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The Caterer

Setting up a bar: The basics

16 March 2006
Setting up a bar: The basics

Setting up a bar is simple. You just need "booze". But in these days of endless new brand launches, where do you begin? Perhaps more relevantly, where do you stop when considering which products to stock?

We've all seen bars with encyclopaedic booze selections - and that's great, especially for the spirit-trainspotters among us. But the average bar has no need for such a large selection. What's essential? The first area to look at is house pours.

These are the spirits you will use most regularly and you will absolutely need to tick the following boxes: vodka, gin, Scotch, American whiskey, light or gold rum, dark rum, Cognac, Tequila. Apart from a standard spirit and mixer (gin and tonic, whisky and Coke, etc), these will provide the bases for most cocktails.

It makes sense for house pours to be priced towards the lower end of the spectrum, but never take a brand just because it's cheap. The general public has an ever-increasing know-ledge of alcohol in general, and selling cheap and badly made spirits is a surefire way to lose business. The level (meaning, the cost) at which you set out your stall can be decided only with reference to your client base. Will your regular customers be prepared to pay that bit extra for a premium product, or are they happy with a solid but cheaper brand?

It's possible to survive with just one brand in each category, but variety is the spice of life, so it's nice to offer a selection. Again, your range depends very much on your clientele and the style of your venue. If you're an Italian restaurant, you'd probably want a large selection of grappa and bitters; if you're Mexican, then Tequila, American whiskey, Bourbon, and so on.

If you have no particular theme in mind and want to keep your selection small, then a sensible rule of thumb is to offer three in each category. Ideally, you should have your house pour, a mid-price-range upsell option and a super-premium product. Using gin as an example, you'd be talking Plymouth, Hendrick's and Tanqueray 10, which provide a perceived gradual increase in product quality and price.

This principle can work well when applied to vodka, gin, Cognac, rum and Tequila. Obviously, it's very easy to move outside these parameters when you consider similar products such as flavoured vodka, Armagnac, Mezcal and the many and varied rums available, but the above should provide a good staring point.

The category that probably provides the most options is whisky (or whiskey). In addition to your house pour, you will need an Irish, if only for Irish coffee, an American - Bourbon, Tennessee and rye are all options - and a selection of single malts. I find that one well-selected single malt from each region - Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and the Highlands and Islands - should keep all but the most enthusiastic of whisky aficionados happy.

Next, consider liqueurs, vermouths and bitters. Your cocktail list will
dictate, to a certain degree, what you need, and this is one area where you should definitely not overstock. If you're not certain that you'll need it, don't stock it.

Some of these products are unique stand-alone brands, such as Campari. As far as general requirements go, you need sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, Campari, Angostura
Bitters, Pimm's, Pernod or Ricard, Baileys, orange liqueur (Cointreau or Grand Marnier), coffee liqueur (Kahlua or Tia Maria), sambuca and crème de cassis.

In addition, all bars need a good selection of wine, Champagne and beer. Add to this your usual juices and sodas, and you're almost there.

One extra product you'll definitely need is sugar syrup, or sirop de gomme, This is essential for many cocktails and is available from most wholesalers.

Finally, the most important ingredient you'll need is ice - lots of it.

Of course, you can go on. There's an argument to be made for Calvados, eau de vie, Marc, port, sherry or a large range of digestifs, but most people have limited space and budget, so the line has to be drawn somewhere. And if you're worrying about how you choose from the myriad products within each category, there's only one way to come to a decision - taste as many as you can and see which ones you like.

Happy drinking.

Essential equipment

  • Boston cocktail shaker.

  • Hawthorn strainer.

  • Flat-ended bar spoon.

  • Speed pourers (polycarb corks with steel spouts).

  • Knife (serrated, about 8in long).

  • Fine-mesh tea strainer.

  • Jiggers (Government-approved spirit measures).

  • Muddler (for crushing fruit).

  • Bar caddy/tidy (for straws, etc).

  • Condiment dispensers (to hold fruit).

Dan Warner is a freelance bartender

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