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I've recently taken an interest in mixing cocktails - I've never done it before or anything similar and I have a question about sourcing ingredients. I want to try making lots of different cocktails, and I've been looking on thebar.com for recipes and it looks like I'm going to have to buy lots and lots of different alcohols.

I consider this problem similar to buying spices for curries. You tend to need a small amount of lots of different spices which means they might only get used now and then.

How can I keep the price reasonable when buying ingredients? I don't have a cupboard of alcohols at my disposal yet and I don't want to spend money on something and only use it once. Do I need a set of commonly used alcohols? Or is it really a matter of amassing them all over time?

This is my first time posting on cooking.se, so please comment if I've missed any information off and I'll try to edit it in as quickly as possible, or if this question is too open ended I'll try to narrow it down.

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    Hi and welcome - I do think your question is quite open-ended at the moment. More importantly, there's not likely to be an objective answer - it really depends on what types of cocktails you like and want to make, the total amount you're willing to spend, how much storage space you want to devote, and so on. – logophobe Aug 5 '14 at 20:31
  • Largely as a self-conscious substitute for my ridiculous answer below: What's your preferred cocktail? Or what spirits do you like? Let's start there... – hoc_age Aug 5 '14 at 23:19
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    I think my favourite cocktail is a classic Mojito, and rum is my favourite spirit – Ell Aug 7 '14 at 13:37
  • Excellent! I'd recommend riffing on that, then; from Mojito, mix other stuff with similar ingredients; try daiquiri, Bacardi cocktail, caipirinha, ... I'll expand more in my answer, below... (BTW: use a "mention" in a comment reply (e.g., @Ell) so the poster receives notice. – hoc_age Aug 8 '14 at 18:02
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I agree with @logophobe; open-ended and/or subjective questions are frowned-upon as you probably know from your other SE sites. That said, I like mixology (though I despise that term...), but I am no professional. I'll try to pick off a few parts that were helpful for me as I started this hobby, and hope that will either help you get started, or help you refine your question! I tried to arrange this answer from specific to general, because I couldn't stop typing. :)

The tl;dr answer: pick one drink. What's your favorite drink? Buy the ingredients. Mix it straight from the book. Taste (hopefully, enjoy). Vary the proportions. What happens? Tweak. Then pick another one; repeat. Alternatively: pick one base spirit; riff on that.

The longer answer... You articulate the universal problem in mixing: how to begin without going crazy or broke (or both). My ridiculous answers below also illustrate this: you can spend unbounded time thinking about this and talking about it. :)

Here are some examples of how I'd suggest starting, because, apparently, I like hearing myself type:

  • Pick a booze. E.g., vodka: first, sip it by itself. Then mix with endless variety of mixers or juices: tonic, orange, cranberry, grapefruit. Explore mixers: triple sec, peach schnapps, Rose's lime juice. With that alone you can make at least a dozen legitimate cocktails (cosmo, cape codder, SotB, greyhound, fuzzy navel, ...).
  • Pick a drink. E.g., manhattan: start with a reasonably inexpensive bourbon or rye whiskey that you like, some decent sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters. Mix by the book. Vary the vermouth: half-and-half with dry vermouth: perfect manhattan. Vary the bitters; see which you prefer (citrus, Peychaud's, Angostura). Drop the vermouth and add some sugar: old fashioned. Add anisette liquor: whiskey Sazerac. A similar riff could be done with many other classic cocktails: e.g., dry gin martini, pink gin, Americano, Negroni, ...

Edit: adding response to Mojito/Rum preference. Given that you like the Mojito (muddle lime, mint, and sugar; add rum; fill soda) and rum; I'd start like this:

  • Back to basics. Having very similar (though simpler) ingredients: Try a daiquiri. First, this gives you an opportunity to learn how to make yourself some simple syrup -- sugar syrup; recipe. Make a bunch and keep it (once cool!) in the fridge. Ice in a glass, add rum, lime juice, then some of your brilliant simple syrup. Shake, strain (or leave on the rocks, my preference), enjoy. This also gives you the opportunity to try a cocktail shaker with pint glass and a cocktail strainer.
  • Add a new ingredient. Mix it up a bit with some grenadine; you get a Bacardi cocktail. This gives you an excuse to buy (A SMALL BOTTLE!) of Grenadine. (You see where I'm going with this...)
  • Now go back to the Mojito. Get yourself a wooden muddler and mash up the solids first, right in the glass: muddle the (quartered) lime, mint leaves, sugar, until crushed. Then add your liquids and stir.
  • Garnish! Add a straw-shaped slice of some fresh sugar cane stick and fresh mint sprig on the top. Presentation!
  • Change the spirit. If you like white/light rum, look around for cachaça. It's a relative of rum (both made from sugar cane; rum from refined/molasses products). See if you like it straight or chilled, then try a caipirinha. Try cachaça in place of rum and vice versa. I find the stuff rather vile, but it's a unique taste.

Anyway. I hope you see what I'm trying to illustrate: just change one dimension at a time. This gives you the opportunity to see exactly how each feature (spirit, garnish, mixing technique, gadget, flavouring) impacts the result. Just my take. Have fun!


Then, more generally: Mixing involves three categories (from my perspective):

  • ingredients (basically, dictated by what cocktails you're trying to make)
  • technique (i.e., how to make them)
  • gear (i.e., what you need to make and serve them; like measures, glassware, shaker, utensils)

If you want to get really fancy, any of these could (figuratively) consume your entire life and income. To start, you need only a few bottles and some ice. As you say, collect more over time.

Since it sounds like you're focused on the ingredients (which, IMHO, is the right place to start) my basic recommendations are as follows:

  • Start by exploring a few classic cocktails that have a small number of basic ingredients. Consider looking at
  • Understand the classes of ingredients and what they are:
    • base spirit (e.g., vodka, gin, rum, whisk[e]y, tequila, brandy),
    • liquors (e.g., triple sec, anisette, coffee liquor, herbal liquors),
    • other additives or garnish (e.g., bitters, fruit, herbs)
    • mixer (e.g., sour mix, simple syrup, soda water, tonic, fruit juice, milk/cream)
  • Mix what you enjoy! Could be boozy classic cocktails, fruity vodka drinks, easy-going aperitifs, ...
  • Get a cocktail book; read :)

Because I can't help myself to give a general answer as well: A bunch of sites and blogs have recommendations for general bar ingredients; search for something like "essential cocktail ingredients" to get started. I like the following ones (beware ad content...)

Last, my overarching recommendations: Start slowly. Taste everything. Have fun.

Hope it helps! Enjoy (responsibly). :)

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Well, what the heck... I'll have a go as well.

One of the better recommendations I've seen for getting started with a home bar comes from one of my favorite books, Craft Cocktails at Home. The author recommends starting to stock your bar by drink: that is, identify a single cocktail you really enjoy, and buy the ingredients for that. Then, another. And another. It's all the better if some of those drinks share the same components, and you can re-use some pricey ingredients (such as Chartreuse or maraschino liqueur) but they don't necessarily have to.

To determine those standout drinks around which to build your bar, visit a restaurant or bar with a high-quality cocktail program. If you have friends who share your interest in cocktails, bring them along. Order a few different drinks for the group and pass them around. This is not only fun, but a great way to sample multiple cocktails without... ah... sobriety concerns. Pick out your favorite one or two and ask the bartender for the recipe (this works best on a relatively slow night; bartenders are friendly people, but often quite busy).

Alternatively, you can do much the same routine at home, by collecting a few recipes you'd like to try and inviting a number of friends. Assemble a master list of ingredients that you need, assign everyone a bottle, and share a few rounds.

There are also some very good resources focused on mixing with a limited number of ingredients. One of my favorites is the 12 Bottle Bar blog, which is exactly what it sounds like. Although I disagree with some of their choices (particularly the exclusions) it's a mighty efficient setup, and flexible by design. Other blogs, books, and videos are readily available for your inspiration.

Above all, don't be afraid to experiment. Take a recipe you like and swap out one of the ingredients. Change the ratio. See what it tastes like shaken instead of stirred, over ice instead of straight up. Some of your experimentation won't work, but you'll learn from it. Write down your methods and the recipes you've tried, and look for the similarities. One of the most important things I've learned after spending time in both the kitchen and the bar is that mixology and cooking share a lot of territory. You learn best by tasting, by tweaking, by practicing, and most of all by enjoying.

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I own Cocktails: The Bartender's Bible which has every drink I've ever heard of and a zillion more that I hadn't. In its opening, it lists 14 "key ingredients" that, along with mixers, make over 500 cocktails, including pretty much all of the standards. Those are:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Rum
  • Tequila
  • Scotch
  • Cognac
  • Bourbon
  • Triple Sec
  • Orange Liqueur
  • Apricot Liqueur
  • Berry Liqueur
  • Dry Vermouth
  • Sweet Vermouth
  • Champagne

Looking at this list, there are some questionable entries. I've never made or had anything with apricot or berry liqueur, and you can easily avoid champagne and bourbon drinks. Throw those four out, consider that vermouth is cheap, and it's not so bad.

I would recommend getting one decent bottle each of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and one kind of whiskey as a base, then adding things slowly as you go.

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