A well-rounded home bar isn’t just a reflection of the spirits you personally enjoy; it’s a functional toolbox from which you can build a variety of cocktails you might encounter while entertaining guests. That said, it’s easy to go overboard and over budget. When starting a home bar, try to get the most for you buck by selecting spirits you can use across multiple recipes. That bottle of crème de violette might be nifty, but unless you’re mixing up Aviations on the reg, maybe spend your money elsewhere. Here are some essential bottles that will add depth to your home cocktail bench.
This is an easy one. Vodka is a popular and versatile mixer. From a basic vodka soda to whatever ’tini du jour that one friend calls out, you need a bottle of vodka in your arsenal. When picking your poison, avoid the flavored stuff — it will only limit how you can use it — and go for quality. Ketel One is my go-to; it’s clean, smooth, and mixes well.
As indispensable as vodka, gin is always fashionable (and delicious). A good bottle of dry gin is a must for Martinis, Tom Collinses, and the summer-time favorite gin and tonic. I like Bombay Sapphire, which is a little smoother than most dry gins. Another option if you can find it is the subtle, raw honey-tinged Barr Hill.
There are a lot of options here so let’s break it down. It’s good to start with a workhorse whiskey. For example, I always have a bottle of Crown Royal on hand. It’s a well-balanced blend that makes a solid Manhattan, and is enjoyable straight or on ice. A good rye like Bulleit or Dickle is what you want for an Old Fashioned or Sazerac. If you prefer something a little softer, you’ll want bourbon; Maker’s Mark and Basil Hayden’s are good bets. Finally, you’ll need scotch. Specifically, two of them: a quality blend like Johnny Walker for your Rob Roys or Rusty Nails, and, if you’re a real scotch drinker, a good single malt.
Of all the spirits in my home bar, rum is the one I reach for the least. Still, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Unless you’re a big rum head, a decent mid-range bottle like Captain Morgan or Bacardi will cover you the next time someone asks for a rum and coke.
While not much on their own, vermouth opens the door to a world of cocktails, including Martinis, Manhattans, Rob Roys, and Negronis to name a few. Get yourself a bottle of sweet (used in Manhattans and Negronis) and a bottle of dry (used in Martinis), and you’re good to go.
An apéritif is a spirit typically served before a meal to stimulate appetite. If you entertain often, having something on hand for pre-meal socializing adds a nice touch of sophistication to the evening. Champagne and sparkling wine are common choices. Campari, however, is my pick. Add some soda and sweet vermouth, and you’ve got an Americano. Swap the soda for gin and it’s a Negroni, the perfect high-octane appetizer.
Meant to aid in digestion after a meal, the digestif is perhaps a more common ritual than it’s pre-meal twin. An after-dinner drink should always follow a good meal. You have a lot of options here. Cognac or a good brandy is a staple, as is port, anisette, and Grand Marnier. Add some Mediterranean flare with a bottle of amaro, limoncello or ouzo. Or do like your granddad and pick up a bottle of Drambuie for Rusty Nails.
It’s always nice to have a bottle or two of the “good stuff” for special occasions or important guests — something you can break out that is both a reflection of your taste and generosity. It can be whatever you like that you’re willing to spend a little (or a lot) more on, like a bottle of Whistle Pig Boss Hog or a well-aged Macallan.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.