When setting up a bar, one of the most exciting parts is choosing your selection of liquors. There are so many you know of, so many you don’t and there are a multitude of reps banging on your new front door to try and get their product on your shelves. So which ones should you choose? How do you know what is going to suit the style and theme of your new bar, as well as appeal to your guests? Here, we’re going to go through spirit categories and provide some guidelines so that you can correctly balance you liquor shelves behind your new bar.

There are general guidelines to follow when balancing your liquor shelves, however not all bars are the same. Some are aiming for good and cheap, some for just cheap, some are fine dining, many are themed - American, Irish, Mexican etc. -, some are sports bars and there are also many others out there that don’t fit into any of these categories! The style of establishment you own will determine where you go after you get past the general guidelines found here i.e. if you’re an American bar I presume you’re planning on a large selection of bourbons? Opening a Mexican bar? Probably going to be a lot more agave spirits behind that bar than there are in other establishments.

But before we jump into the general guidelines for balancing your liquor shelves, go out and take a field trip to the bars around you that are similar to the style of bar you’re going to be operating. Take a friend or business partner if you can and look at their liquor shelves, from well to premium, and look at what’s on their cocktail menu. Visiting a multitude of establishments will also allow you to see what is popular in your local area, allowing you to increase your immediate appeal to your local crowd.

The Fundamentals

Well Liquors: Well liquors are the ones which you pour when someone asks for a “vodka soda” without stating which brand they would like. These will be - more likely than not - the cheapest items you serve behind the bar, but that doesn’t mean they need to be terrible. In some bars and restaurants, whose aim is value for the consumer, well liquors will often be brands unknown to the consumer, however other locations might have slightly higher calibre well liquors than these, but their names might still not be renowned; those spirits with names the consumer is familiar with are detailed below.

Call Liquors: Your customers will ask for these products by their brand name and this is where your previous experience at bars and the field trip you went on earlier come in handy. What brands have you always seen when you’re out at a bar? Which brands did you see a lot of when you were out on your field trip? These are call brands and the ones you’ll want to consider stocking. Also, once you’re open, make sure you’re listening to your customers’ requests. They’ll tell you what they want, and if something you don’t have keeps getting called for then maybe you should consider putting it on the shelf.

Top Shelf: Some call this category premium, yet these spirits will also technically be call liquors because they will be asked for by name. The difference lies in the fact that they are spirits of the highest calibre and, thus, this category is made up of the highest priced products for each style of spirit out there.

On The Shelf

shelves with bottles

Vodka: A well, a top shelf and some calls are what you’ll need when we’re talking vodka. Many think of vodka drinkers as “not real drinkers, but when served alone, vodka can have a lot to offer. When selecting your top shelf and your calls, use your research and prior knowledge of this underappreciated spirit.

Gin: Take a well, some calls of your choosing but the category of top shelf doesn’t really apply to gin. If you are a higher-end establishment, you may wish to offer premium gins however, outside of high class restaurants and bars, premium gin is not going to sell. When choosing your calls look for a balance of styles: Gin, Distilled Gin and London Gin (dry is not a technical definition for gin, rather just an indicator used by the producer) and also look for botanical and floral gins.

Rum: A light well, along with a range of calls. There might be a spiced rum in your well but often it is priced out of it. A white, dark and spice are what you’re after in the call section here. Top shelf rum is rare to find and it’s even rarer to have someone ask for it. Unless you’re in the Caribbean that is!

Tequila: Your well will be a blanco, and you probably won’t carry its sister products. You’re also going to want some popular call brands. Most brands will offer a blanco, reposado and añejo, and it is better to carry all three categories from one brand rather than three different brands. Top shelf tequila is not often called for, however premium tequila and the extra añejo category, created in 2006, are starting to pick up steam.

American Whiskey: Your well whiskey might be an American bourbon, but if it’s not, don’t worry; you won’t need a well American whiskey. Call brands are necessary with American whiskey, and there are many of them out there. Bourbon is the most prevalent form of American whiskey, although there are others like Tennessee and Rye, and you will want at least one of the call brands in each of these categories. You’re probably not going to want a top shelf American whiskey, however your research will do you well because looking at what your competitors stock tells you what sells.

Scotch Whisky: Never a call here, unless maybe you’re in Scotland that is. You’re going to want a selection of blends and single-malts, ranging in price and age. You’re also going to want to make sure that your single-malts cover the different regions of Scotland. Yet, again, a premium Scotch whisky is not necessary; although Scotch does usually sit on the top shelf of a bar.

Canadian Whisky: You’re only going to want call brands here. There’s one brand which is always more popular than other brands of Canadian whiskey.

Irish Whiskey: Again, you’re only going to want call brands here and, as with Canadian whisky, there is one that is pretty universal.

Brandy: Well brandy is a thing but it’s becoming rarer and rarer so you probably won’t have to stock it unless a brandy mixer is a popular local beverage. Call brands and cognacs are what people are usually after; other flavoured and fruit brandies are more often used for cocktails rather than to drink straight. When stocking cognac you’re going to want one of each age category: a V.S (Very Special), a V.S.O.P (Very Superior Old Pale) and an X.O (Extra Old). They don’t all have to be the same brand.

Orange Liqueur and Triple Sec: Cheap triple sec owns its place in your well for cocktail making. However there are some higher level orange liqueurs and triple secs out there that are well known call brands, which will be called and also used in premium cocktails. There are no top shelf needs for this category.

Liqueurs and Other Liquors

This segment covers everything that doesn’t fit into the spirit categories above. Here, you’ll find herbal liqueurs, cream liqueurs, fruit flavoured spirits, botanical liquors, coffee liqueurs, flavoured whiskies and a whole host of other alcoholic products and infusions.

We’re not going to be able to go through all of these - and most people might lose their minds trying to read all of it -, so this is where your field research and any other experience you have had with bars and spirits will come in. Some of these are called by style rather than a brand name, i.e. peach schnapps; however there are many call brands in here which you and your prospective guests will know that you should have in your new bar.

There’s going to be a huge amount of these for you to choose from. Begin with the most common styles, and those which you’re going to need for cocktails, then expand your selection through demand or need. This stops you from purchasing too large of an inventory before you open.

Liquor Rooms and Stocking

The size of your liquor room may limit the range of products that you can offer. When drafting up the spirits list for your bar, take it into your storage space and plan out its storage. Not in great detail, but ensure that you have enough space to comfortably store all the products you’re going to need to have on hand to get through a delivery period.

If you’re short on space you may have to shorten your list. You don’t want to overfill your liquor room from the very beginning. Why? Because you’ll want to expand your selection after your new bar has grown a following. You will also get busier as your bar grows its reputation, therefore you’re going to need more stock on hand and the space to store it won’t magically appear. Then there are holiday and festival periods of the year where you’ll be ordering the double and sometimes the triple of what you would usually order; again space stays finite.

Want to know more about how to plan your bar program? Read our other article on which drinks to stock in your bar.