What to Buy When Starting a French Bar at Home

Weeks before Drinking French came out, people were asking me what liquors and spirits to buy in anticipation of the book’s release. Skimming through the 160 recipes in the book, many of which are for cocktails and apéritifs, I offered up tips here and there, suggesting a few essential bottles that could be used for a number of recipes in the book. I also added a few extras (at the end of this post) to those suggestions, that aren’t vital to have, but are some of my favorites in case they wanted to branch out a little into some other French drinks, and spirits.

Like anything edible, or drinkable, If you ask twenty people for a recommendation on say…what gin to buy, you’ll get twenty answers. So the bottles depicted here are ones in my personal bar, but I encourage you to find your favorite brands of any of these spirits and stock your bar with them. I’ve also kept in mind that many people have a budget, so you don’t necessarily need to get the bottles shown in the pictures this post. (A few aren’t available in the U.S.) But you don’t need to spend a lot of money on liquor: In some cases, I’ve suggested a few brands that are especially easy on the wallet.

For hard liquor, like whiskey and gin, you should be able to find a brand that’s in the $25 range, that’s fine to use. You can pay more (or less) but consider that a general starting price point for something of good quality. Apéritifs like vermouth and red apéritif bitters, $15 to $20 is reasonable to pay for a bottle. (Prices definitely vary by city and country. Spirits made by small-scale producers will cost more than bigger brands.) In the U.S., you can also get half bottles of vermouth, which we don’t get in France, are good for those starting out, or for people that won’t use them a lot. And while the Chartreuse listed in the Extras may take a bigger bite from your budget, it’s one of my favorite French spirits and is available in half bottles as well.

In Drinking French, I cover the range of French apéritifs in detail, including Byrrh, Lillet, Dubonnet, Suze, and more, as well as regional apéritifs like Pineau de Charentes and Pommeau. Hard liquors that are 40% ABV will keep for several years, some say indefinitely. Keep them away from light and heat. Vermouth has a shorter shelf life, one month or so (some say three weeks) and should be kept in the refrigerator once opened. The same goes for other wine-based apéritifs and fortified wines (like Byrrh and Dubonnet), which should also be stored away from light and heat. I asked a master distiller in France about how long spirits last and he replied, “Until they still taste good!” So let your palate be your guide, rather than strictly relying on dates.

Gin

Gin is used in a number of cocktails and drinks. Its light color and appealing juniper flavor complement everything from lime juice in a Rosemary Gimlet to a Martini made with pine buds (page 153 of Drinking French.) Some good-value brands are Fords, Citadelle, and Beefeater. France has recently come on strong in the gin game and French gins range from dry to fruity. There are now some interesting American brands too. For most cocktails, my preference leans toward clean-tasting gins that are not too heavy on the botanicals, although ones that do make a good Gin To (Gin and Tonic.)

Whiskey (or Whisky)

It surprises people that the French are the number one consumers per capita of whisky in the world. In France, whisky is usually enjoyed straight as an apéro, with an ice cube, but I use it in a number of cocktails, from Boulevardiers and the Waterloo, to the Brooklyn, a cocktail that features Amer Picon, one of the most iconic of all French apéritifs. (Amer Picon is not available in the U.S. for reasons mentioned in Drinking French, but I list an alternative in the “Extras” section, below.) Bourbon is made from corn and is sweeter in taste than rye whiskey, which has spicier, slightly smoky notes. The choice is yours, depending on your taste preferences.

Good value whiskey brands are Four Roses, Old Overholt, and Old Forester. There is a huge range of whiskeys available, however, and those are just a few suggestions for those looking for bottles that are of good quality, and are also wallet-friendly.

Vermouth

I recommend having a bottle of sweet (red) and/or dry vermouth on hand, depending on which kinds of drinks you like. (Blanc, or bianco vermouth in Italian, is not the same as dry vermouth.) The French are mostly known for their dry vermouths, more than their red, sweet ones. The main difference is that Italian red vermouths lean toward being more fruit-forward whereas French ones tend to be more herbaceous. Prominent French brands are Noilly Prat and Dolin. Note that Noilly Prat makes a special extra-dry vermouth which, as far as I know, is only available in the United States, and is my preference over their Original dry, which is the one sold in France. Noilly Prat is richer than Dolin, so some people prefer the latter for Martinis and other clear cocktails. Sweet vermouth is used in French Manhattans, Brooklyns, and Americanos.

Red Aperitif Bitters

Spirits writers have been searching for a universal name for red bitter apéritifs, which are usually called aperitivo or aperitivi. Campari is the most famous, and the strongest. (One bartender I know calls it “the bully in the drink,” since it can overwhelm other ingredients.) Red apéritif bitters are the base for a Boulevardier and the Americano. In France, we get Dolin bitters, which aren’t available in the U.S., but Forthave Spirits and St. Georges Spirits both make excellent red bitters in America. Cappelletti is another Italian brand that I like, too.

Cognac, Calvados, and Armagnac

These brandies are distillations of fruit, when are aged in casks. There are many different styles and flavors of brandies depending on what fruits are distilled, and how they are aged. But you’d be hard-pressed to find something simply labeled “brandy” in France. Very broadly speaking, cognac tends to be the smoothest and Armagnac is more dynamic; both are distilled from grapes, but cognac gets distilled twice while Armagnac gets distilled once. Calvados, from Normandy, is distilled from apples and pears and those flavors figure prominently in its taste. Some of these can be expensive, but more so than other spirits, with cognac, calvados, and Armagnac, you get what you pay for.

I recommend finding one near the top of your budget. (Don’t tell, but our neighbors in Spain also make some excellent brandies too.) Many cognacs (but certainly not all) are made by multinational brands so are easily available, while calvados and Armagnac don’t get the same press, nor the distribution. It’s best to go into a reputable liquor store where you live to ask for recommendations in your price range. Applejack or apple brandy is a reasonable substitute for calvados.

Extras

To add to the basics, there’s a marvelous array of French apéritifs, liqueurs, and distillations to expand your pleasure even further.

Those include Suze, a bitter/sweet gentian apéritif that’s refreshing in a Suze and Tonic and The Yellow Cocktail (one of my favorite cocktails in Drinking French.) Other French gentian-based apéritifs are Salers and Avèze which are available outside of France, and the excellent Amer Gentiane, which isn’t. Cap Corse apérifit is made in Corsica, in red and white varieties, and both are made with local botanicals and infused with quinine. I often substitute Cap Corse for vermouth in cocktails.

For those unable to get Amer Picon to make Brooklyn cocktails or Picon Bière (pages 187 and 48, respectively in Drinking French), Bigalett China-China is an amer (French bitter) macerated with herbs in the French alps, which some consider an even better choice.

Chartreuse is one of my very favorite spirits, and while you won’t find it in the bargain bin, a little goes a long way and it can be purchased in half-bottles. The green is essential in cocktails like The Last Word while the softer yellow Chartreuse mixes magnificently with the other spirits in the Alaska cocktail and the aforementioned Yellow Cocktail (page 202-203 of Drinking French.)

[I’ve linked to the cocktail recipes in this post that are here on the blog. The others are in Drinking French.]

Drinking French

What to Buy When Starting a French Bar at Home

Never miss a post!

21 comments

  • Mark
    April 24, 2020 7:55am

    David, thank you for this post! While reading Drinking French I was thinking just about that something like this post would be so useful. Its a roadmap to the book :)

    Bests from Hungary

  • Suzanne
    April 24, 2020 8:41am

    Thanks David! You always provide interesting reading… I am based in NY and one of my favorite liquors is St. Germain made of elderflowers. I have not been to France in several years but it was a favorite gift I have brought to France since it was not available at the time. Is it available in France now? Stay safe during these crazy times…

    • April 24, 2020 9:06am
      David Lebovitz

      It’s not as popular in France as it is in the U.S. but it’s available along with other brands of elderflower liqueurs (the one in the picture is from Vedrenne, made near Dijon)

  • Cathy/ShowFoodChef
    April 24, 2020 8:57am

    Thanks for your afternoon live apero each day- we have been mixing along with you each day. I just ordered your book and can’t wait to try other drinks. Glad you’re safe and creating for us during these crazy ass times.

    • April 24, 2020 9:07am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks and glad you’re enjoying the live apéro hours. Enjoy the book, too!

  • Lauren Vujosevic
    April 24, 2020 2:20pm

    I meant while in confinement- not isolation! But it’s beginning to feel the same :/

  • Kai
    April 24, 2020 6:55pm

    I love all the Instagram lives! I know you talked about Suze already, but I don’t think (or couldn’t remember!) if you mentioned the differences between the gentian aperitifs? Among Salers/Suze/Aveze, are there strongly discernible flavor profiles?

    • April 24, 2020 7:07pm
      David Lebovitz

      Suze is sweeter than Salers, and Salers has no colorant added. Salers is also available in three different ABVs, although they were considering stopping production of the highest one, which I think was 25%. Allegedly Salers is made from fresh gentian roots and Suze is made from dried, but I haven’t seen either being made (I was just next to the Suze distillery but they strictly don’t allow visitors.) I find Salers has more complex flavors and you can taste different botanicals in it whereas Suze is more of a solitary “punch” if that makes sense. I haven’t had Avèze for many years so can’t recall what it tastes like. It’s not so well-known anymore.

      Glad you’re enjoying the IG Lives! : )

      • Kai
        April 24, 2020 11:51pm

        Thank you!! This was very informative for someone whose never had the opportunity to try gentian aperitifs before.

        • April 25, 2020 9:31am
          David Lebovitz

          You’re welcome! I do have more information about them in Drinking French. Gentian apéritifs have a particular taste, that’s for sure, but they are quite enjoyable to many of us.

  • Laura Loewen
    April 24, 2020 8:59pm

    Here’s another happy enjoyer of your IG lives who (just yesterday! Excited!) got your book, and who finds this a helpful post. I’ve been quarantined going on seven weeks, and the booze supply is distressingly low! Putting together a curbside pickup from an excellent liquor store in NJ (I’m in PA), so thank you for the post.
    I’m also enjoying your sweets recipes so much! I’m really on a David Lebovitz kick right now. You’re making all this so much more humane.

  • Leslie
    April 25, 2020 7:09am

    Greetings from Glenwood, NY. So thrilled that the autographed copy of my newest addition to my David Lebovitz library arrived! Loving the book and your IGtv live aperos and seeing Romain whom I have read about. I am heading out to replenish liquor and hope to find some new ingredients tomorrow. Thank you both for adding to the level of joy we all need in our lives right now.

    • April 25, 2020 9:28am
      David Lebovitz

      Great that you got an autographed copy of Drinking French…enjoy the book, and the drinks! : )

  • Dennis
    April 25, 2020 12:57pm

    Really enjoyed the Chartreuse segment.
    Thanks.
    Have been following your blog since the early two thousands.
    Love what your doing with Drinking French.

    • April 26, 2020 9:16am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks Dennis – glad you’ve stuck around ; )

  • Lizzie
    April 25, 2020 1:42pm

    Hello David! I have been loving your instagram aperos (like a lot of people :) ) ! Could you maybe do an “apero live” about different French wines? The best ones to try when in France, etc. It can be overwhelming looking at all of the different kinds, but I would love to know a “best of list” if that is possible. Hope you are staying happy and healthy!! You have made my quarantine much better!!

    • April 26, 2020 9:17am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks Lizzie, I have one planned for next week. Not sure the date yet as I’m coordinating with a French wine expert/friend but look for it next week.

  • Elaine
    April 25, 2020 4:16pm

    David, I have all your books and love them. I’m always cooking from My Paris Kitchen and now reading L’Appart for the second time. Dry Noilly Prat on the rocks was my signature drink for year. We have not been able to get it in Canada for a couple of years. I was told that the company was bought out by Martini, which we can get, but not the same. Can you shed any light as to whether it is still available any where. I’m really going to miss my trip to France in May.

    • April 26, 2020 9:16am
      David Lebovitz

      I didn’t know Noilly Prat pulled out of the Canadian market but hope you can find some Dolin.

  • Kristin McCarthy
    May 1, 2020 3:58pm

    I wanted to make the Boulevardier from Drinking French. Had no sweet vermouth, and when I arrived at the packie saw both a white and a red sweet vermouth. Bought the white. Wrong choice?

    • May 1, 2020 4:16pm
      David Lebovitz

      There is white vermouth (sometimes called “bianco”) and dry vermouth. The white is on the sweeter side. If you bought either you could give it a try. Because of the bitters, you might want to add a dash of simple syrup just to provide a little balance.