When stocking a basic home bar, there are a few essential bottles that should always be included.
Whether you’re new to making cocktails or an experienced mixologist, these bottles are the cornerstones of a successful, well stocked home bar.
Over time you can seek depth and diversity. A wider selection of of bottles will allow you to build more variety in your areas of choice to complement your cocktail making preferences.
For now, we’ll go with a basic selection of essential bottles for a well stocked for home bar.
Soon you’ll have a plethora of recipes at your fingertips.
Spirits for a basic home bar
For mixing drinks, a good balance of base spirits translates to a balanced array of recipes we can mix. The broader the range of characteristics we can access within a limited number of bottles, the better.
So choose selectively.
I would pick two clear spirits and two with some age.
Following the principle of seeking varied characteristics, I would select a Gin and a Tequila.
It is easy to get lost the kaleidoscopic gin market. It may make some sense to find the gin most perfectly nuanced to your palate for a Martini, but generally, the old stalwarts serve us well for general and varied mixing.
I find it hard to pick between Tanqueray and Beefeater for this spot, but opt for the former, since it has a few percentage points of ABV going in its favor (43.1 to 40).
Tanqueray has a more traditional, juniper led style than Beefeater – which offers more orangey tones. This does mean that they both excel in certain contexts and ideally we would have both, but a $150 limit does not really allow for this.
Orange is also a really easy flavour to find elsewhere whenever we need it, whereas Juniper is a little more limited!
The second of the essential bottles of clear spirit would be a blanco tequila. 100% agave, naturally.
Tequila brings more interesting flavors into our repertoire than vodka. the unaged varietals offer more green and vegetal characteristics, as opposed to the mellower vanilla and nutty notes that grace reposados and anejos. Furthermore, we will have these features in the other dark spirits, so we don’t need to duplicate here.
Since Tequila is a region, it cannot sufficiently expand production to meet growing demand, so the price trajectory of real tequila is upward only. El Jimador blanco still comes in under $20 per bottle. It hits the spot in a Tommy’s or anywhere we want real zing.
The vegetal, peppery tequila alongside the aromatic, delicate gin guarantee that even if all we have to mix them with are citrus, sugar and ice, our drinks will have a pleasing degree of complexity to them.
Vodka drinkers could swap their lesser favored of gin and tequila for a vodka.
I’m not really aware of any drink that doesn’t ‘work’ using vodka in place of a different spirit. It simply removes the layer of flavour that was added by the base spirit and replaces it with a lighter layer of pepper and vanilla.
To compliment the botanical, fruity and vegetal tones of our clear spirits I commend Appleton Signature Blend (formerly VX) and Makers Mark. These two are essentials for a well stocked home bar.
Jamaican Rum has more dry nuttiness than most, giving a real distinctive quality that carries through in mixed drinks. This follows the same train of thought that led us to our selections of clear spirits:
that it is easier to modify and moderate something that already exists than it is to conjure something out of nothing.
Appleton holds its own in drinks ranging from the Daiquiri to the Sazerac in style and makes an Espresso Martini into a wonderful drink. I’ve not had the luck to find a rum so versatile around this price level and for that reason it is a slam dunk in the first aged spirits slot.
Makers finishes off our spirit selection and brings us a fourth distinctive point on a flavor compass. One of rich caramel.
Being a wheated bourbon, it is slightly sweeter than most, so blends with a gentle forgiveness that more complex ones don’t. Since Makers imparts richness, we can allow for it’s lesser complexity.
A light spirit without complexity, however, merely brings alcohol. Although medicinal, this isn’t much help if we want to be able to produce a wide range of drinks from a small shelf of spirit.
We have the Appleton for wherever we need a kick and Makers for depth.
While there are many options in between that offer subtly different qualities, we’re looking to get as many different characteristics from as few bottles as possible for our basic home bar.
In fruity cocktails especially, using a small amount of one spirit to modify the main sprit in the drink can work well.
For example, if we wanted to try a punch recipe that called for a richer rum than the Appleton, we could substitute an appropriate, minor proportion for Makers and achieve the intended balance of flavours, if not the exact flavours themselves.
I would absolutely love to include a Fine Calvados to this list and it would be the first thing I would add given the opportunity. Sadly, it has been overlooked in cocktail culture, so doesn’t have either a great audience or recipe canon so would be a little too niche for this basic home bar.
We shall refer to everything that contains alcohol but is not straight spirit as modifiers.
The category is therefore vast and we have scant resources, having wisely opted to shell the majority of our budget for our basic home bar on quality liquor.
Simply put, modifiers are very much second best in liqorland.
It is practically impossible to recreate the nuanced flavors of Tequila without a hacienda and years of labour, but with a few honorable exceptions, the effects of many modifiers can be recreated with a visit to a local grocery store.
The honorable exceptions: Cynar and Campari.
Somewhat pricier outside of Europe, but such great tools they make the cut.
Complexity and bitterness.
Whilst what we commonly call cocktail bitters (Angostura, Peychaud etc) may be slightly better in the role of adding complex or bitter notes, they have nothing like the versatility for mixing that Campari and Cynar do.
These Italian legends can be the dominant part of or simply the accent to the drink and everywhere in between.
They cannot be used exactly as cocktail bitters but they can be part of a substitute in your basic home bar.
Campari can best be described as ‘Beetlejuice.’
It’s flavor profile is something akin to bubblegum-orange-walnut. It fully vindicates the swathes of savvy folk who despise the stuff.
I am not one of those savvy folk, so we will be using Campari widely, in doses large and small.
Cynar is about as healthy as alcoholic beverages get, being an artichoke bitters! It’s a mouth full of quinine and burnt caramel and possesses the same versatile applications as Campari but with a very different type of bitterness.
Bitterness is undervalued in my view. Cocktails usually only play with sweet and sour, leaving out almost entirely salt and umami. Learning how to harness bitter expands our range considerably.
The necessary evil: Martini Rosso
Our vermouth of choice is amongst the worst.
I have nothing with which to commend Martini Rosso to you with other than humility. Every team has one member that nobody likes, but without whom the team would not be able to perform its basic functions. That lowly yet essential role falls to the beast of the vermouth kingdom that is Martini Rosso.
We thank you dearly for your service but have prepared for you no eulogy.
Martini’s flavor profile is uncomplicated red fruit with a some little sweetness and spice.
With Cynar on our shelf, however, we have the ability to add complexity and moderate sweetness where needed.
Noilly Prat extra dry is another bar staple, but it really excels in only one commonly sought place – a Dry Martini – and so we are going forward with the Rosso.
Campari, Cynar, absinthe and vermouth of any kind are considerably harder to replace in effect in cocktail than most liqueurs. They are simply blends of sugar, alcohol and flavours, after all.
We will use the word ‘mixers’ to cover all non alcoholic, liquid ingredients for our basic home bar.
For this piece, we are keeping these to a bare minimum. A hope behind these materials is that readers can learn to adapt to whatever limitations may arise, in a way that still hits the spot for them.
The mixer that can be used with all flavor profiles is soda water. So this is our mixer of choice.
Bottles between 8 and 14 oz in volume work well. If a bottle is not finished shortly after being opened, a limpness is noticeable in the finished drink.
We will give you the know-how to make countless syrups, cordials, shrubs and more to guarantee soda never disappoints.
To begin with, however, we are adding one syrup to our stock list: Orgeat.
Homemade Orgeat is perfectly achievable, but making it is a process of hours rather than minutes. I don’t bother, so I’m not going to expect you to either.
Orgeat tastes like marzipan with a hint of orange blossom. It is key to a Mai Tai and merits its place for this alone.
This finalizes our bottle list as:
- El Jimador Blanco
- Appleton Signature blend
- Makers Mark
- Martini Rosso
- Soda water(s)