you really go on each? “If you skimp anywhere, let it be vodka and gin,” says Kast. “I think it is always good to spend more money on rye, bourbon, and rum.” However, Lenny Amoia, head mixologist of New York City’s Church Street Tavern, disagrees. “Certain whiskeys are fine to skimp on, if you know what to buy. Bartenders love the old-school 4 Roses bourbon or George Dickel Sour Mash,” he says.

Some affordable brands to check out:

  • Seagram’s Gin (approx. $15 for 1L)
  • Svedka Vodka (approx. $15 for 1L)
  • Cruzan Light Rum (approx. $13 for 1L)
  • Old Overholt Rye Whiskey (approx. $19 for 1L)
  • Sauza Blanco Tequila (approx. $16 for 1L)
Or Skip the Spirits Altogether

Or Skip the Spirits Altogether

If those liquors sound too pricey, go with wine or beer-based cocktails instead. Mulled wine, especially, is a great winter drink. “My personal favorite is called Feuerzangenbowle, the traditional drink of New Year’s Eve in Germany,” says Kast. It’s a mulled red wine topped with rum that’s lit on fire (watch the video).

A good boxed wine would be perfect for this (we’re not talking Franzia). Plus, one box contains the same amount of wine as four 750ML bottles, and the airtight packaging keeps it good for at least four weeks after opening. Black Box is one of my favorites. And it’ll set you back only about $16 (or $4 per “bottle,” if we’re counting).

Or go the beer route. Class up a cheap brand (a 12-pack of Coors is around $10) by turning it into a fancy cocktail: Try a Black Velvet, chelada, Ruddy Mary, or summery lemon Shandy.

 

How Much Booze Do You Need?

How Much Booze Do You Need?

In this case, bigger really is better. “When shopping on a budget, there is often the temptation to get a smaller size product because it costs less. In the world of alcohol, this thinking often proves flawed,” says Heather Dolland, founder of All the Tastes of New York, a company that hosts themed dining experiences at some of Manhattan’s top restaurants.

“It is very difficult to predict which drinks your guests will gravitate to, so when possible, purchase a one-liter bottle. If you are fortunate enough to live near a warehouse-style retailer,  and you can easily access a 1.75L bottle, that often proves to be even more cost effective.” No joke, a jumbo bottle of Bacardi costs a mere $20 at my local Costco in Brooklyn, New York. Compare that with a $30 price tag from my local liquor store.

You can use this handy drink calculator to see how many 1L liquor bottles you need for your guest count. If you’re having a small group (fewer than 10), consider whipping up a punch bowl instead of individual cocktails.

Mixers Are Your Secret Weapons

Mixers Are Your Secret Weapons

Round out your bar with a cast of supporting characters: dry and sweet vermouth, bitters, triple sec, and if you want to get extra fancy, a bottle or two of prosecco (Kast recommends Belstar). “Martini & Rossi makes both sweet and dry vermouth, and Bols makes a pretty good triple sec. These can all be purchased for under $8 each,” says Dolland.

Throw in club soda, tonic, and juice and you’re all set. Always go fresh when it comes to citrus, says Partida Tequila’s master mixologist, Jacques Bezuidenhout. “Have the classic four handy: lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit. With these you can make most classic citrus-based cocktails as well as get creative,” he says. Ditching Tropicana makes all the difference.

Classic mixed drinks:

Use the Magic of Mixology

Use the Magic of Mixology

There’s a deceptively affordable ingredient that can make or break your mixed drinks: ice. Don’t skimp on it. “Ice is to a cocktail as salt is to meat,” says Dolland. “The inclusion of ice, especially during shaking, mellows out the spirit by opening flavors and aromas that would otherwise be missed.” So make sure you fill up your ice trays or buy a 10-pound bag before your shindig.

And what about all those extras like rocks glasses, shakers, and fancy strainers? “I actually prefer to stir almost all cocktails,” says Kast. “If you have a long spoon and some pint glasses hanging around the house, it is amazing what you can accomplish.”

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