Friday Happy Hour: How To Stock Your Holiday Bar

Tis the season for holiday parties, so let’s talk about how to keep your bar stocked. The first mistake that everyone makes–myself included–is to try to find the best of the best and impress your friends with your masterfully curated liquor selection. Which, for me, usually ends with a hefty dose of buyers remorse after I mourn over my empty bottle of $70 dollar scotch the next morning. The best thing to remember with parties is don’t get too fancy; keep it simple and keep it cheap. Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, it’s easy to find a great bourbon when you’re not worried about the price tag, it’s much harder to find a great bourbon when you’re on a budget. Hopefully this list of how I stock my bar will help.

First and foremost we start with American whiskies, so pick up a bottle of Buffalo Trace. A good, cheap bourbon is harder to come by than almost any other spirit, by my count. But Buffalo Trace clocking in at around $20 for a 750 ml fits the bills. It makes for a killer Old Fashioned, works great as a sipping whiskey, and isn’t too expensive to blush at the thought of pouring a bit in your morning eggnog. After bourbon, the next most important whiskey to have on hand is a good rye. The only rye I want you to even think about buying for your holiday parties is Old Overholt. There’s a reason I tell people this is the cornerstone of American mixology. Rye whiskey is an essential component in so many fundamental cocktails–Manhattan, Sazerac–and we are very lucky to have such a cheap and abundant source in the US as Old Overholt at only $15 a bottle.

Now let’s hop the pond and round out your sipping whisk[e]ys. Scotch can be an expensive endeavour, but fortunately it doesn’t have to be ever since Old Pulteney won a slew of awards in 2012. This briney little Highland diamond in the rough costs only $30-35 a bottle and has way more going on than most of your entry level Glens or Macallans. Not all scotch is created equal though, so you’ll need something to appease those peat heads like me. I could wax poetic on peated whiskys for hours, but I’ll just sum it up with Laphroaig 10 year. Hard to say, even harder to spell, this stuff is a peat powerhouse. Smoky, earthy, with notes of seaweed and medicinal iodine (in a good way). Drinking a dram of this stuff knee-deep in a peat bog is one of my fondest memories, and it only costs $45 to take me back there.

Before we leave the British Isles, we’ve got to talk Irish whiskey. Distillation is undergoing a bit of a renaissance in Ireland right now and, fortunately for us, prices haven’t quite caught up. There are some pricey offerings on the market, but more often than not, price-to-quality, Irish whiskies are some of the best buys in the spirits world. For me, the best one out there for the price is Kilbeggan, it’s $10 cheaper than Jameson and tastes $20 better. It’s a great introductory Irish whiskey, with those floral honeyed notes that Speysiders love and there’s an uncommonly high amount of corn in the mash, so it’ll seem familiar to bourbon drinkers too. What could be better than converting your whiskey drinking friends over the holidays for only $20-25 a bottle?

Keeping with the British theme (somewhat), let’s talk gin. This might be heresy to some, but my first recommendation is actually an American gin. For Gin Tonics, you don’t need a fancy gin, you need a fancy tonic. Pick up a bottle of New Amsterdam for $15 and call it a day. Just make sure to get a good tonic. I like Fever Tree a lot, but any brand that uses actual quinine, not a flavor extract, and real sugar, not corn syrup (affects mouthfeel), will do. For gin-forward drinks like a Martini or a Martinez, try Beefeater. People love to hate on this stuff but it’s the house gin at Tony Conigliaro’s legendary 69 Colebrook Row and it only costs $20 a bottle, so I’m sold. For the haters, try it in an English-style Martini–wet with a dash or orange bitters (forget all that Churchill nonsense about vermouth)–the orange notes in Beefeater really make the drink work.

Decorum dictates that you should always have a vodka or two on hand for your guests who like vodka tonics and the like. I actually like to keep three on hand, a rye, a potato, and a bison grass-infused. That might be a bit excessive, but I enjoy vodka a lot and believe it has a place cocktails. A good rye vodka is absolutely necessary to make a proper Vesper and I love the thick, oily texture potato vodkas lend to a drink. For rye, Sobieski is a steal for $11 and for a potato, try Luksusowa for $15. Bison grass vodka is easy enough to make at home if you can get yours hands on dried sweet grass (I’m still looking for a reliable source) and this might be the smart thing to do if you’re not a big vodka drinker. To infuse, mix it with the rye vodka, steep for a few days, and strain out the grass. Or you can buy a bottle for $20-$30 instead; look for ‘Żubrówka’ on the label.

After bison grass vodka, a good aged rum is one of my favorite things to mix with this time of year, be it a hot buttered rum, in a punch, a flip, or homemade eggnog. Lately I’ve been using a lot of El Dorado 12 year because it’s a great price at $25 and it has all those rich, dark syrupy notes that just bring back memories of sipping boozy eggnog at my parents house. While not necessary at all for holiday cocktails, I like to have a good, unaged agricole rhum around the house too, just in case. You never know when you’ll have a Hemmingway Daiquiri emergency. Rhum agricole is usually produced in smaller batches in a more craft method, so it tends to be more expensive than other styles of rum of the same age. But those grassy earthy notes in agricoles are unlike anything else and I just go nuts for them, so I’ll willingly shell out the $30 for a bottle of unaged Rhum Clement. If you really want to round out your house r[h]um collection, you can get a spiced rum too, but I’d recommend just making it at home. If you’ve got a decent spice cabinet, you can make batches of the stuff as needed. Use the El Dorado and let it rest for a few days with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, a bit of star anise, and a few dashes of angostura bitters; you’ll have a great spiced rum without having to pick up an entire bottle.

Now that we’ve got rum and bourbon, we need a good brandy, because you can’t have a proper boozy eggnog without a bit of brandy. Truthfully, I’m crazy about mixing with Cognac, if I’m going to drink it I would much rather spend the money on a nice sipping Cognac because most of the cheap Cognacs I’ve had taste well… cheap. Though to be fair, Maison Rouge VSOP is certainly sipping quality and it doesn’t seem too sinful to mix with at only $30 for a bottle. I do really prefer Armagnac for mixing though, it’s usually cheaper than Cognac and has a more robust flavor. And for $30 Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac Napoleon has been a long time stand by for me. It’s what I use for almost every application that calls for a mixing quality cognac. Though it does leave a bit to be desired in a sidecar.

Now that we’ve got all our sipping spirits and boozy eggnog ingredients out of the way, we need something to make cocktails with. No home bar is complete without vermouth. And the most important thing to keep in mind with vermouth is size matters. Get the smallest bottle you can find and make sure to rotate your stock frequently. Vermouth is wine and, just like wine, will go bad if not stored properly. The best thing to do is to make sure you’re vermouth doesn’t turn is to drink it. Quickly. And keep it in the fridge after you’ve opened it. I don’t like to go crazy with vermouth, especially for parties, the cheaper stuff will be fine. I like Noily Prat Dry for standard martinis, Martini & Rossi bianco for spritzes and brambles and the like, and Martini & Rossi Rosso for Manhattans. None of these vermouths will blow your guests away, but unless you’re a serious vermouth drink and wouldn’t bat an eye at the notion of finishing a liter-sized bottle in under a few weeks, I wouldn’t bother with the expensive stuff. It will turn before you’re able to enjoy it.

Now we’re almost there, the only other ingredient you will absolutely need for your holiday cocktail menu is a good selection of bitters. The three I would make sure you have on hand are the classic Angostura, the irreplaceable (for better or worse) Peychaud’s, and Reagan’s Orange Bitters, which are necessary for a good Martini or Martinez. I even sneak them in my Old Fashioneds.

Now you’re all set to mix it up for the Holidays and you’ve got all the ingredients (boozy, at least) on hand to make this drink, which I guarantee will charm your guests.

Rhum Baba
3 Parts Bison Grass Vodka (¾ oz/20 ml)
3 Parts Aged Rum (¾ oz/20 ml)
2 Parts apple cider (½ oz/15 ml)
1 part spiced raisin syrup (¼ oz/7 ml)
Dash lemon juice
Dash orange bitters
Nutmeg, to garnish

Combine all the ingredients in a shaker tin and shake well, strain into a coupe, and top with grated nutmeg. Tastes just like a good Rhum Baba and is almost as boozy. To make the spiced raisin syrup combine equal parts water and brown sugar with raisins and mulling spices in a pan and simmer until it thickens, the raisins rehydrate and your house fills with all those spicy aromas. Strain out the solids and store in your fridge. In a pinch you can use simple syrup and a few dashes of Jägermeister Spice.

Hold on, we’re not done, here’s a little holiday bonus. While not strictly necessary, my secret weapon for holiday parties is sherry. Pour a nice Oloroso with some roasted chestnuts and your guests will be talking about your Holiday party until next year’s. And the real bonus? Quality sherry is one of most affordable styles of wine. You can pick up an excellent Oloroso like Lustau for only $25 a bottle.

Paul Allen

While having only recently relocated to DC, Paul has been a long time fan of DC’s cocktail culture. In his short career he has tended bar for GQ, Bombay Sapphire, Campari, and Nikka Whisky in London. Currently you can find him behind the stick at Firefly. When not working, he’s likely vociferously advocating for the DC Craft Bartender’s Guild or trying to brew the perfect cup of tea. Though he misses his native Rhode Island’s beaches and beautiful fall weather, Paul is proud to live, work, and–most importantly–drink in DC.


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