Next week, this newsletter will be two years old. So for this week’s not-quite-anniversary edition, I want to try something a little bit different — and perhaps a little bit more ambitious — than usual. I want to try to answer the question: How many bottles should be in a home bar, and what should those bottles be?
I am certainly not the first person to try to answer this question. The 12 Bottle Bar showed how to make hundreds of classic cocktails using just a dozen bottles of liquor. Last year’s Death & Co. book, Welcome Home, includes a 12-bottle bar system with somewhat different list of essential bottles, plus a list of 50 classic-adjacent cocktails to make. Later this month, my old friend and fellow Substack author Jacob Grier will publish Raising the Bar, a bottle-by-bottle bar-building book constructed around a 25-bottle system. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve been hearing about it for years, and I’m excited to finally see the finished product.
All of these systems have their virtues. But I wanted something a little more expansive, something that satisfies a different impulse.
The 12-bottle bar systems are trying to answer the question: What’s the minimum number of bottles you need to make a bunch of good cocktails?
The question I’ve been trying to answer is more like: What’s the minimum number of bottles necessary not just to make a large number of drinks, but to be prepared to make most cocktails that do not require a truly specialized ingredient? Put another way: What does a “full bar” look like for a home bartender?
I don’t think there’s a definitive number. You can obviously do a lot with a dozen bottles. You can do even more with two dozen, and more still with a 33-bottle bar.
The answer is always going to come down to your individual preferences, your budget, the amount of shelf space you have or are willing to dedicate to the project, and the tolerance of anyone else in your household for bottle storage. A home bar, whether it’s a custom-built cocktail laboratory or just a well-curated collection tucked away in cabinet, is always intensely personal.
41 Bottles of Liquor on the Wall
Speaking of things that are personal: I turned 41 last month. As birthdays go, 41 is not much of a milestone. You’re just in your 40s, again.
But as I approached my birthday, 41 began to seem like the right number for the bar project.
For one thing, it’s an odd number, and if there’s one thing that magazine journalists know about readers, it’s that they like odd-numbered listicles. (17 ways to make a Negroni! 29 Old Fashioned variations that don’t use whiskey! 11 ways to get your ridiculously large dog to stop eating cardboard!)
For another, it’s a sufficiently large number that it allows for many options. You can create a fine-tuned list with, say, multiple bottles of rum and sherry. There will still be limitations, of course. You won’t have every bottle of high-quality fruit liqueur on the market. You still won’t be able to make that crazy looking cream sherry/white port Bamboo riff, or that carrot-brandy-and-coffee-amaro Boulevardier you saw on Instagram. But you ought to be able to hack together something tasty in the same family with what you have on hand.
A 41-bottle bar is also at the very edge of what I feel like I could possibly recommend to anyone who isn’t a hardcore cocktail fanatic. I know that it’s increasingly common for home cocktail aficionados to have hundred-bottle home bars. Probably some readers of this newsletter have collections like that. I have several hundred bottles myself.
But it’s still quite unusual to have a giant backbar at home, and it’s simply not attainable for a lot of folks, for reasons of both cost and storage. Frankly, even 41 bottles is pushing it.
Yet I think it’s the right number for a particular type of person I try to write for in this newsletter — a type I think of as a normie enthusiast — someone who quite likes making and tinkering with cocktails at home, and who will spend time experimenting with a wide array of drinks, but is not necessarily going to devote an entire room to storage.
You can fit 41 bottles in a kitchen cabinet, a shelf or two on a basic bookshelf, or on many ordinary bar carts. It’s a lot, but it’s not obsessive.
The 41-bottle bar represents a maximalist approach to minimalism.
You’re Tier-ing Me Apart
Nevertheless, I am aware that a 41-bottle bar represents a big ask, so I’ve divided the list into ranked tiers.
Tier 1 is made up of what I consider essentials. The middle tiers consist of highly useful and often useful bottles. Tier 4 is made up of occasionally handy bottles you might not use very often, but will wish you had. If you’re just starting out, begin with Tier 1, then work your way toward Tier 4.