A liquor cabinet generally describes a place in which one stores a liquor collection, and often more specifically describes a special piece of furniture purchased and used exclusively to store liquor and associated paraphernalia, such as glasses and stirrers.

A Brief History of the Liquor Cabinet

The liquor cabinet as a piece of furniture came into vogue in the United States in the 1920s as a clever way to disguise alcohol when Prohibition was in effect. Liquor cabinets from this time are generally unobtrusive and quite often are parts of larger pieces of furniture, such as hutches and vanities. My great grandmother owned a liquor cabinet of this variety, purchased between 1930 and 1932; it appeared to be a large chest with four small cabinets, but in fact had a liquor cabinet stored in the middle two cabinets. She would often decorate the top of it with seasonal decorations, including an elaborate manger scene at Christmas; I didn't even know until I was in my 20s that this was in fact a liquor cabinet in disguise.

After the end of Prohibition, liquor cabinets became more forthright and remained a regular part of home furnishing throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when they slowly began to fall out of vogue. My grandmother owned a liquor cabinet that was purchased in about 1956; it was destroyed in a 1985 house fire. It stood on four pedestal legs and was accessible without kneeling; it was also fairly obvious that liquor was stored in it, as often there would be empty upturned glasses on top of it.

Some modern homes still include liquor cabinets; others have opted to utilize a single kitchen cabinet for that purpose. My mother- and father-in-law have a nice cabinet today that also functions as an end table; I myself own one, but my liquor is stored in a kitchen cabinet due to space issues.

Assembling Your Own Liquor Cabinet

Assembling your own liquor cabinet is a fun task, and not altogether that expensive to do.

Kitchen or Standalone?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is whether or not to use a kitchen cabinet as your liquor cabinet or to purchase or build your own standalone cabinet. To determine this, ask yourself four questions:

  1. Do I have an available, empty, and accessible kitchen cabinet? Don't use your smallest cabinet for this purpose; you should pick a cabinet that you can easily reach (not that high one on top of the refrigerator) with space for fifteen to twenty bottles along with plenty of glasses.
  2. Do I have space for a standalone cabinet? It won't take as much space as you might think, particularly if you have the opportunity to also use it for a lamp stand or an end table. However, tight living rooms or dens might have problems coming up with space.
  3. Do I have younger children and/or relatives that might sneak into the cabinet? A standalone is probably the choice here unless you feel like installing a lock on a kitchen cabinet.
  4. Can I easily afford a nice standalone cabinet? Most liquor cabinets are rather expensive, but are intended to be quality home furnishings. Expect to spend at least $500; the one I've had my eye on is more than $1,000.

Your answers to these questions should clarify your choice.

The Essentials

Most people are very unsure what to purchase for a liquor cabinet and find themselves just haphazardly buying bottles of whatever they've heard of in the mass media without paying attention to what is needed for good mixed drinks and, more importantly, what they and their guests actually enjoy. Rushing out to the store to buy Jägermeister and Southern Comfort without some planning is a foolish step, and one that will result in wasted space and dusty bottles.

The first thing to do is to select three or four cocktails that you personally enjoy quite a bit and that you'd always want to be able to make for yourself and for friends. There are tons of cocktail recipes out there, and I found that many of my favorites were extremely simple. After some careful deliberation, my choices were a mudslide, a gin and tonic, and a Long Island iced tea. This means that my basic purchases were vodka, gin, rum, tequila, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, sour mix, and triple sec.

Once you've purchased these, compare them to a list of the basic items any liquor cabinet should have. These include gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, vermouth, and triple sec. Cross-check these against what you've already selected and buy a selection (or two; see below) of each type that's left.

If you're just getting started, here's a brief buying guide for each general liquor type; visit each node for more detail (I hope). Note that I recommend going cheap if you're just getting started, as you're going to have a lot to buy; you can always upgrade later.

Gin: For a good balance of cost and quality, Bombay Sapphire Gin is an excellent choice. Tanqueray No. 10 is about as good as it gets, though, without spending a mint.

Rum: Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum is a good starter selection. There is a huge assortment of specialty rums; I strongly recommend Inner Circle Blue Dot or Green Dot, if you can find it.

Tequila: Most of the inexpensive gold tequilas are rather hard for me to distinguish, so any one should do as well as another to start with. I was given a bottle of Corazon Anejo as a gift and it is truly sublime.

Vodka: Sobieski is inexpensive and spectacular, if you can find it. I've only ever found one I like better (Jean Marc XO), but expect to really drop some money if you try to top it. Smirnoff works if there's not much of a selection.

Whiskey: I recommend getting a scotch and a bourbon. For the scotch, a Johnnie Walker Red Label or Black Label is pretty decent, but I prefer a very good single malt such as Laphroaig 10 year. For the bourbon, you can't go wrong with Jim Beam for bang for the buck, but keep your eye out for Old Rip Van Winkle special reserve.

Vermouth: Vermouth is probably the least essential of these listed, but is a key ingredient for making that martini that will impress your hipster friends. Get Martini Rosso... it's inexpensive and makes a great martini.

Triple Sec: Triple sec is also a bit specialized but makes a number of great drinks. Stick with Grand Marnier as a good baseline here.

The "Starter" Cabinet: If you're looking to get started quickly and on a budget, I recommend buying a bottle of each of these liquors. You should have no problem finding any of these at your local beverage provider. In each case, if it's too much for your budget, get something cheap, use it up, and then upgrade later.

  • Bombay Sapphire gin
  • Captain Morgan's spiced rum
  • Jose Cuervo gold tequila
  • Sobieski vodka (Smirnoff if you can't find it)
  • Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch (splurge for Black Label if you want)
  • Jim Beam bourbon (splurge for Old Rip Van Winkle special reserve if they have it)
  • Martini Rosso vermouth
  • Grand Marnier triple sec
  • Kahlua (it's in a lot of things)
  • Baileys Irish Cream (it's in a lot of things)

You should have space for a few more bottles, but this gives you a nice rounded collection to start with and make many recipes. It's also worthwhile to make sure you have other drink elements on hand, such as orange juice, tonic water, Coca-Cola, and 7-Up.

Glassware and Supplies

When you first begin a liquor cabinet, you may not have the space or the money to invest in a wide variety of glasses (i.e., you won't be able to afford a set of martini glasses you rarely use). As for myself, I have a set of twelve old fashioned Concord glasses; they're round ones with a thick bottom. I also have a couple of martini glasses for the occasional friend who wants one, but I don't enjoy 'em myself.

A "double jigger" is an essential piece of the puzzle; it's essentially a double-sided shot glass with one ounce in volume on one end and two ounces on the other. It makes it much easier to follow recipes for new concoctions.

You might also want to get a collection of cocktail straws. You can use these for testing drinks by putting the straw in the drink, putting your finger over the dry top, then pulling the straw out and into your mouth; it lets you test the drink without passing germs.

Cultivating Your Own Liquor Cabinet

Once you've assembled your liquor cabinet, enjoy! (You could also extend an invitation to enjoy your cabinet to your old pal and liquor cabinet guide 18thCandidate).

Soon, you'll come to see that you're running low on specific items. If you're running low on such general types as gin, rum, tequila, or vodka, this is a great time to explore different brands within the specific genres (and also have yourself a mighty good time with a friend or two).

Here's what you do: visit your local liquor store and buy a new bottle based on their recommendation. Take it home with you and invite a friend or two over. Pour three glasses of liquor: two of the old kind (hopefully finishing it off) and one of the new kind, and when your friends arrive, have them rearrange the glasses so you don't know which is which. At that point, no one will know which is which. Have a drink of each one and see if you can figure out which is which based on the fact that there are two glasses of the old and one of the new; if you can't, then there's not an appreciable difference between the two, and you might as well buy the cheaper one. If you can, and the new one's more to your taste, congratulations, as you've found a new baseline liquor to buy!

Over time, you'll accumulate a steady group of old favorites and interesting things for your cabinet. I have multiple scotch bottles myself, a bit of moonshine, and hidden in the back, a bottle of absinthe.

What's most important of all is that you have a good time and enjoy yourself. There's nothing quite as nice as getting a bit tipsy in the comfort of your own home in the company of good friends and a few laughs.

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