As John just wrote, new inductees into cocktail culture are always curious about the best way to start their own bar. But $100? You're never going find a solution that placates everyone, and John's recommendations certainly raised my eyebrow halfway to the ceiling.
The reason? No tequila! My own tastes hold tequila above the other base spirits, and I think a good bottle (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro) opens a world of cocktail possibilities more appealing to a beginner. Good tequila, for example, blends wonderfully with fruit (from berries to melons to stone fruit), encouraging experimentation while introducing seasonal ingredients. When the bar is ready for expansions, moreover, tequila provides an ideal base for new spirits. Benedictine, Maraschino, Cointreau - they're all prime additions to the agave liquor.
But where does tequila fit in? Honestly, I think gin can be overwhelming to new enthusiasts. Save the gin drinks for the professions, at least until you've trained your wrists for brisk stirring, and start with sweeter drinks that can be more forgiving in their ratios and exact preparations.
My list, then, goes as follows:
Tequila - $25 (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro if you can find it cheap)
Rye - $20 (Rittenhouse, etc)
Rum - $20 (Sailor Jerry, Old Monk)
Sweet Vermouth - $10 (I think Martini and Rossi is fine to start)
Bitters - $15 (Angostura and Peychauds, for comparing and contrasting)
Citrus Juicer - $10 (In the Mexican style)
Pick up some limes, whip up some simple and ginger syrups, and you'll have plenty with which to play. Oh, and my hardware goes as: bar spoon, Oxo 2 oz measuring cup, Boston shaker, julep strainer, muddler (I'm currently using the end of a rake handle), and a set of Tovolo ice cube trays.
Now I'm off to go brainstorm uses for my bottle of Midori. When it's tequila time, it's Suntori time?