Cocktails on a Budget: How to Save Money in your Home Bar

MIXOLOGY TALK PODCAST #188

Let’s be honest: Enjoying craft cocktails is an expensive hobby. Not everyone can write off alcohol as a business expense like Chris can, so today, we’re talking about ways to drink without breaking the bank. With the help of our Craft Cocktail Club Facebook group, Chris and Julia have put together these helpful tips for making more budget-friendly cocktails.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 2:23– DIY ingredients (and garnishes at 7:57)
  • 9:48– Sizing of your bottles
  • 15:12– Deals and substitutions
  • 22:44– Maximizing product life with proper storage
  • 28:35– Sharing and trading

DIY YOUR OWN COCKTAIL INGREDIENTS

There are some things even novice at-home bartenders can make on their own, from garnishes to simple syrups. Of course, if you’re more advanced in the art of craft cocktails or perhaps a professional bartender, you may even want to create your own liqueurs. DIYing your liquor can of course save you money, but it also allows you to start from basics and explore what you like. Let’s look at a couple DIY ingredients that can help cut costs for your at-home (or even your professional) bar.

SIMPLE SYRUPS

Don’t ever buy simple syrup! With a ratio of 1:1 sugar and water, making your own is a super easy way to save money. You can also get creative with a variety of flavors to make your cocktails more interesting. Here’s one of my favorite drinks that Chris made using a homemade pomegranate-cranberry syrup– which I actually got to enjoy with Chris and Julia, pre-Covid. Sigh.

LIQUEURS AND INFUSED ALCOHOL

You use Amaros and liqueurs sparingly, but they often cost $40-60 a bottle. Yes, they last a long time, but if you have to buy a bunch of different specialty liqueurs, that adds up! Liqueurs are basically infused spirit, syrup, and flavor (hey, I never claimed to be a distillation expert, but that’s the gist, right?), so if you are more experienced, you can DIY those less common liqueurs.

If you make your own, the ingredient opportunities are endless; and there’s probably already a blog post on how to make every liqueur out there. You should at least research if it’s worth trying before you go out and buy a bottle. Chris and Julia even attempted to make their own version of Crème de Violette at one point.

If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of creating your own liqueur, try infusing your own alcohol instead:

  • It’s cheaper than buying lots of flavored spirits.
  • You can make smaller quantities, thus only making what you need and not wasting money by wasting product.
  • You can customize your own flavor profiles by making flavored syrups and infusions; start simple to figure out what you like, and build from there.

“When you start off, you can really focus on techniques, and that will make things a lot cheaper. As you become a bar manager, you rely heavily on technique to supplement the cost of ingredients that are going in there. […] I highly, highly recommend developing your ability to do infusions, make liqueurs, syrups, stuff like that.”— Chris

GARNISHES

This one’s easier, although it does require some space and a semi-green thumb in some cases. You can easily dehydrate a blood orange for a gorgeous garnish, but you can also grow your own mint, rosemary, and edible flowers. 

If you want to save money on an important but spendy cocktail garnish, try making your own cocktail cherries! And if you decide that making your own isn’t for you, you do have more affordable and almost-just-as-yummy options than the traditional Luxardo cherries.

Whatever you decide to make for yourself, you’ll be proud of yourself for creating your own cocktail ingredients (and save cash by doing so)!

BUYING BOTTLES OF ALCOHOL BASED ON YOUR NEEDS AND SAMPLING BEFORE YOU BUY

Let’s talk bottle size. It seems like a good idea to just buy a giant bottle of all spirits to save on the cost per ounce, right? Well, slow down there. Sometimes smaller is actually better. 

If you know you like this particular brand and it’s a base spirit that you’ll use all the time, go to Costco and buy that giant 1.75 L bottle. But if you’re just getting introduced to a new spirit and aren’t sure you’re going to like it– or if it’s an expensive liqueur you won’t use all the time– just go with the regular size or even a 375 ml bottle. (I’m looking at you, Yellow Chartreuse.) And of course, you don’t need giant bottles of five different types of tequila; go big on your favorite brand and buy regular 750 ml bottles of everything else.

You can even try a sample with an airplane bottle; of course, the price per ounce skyrockets the smaller the bottle is, but at least you aren’t investing a ton of money just to find out you don’t like a particular type of spirit. And, when bars are open again, ask your bartender for a sample taste of something you’re curious about! Or order that Aviation you’ve been eying on Pinterest before you invest in a bottle of Crème de Violette.

“For things that don’t last— And I’m really talking about vermouth here, let’s be honest— don’t buy a giant bottle unless you know you’re going to get to it in time. Speaking from experience, there is nothing sadder than dumping a mostly full or even half-full bottle of vermouth. It is so sad. It just falls in the sink, looking at you with disappointment.” — Julia

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DEALS AND SUBSTITUTE COCKTAIL INGREDIENTS

There are a couple ways to save a few bucks on cocktail ingredients. It doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality, but be willing to be flexible and creative in how you shop and how you approach your cocktails.

LOOK FOR DISCOUNTS ON LIQUOR

Who doesn’t like a deal? You can get your favorite brands for less by shopping smart: Look for coupons in the mail and check local stores for sales. BevMo often has sales, and some grocery stores have deals where you get 30% off if you buy six bottles. Of course, you need a place to store those six bottles, so that might not be the best plan for if you live in a small apartment, but you definitely have options for not spending full price no matter where you live.  

  • Check your local bottle shops and liquor stores for unique deals.
  • If you’re in the military, check the base for the best prices.
  • Some shops may have industry discounts— It doesn’t hurt to ask!
  • Plan when to stock up: The best deals happen around major holidays (especially “infamous drinking holidays,” as Chris puts it) like the 4th of July, Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and New Years. These are excellent times to stock your whole bar!

GET CREATIVE WITH SUBSTITUTIONS IN YOUR COCKTAILS

Don’t be afraid to play around a little bit with your ingredients. Sometimes it’s OK to substitute! If you don’t have a specific ingredient but do have something similar, get creative and try it. The more you learn about cocktails and spirits and the more you experiment, the better you’ll understand what you can and can’t substitute. 

You also don’t always need the top-shelf liquor, as Julia explains:

“If you’re going to be sipping your scotch on the rocks, by all means, that’s a great opportunity to go for the stuff you absolutely love, the stuff that’s absolutely delicious all on its own. But if you’re going to be mixing it into, I don’t know, a whiskey sour or Ramos gin fizz, you’re not really going to taste the difference between a $20 bottle and a $50 bottle and certainly not a $100 bottle. So I would say save that stuff for when it really matters and aim for the solid ‘well’ spirits.”— Julia

In a mixed drink, a lot of the nuance that makes a liquor special is going to get covered up. And honestly, there are a lot of great options out there now that didn’t exist even 10 years ago; so the expensive, name brand liquor might not even be your best bet anymore. In general, you should be able to find a good option for every base spirit in the $20-30 range. There are a couple of exceptions, of course:

  • Cognacs and brandies tend to be pretty pricey, no matter the brand. But if a recipe calls for cognac, you could consider a more cost-effective brandy or even a rum. As you practice, you’ll get more comfortable with inventive replacements.
  • Sipping: If you’re going to sip a spirit, it should probably be high quality. The expensive stuff can also be fun to mix with, of course; we recommend doing a side-by-side comparison to see if it’s worth it to you– taste test an expensive bottle of tequila, for example, next to a $20-30 bottle. If the difference is significant to you, then by all means, splurge even for your cocktails and mixed drinks. But if you can’t tell much of a difference, cut costs by using a more affordable base spirit in your cocktails.
  • On that note, if you’re going to be drinking a two-ingredient cocktail, this is similar to sipping, as Julia notes:

“It does depend on the cocktail a little bit. If you’re just doing a G&T, then buy good T. If it’s a two-ingredient cocktail and all you’ve got is gin and tonic, you’re probably going to want a decent gin and a decent tonic. But if it’s something that’s got 14 things in it and it’s only going to be a quarter ounce of whatever it is, you may not really care if it’s a super high-end spirit.”

STORE YOUR LIQUOR PROPERLY FOR MAXIMUM SHELF LIFE… AND MAYBE HIDE YOUR EXPENSIVE BOOZE!

Alright, some of this may seem obvious, but our team has some horror stories of wasting alcohol by making silly blunders. Seriously, learn from our mistakes!

I’m super guilty of this because I didn’t know better before working for A Bar Above, but I’ll just reiterate what Chris and Julia repeated throughout the podcast: Store your vermouth in the fridge! It’s a wine-based product that lasts 1-2 months in the fridge (and maybe even up to six month, according to Chris). In general, preserve the ingredients you do have, and take care of the stuff that would otherwise go bad. As Julia says, 

“The best way to waste money is to waste product by not storing it well.” 

Here’s another vermouth tip: If you buy a larger bottle of vermouth, split it into two or three smaller bottles so you’re only oxidizing a smaller amount at a time when you open the bottle to use it. And, of course as I’ve mentioned, it’s prudent to just buy the smaller bottle. 

Here are a few more suggestions for storing and preserving your alcohol:

  • Use an argon gas system to help keep your vermouth, wine, or other easily-spoiled liquor fresh for a lot longer.
  • OK, here’s one that sounds like common sense, but seal your bottles! Especially if you’re lying them on their sides in the fridge, be extra careful. It’s easy to leave the lid off when you get distracted, ruining your product and leaving you extra sad.
  • Hide the good stuff— especially if you have teenagers! (Sorry, kids.) Or at least let those around you know what is high-quality and perhaps off limits.

I personally realized the hard way that you need to hide your precious liquor when my husband and I had a house sitter raid our liquor cabinet and open a brand new, $60 bottle of small-batch gin from a local distillery that we couldn’t easily replace. Long story short: She is no longer our house sitter. But I definitely learned a (painful) lesson about not assuming everyone knows what is off-limits!

SHARE, EXCHANGE, AND SAMPLE LIQUOR WITH OTHER CRAFT-COCKTAIL LOVERS

This section is more for post-pandemic times when it’s safer to hang out in bars, breweries, and distilleries again– and it comes with the caveat of making sure everything you do is on the up-and-up, legally speaking. For example, do not post about any sort of trade or exchange of money for alcohol in a Facebook group because it goes against their terms of service. The whole group is in danger of being deleted if one member violates this rule, so just don’t. These tips are more for in-person connections so you can try a variety of products before committing to a price tag: 

  • Trade with local distilleries that are making their own things. If you make a liqueur or syrup, share it with your bartender… and maybe they’ll share something new with you!
  • Set up an exchange program with your friends where you each buy an expensive bottle and share. (Ex: you buy Green Chartreuse and your friend buys Yellow Chartreuse, and then you split the bottles between you.) You can also go in on one nice spirit with a friend or two and share it together so you all can try a little… When it’s safe to do so, of course.
  • When they’re available again, take advantage of sample tastings at places like BevMo so you can see if you like something before buying.
  • Again, who knows what this year will look like, but we highly recommend attending a conference like Tales of the Cocktail, San Antonio Cocktail Conference, and Thirst Boston when you can. Some conferences are aimed at professionals only, but many cater to hospitality workers and consumers alike. Events like this are an amazing way to taste-test a bunch of products– and if you like something, you can support the producer directly by buying a bottle right there!

HOW DO YOU MAKE BUDGET-FRIENDLY COCKTAILS?

Come join us in our group (just don’t try to sell or trade your booze!), and feel free to ask questions, get inspiration, and share your own ideas. We’d love to know your favorite affordable spirit brands and what you make with them– along with any other tips you have for saving money behind your home bar. Until next time, bottoms up!

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Melanie Tornroth

Melanie Tornroth

A former English teacher, Melanie optimistically embraces the struggle that is work-from-home parenthood as the in-house writer for A Bar Above. When not responding to “Mom” and writing articles for ABA, she also runs Goodnickels Photography, loves to cuddle her cats, and is perfecting the art of keeping her pandemic “fermentation babies” alive.

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