No one's coming over to your house for a flaming cocktail. Conversely, no one's coming over to your house if you have no booze at all. You don't need to get too wild, but you need to be prepared. Friend, you need to stock a home bar.
It's not too hard to do! Just follow a basic shopping list and some basic guidelines. A few things to keep in mind: One, keep it simple. You don't need to be able to do anything crazy. If that's what you want, you might as well go to Applebee's. (Not to knock Applebee's. It's a fine establishment in which to get drunk.) No one needs a flaming drink unless you are a magician. Two, learn the basics. Chances are, if you entertain enough, your guests will move beyond vodka tonics. Learn how to make a martini. It will impress people. And three, stay away from plastic bottles. Quality matters!
We'll start with your basics: the barebones essentials that get the job done at a reasonable price.
Whiskey: For rye, go with Old Overholt, which is generally considered the gold standard in (good) bars. For bourbon, go with a base staple like Eagle Rare or High West. You have a lot of options in a reasonable range, but don't be afraid to spend a few more dollars on something good, because in a perfect world, you'll be drinking bourbon by itself. I like Bulleit, too.
Vodka: Tito's is a failsafe. You might be tempted to reach for Grey Goose because it's expensive and sounds fancy, but don't give in to that.
Gin: Plymouth is smooth and fairly neutral, which is important for gin, because you'll be using it for cocktails; the fancier, small-batch gins tend to be too floral and aggressive for your simple and awesome bar.
Rum: Skip the Bacardi and go with a white rum for mixing cocktails. Rhum Jm is good.
Tequila: Can't go wrong with Jimador Blanco for mixing. People often spring for Cuervo or Patrón here because of the name recognition and rap associations, but "Blanco" rhymes with lots of things, too.
You just need a few more things from there, unless you plan to only serve your liquor straight up, which is a very specific kind of party.
Vermouth: Outside of your base spirits, it's worth getting half-bottles of this stuff for drinks like martinis, Manhattans, and Negronis. There's red vermouth and white vermouth; Dolin Dry is a good bet for white, and Dolin Rosso is good for red.
Bitters: Fuck off with your five varietals of fennell bitters. We're not in Brooklyn (presumably). You don't need anything like that, but angostura bitters are a must-have for drinks like Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, hot toddies, and plenty of other whiskey-based drinks.
Simple syrup: Good to have for plenty of recipes, it keeps forever, and you can make it at home. Here are instructions.
Sugar cubes: Specifically, brown sugar cubes. And make sure it's Demerara, not the processed variety.
Citrus: Lemons, limes, and oranges are good to have around for a whole swath of swill. Obviously, you need oranges for an Old Fashioned or a Negroni, and you might just want a twist for something else. If you're getting really serious, though, you'll want all three for something like a proper daiquiri, which is less Jimmy Buffett bullshit than it is fresh juice and some rum. You can also do fresh lime margs, but you'd need a small bottle of Cointreau. (Side note: You're fine not worrying about having other fruit around. And please, no non-orange fruit in an Old Fashioned, ever.)
Wild cards: Speaking of daiquiris and margs, one way to make your home bar unique is to get a bottle of something interesting. Say you want to make one of those daiquiris—you'd want a small bottle of maraschino liqueur. Pink gin is a good choice, too. And Fernet is always a crowd pleaser.
For barware, you need a shaker and a pint glass, a bar spoon, a jigger, and a hawthorne strainer. Make sure the strainer fits the pint glass so you can do shaken and stirred drinks. That's about it. The only other thing you might want to add is a muddler; I drink a lot of Old Fashioneds, so that would be a staple for me. Beyond that, you could probably go a lot crazier here with things like juicers or zesters or the proper types of glasses for each specific type of drink, but that's between you and your god.
All the supplies you just dropped a dime on don't matter if you don't know how to use them. Most drinks just require following instructions, though, and the good thing about liquor is it's pretty forgiving. You can always add more booze if it's too weak, or stop being a baby about the strong ones and just kick it back. You know what I mean.
With mixologists being A Thing now, you have plenty of newer books you can refer to, but forget all that and stick with the classics. Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them was written in 1896, but in 2015, the mechanics of getting drunk remain the same, and it's a good reference tool to have in your bar. Also good are the Bartender's Manual, or Trader Vic's 1947 Bartender's Guide, or The Savoy Cocktail Book, all of which were published at least 50 years ago, and all of which pretty much hold up. Or, you could just Google your drink recipes. There's always that.
The point is, when you invite people over, you want to be able to make them what they actually want to drink. It's a lot more fun that way. No need to get fancy, but low-key bartending abilities are still good to have. It's an impressive skill, really. And if you go through all this bar-stocking and you still want some weird dry-ice cocktail, then the world is your oyster, or in this case, your orange peel.
Art by Sam Woolley
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Special thanks to Polina Yamshchikov, who lent her expert bartender advice to this piece.