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What I Learned From Kondo-ing My Home Spirits Collection

Upstream, Fort Mill, South Carolina

After a decade behind the bar, Luke Andrews now writes about hospitality and specializes in bartender engagement consulting within this fast-paced industry. His cocktail doodles, stories, and recipes can be found at @cocktaildoodle or his website bartohome.com.

Since college, there has always been booze in my living spaces. I enjoy having a good bottle tucked away for a nip or the ability to throw a Negroni together at the drop of a hat. Over the years, my collection has waxed and waned but, for the last couple, it has been a full moon stuffed in a closet. Now that we live in a small apartment in downtown Chicago, my wife convinced me to do an inventory of every bottle in our home.

I dragged my feet and joked about "leaving work at work" but, throughout a Saturday morning, we counted everything. It was weird seeing bottles that I forgot. Marie Kondo would be pissed about my collection because it was full of things I didn't love and many that never brought me joy—looking at you, Malört. I cut down the bottles into ones I couldn't part with and ones that we would drink next but not replace. There were also a few bottles I flat out threw away because they weren't worth the effort of drinking. We got the collection down to around 150 bottles—still way too many.

When I think back over the many places I have lived and the different stages of my collection, my favorite setup was a small studio apartment in Ann Arbor. It had this perfect built-in desk that held a contingent of staple bottles. I had vermouths in the fridge and a decent bottle each of gin, vodka, rum, bourbon, Scotch, tequila, and of course Campari and Angostura bitters. If someone was over, I could make them any standard classic cocktail. If they wanted something else, there was a bar down the street. If a bottle ran out, and it was a favorite, I would replace it. If it didn't make the cut, I would find a different brand in the same spirit category. The quality of my spirit collection followed suit with the back bars at the places I worked, always better and better.

Life went on and my apartment changed again. I moved into a much larger apartment that had an old built-in bar. I remember walking into the room with the realtor and my now-wife and blurted out, "We'll take it!" We hadn't even seen the kitchen with the terrible linoleum floors or the bathroom with the toilet that didn't flush too well, but it had a bar! My collection became bloated and filled with junk I didn't even like. I was buying bottles because of the trends. The collection grew and grew from purchased bottles, gifts, and samples from reps. At one point we were sitting at a bar and my wife said, "I think we have more booze at home than this bar does.

I am not going to lie; I loved having all of the bottles. I had access to everything! It was the focal point of our home. If someone came over and I offered them a drink, I could make anything. Last Word? "Picked up a fresh bottle of Chartreuse the other day!" Martini? "What kind of gin do you like? I've got three dry vermouths open in the fridge!" Pisco Sour? "Oh, you have to try this new method I have been working on with egg whites! Do you prefer Pisco from Peru or Chile?" Scotch? "Blended or single malt? Speyside? Highlands? Islay? What color Johnnie? Ever had Green before? This is the old bottling the new one is around here somewhere..." I quickly realized that I wasn't able to relax. Drinking at home wasn't enjoyment; it was work. The same job I did for hours on end every week at a bar, I came home and did it at my satellite home bar. I also usually ended up drinking whatever the guest wanted because I hadn't touched that bottle in a while. I would often realize why that was and regret not making myself what I actually wanted.

After doing the Saturday inventory, it turns out that the only bottles I actively use are those original 10: gin, vodka, rum, bourbon, Scotch, tequila, Campari, Angostura, and sweet and dry vermouth. Now I know my preferred brands of each. While I was collecting so many bottles, I was learning. I was trying to figure out what I liked. I had a moderately sized tasting room in my living room 24/7. Now I am left with half-empty bottles that I know aren't for me, but I certainly don't regret purchasing them. I learned what I liked. I learned what works for me and that is priceless. I would recommend the same thing to anyone wanting to learn about spirits—just don't hoard them like I did. Tasting something at a trade show or quickly at a bar isn't enough. Your palate needs a few trials at different times on different days to see what a spirit is all about. Invest and enjoy the results and don't be dismayed if it isn't for you. You won't like everything! 

So what did I learn? Buy the bottle if it interests you. Don't buy trends. Learn what you like. Learn what you don't. Stick with what you want. Get rid of the fluff and let your wife have the closet back. Also, the next time we move there is going to be a punch party at my place and everyone is invited. The only rule: Don't bring me any more bottles!

After a decade behind the bar, Luke Andrews now writes about hospitality and specializes in bartender engagement consulting within this fast-paced industry. His cocktail doodles, stories, and recipes can be found at @cocktaildoodle or his website bartohome.com.