One of the benefits of stocking your home bar is that you get to pick everything that’s on the shelf. Every ingredient from glass to garnish is your choice!
There is no end to the thrills you feel as you strain that first cocktail you’ve mixed, stirred, or shaken into its glass in your own home for your own guests!
If you’ve read my How to Set Up A Home Bar post, it’s time to continue that journey by selecting the spirits that will sit on that shelf. With just seven or so bottles of booze behind your back bar, you’ll be able to make almost any classic cocktail.
I would suggest begining with, at least, one of each of the following liquors, so you have most cocktails covered. Still, I must add that everyone’s palates are different, so feel free to read this and go buy something completely different!
Thanks to the Cosmo craze and the genius marketing behind Absolut, a bottle of vodka is a must in any home bar. It may be regarded as a relatively boring spirit, due to its almost flavorless taste, but don’t be swayed by the critics! Vodka can definitely stand on its own two feet and is having a well-deserved renaissance.
I would suggest picking grain vodka, such as Smirnoff or Absolut especially if you are going to mix it with tomato juice (Bloody Mary) or orange juice (Screwdriver) which are quite overpowering flavors. Most UK supermarkets also have their own brand, e.g, Waitrose Vodka is a great starter vodka!
Where the spirit is the forward tasting flavor, as in a Dirty Martini, then it’s time to look for vodkas with a bit more personality, e.g. Ciroc, Grey Goose, and Tito’s.
Let’s not forget flavored vodkas. I love my Cosmo made with Absolut Currant or Limon. Ciroc also has a great Summer Watermelon flavor and Ketel One has series of botanical flavored vodkas. If you love a specific cocktail which calls for a citrus or vanilla vodka, then add it to the list.
Whether you like it or not, there is no way not to have a bottle of gin in your home bar. One of your guests is bound to ask for a gin cocktail. There are more than 1000 gins on the market, making it difficult to pick just one. Some are more juniper heavy, some enhanced with rose or cucumber, and some made with grape-base spirit instead of the usual grain. Where can you even begin?
Since it can be difficult to navigate through all of them, I would start with a London Dry Gin. The term “London Dry Gin” signifies that botanicals (flavors) were added during the distillation process and nothing was added after distillation, except water and a small amount of sugar. FYI: it doesn’t have to be made in London to be called a London Dry Gin.
Gordon’s, Tanquarey, and Beefeater Gin are a few of the oldest and most traditional of the London Dry Gins. Once that is on the shelf and you have your classic Martini in hand, then branch out and try a Pink Gin or Sicilian Lemon Gin.
They say you can tell a bartender’s prowess by asking him/her to make you a daiquiri. So you’re going to have to practice, practice, practice. That means you’ll need a bottle of Rum! Rum, rum, rum – picking one is so hard, since each bottle is a story onto its own.
If I had to pick one, only one, I would definitely go with a white rum like Bacardi. With a white rum, you can make all the summer favorites from mojito to mai tai. A second bottle would be a dark or aged rum. Make sure you do your research because a few rums are just colored to look dark.
Pete Holland, The Floating Rum Shack, knows his stuff when it comes to rum, so I suggest listening to his episode on Lush Life podcast before making the leap to buy another.
The most important advice I can give you when buying a bottle of tequila is make sure it says 100% Agave on the label. Agave is the plant from which tequila is made and you want your tequila to be made only from agave – no extra fillers or liquids added. Any product that does not say 100% Agave is a headache waiting to happen.
Like rum, if you are starting to fill your drinks cabinet, a blanco (white or silver) tequila is the one for you. Blanco tequila is not aged as it is bottled almost immediately after distillation.
After you fall in love with tequila, if you are not already in love, look into purchasing an aged tequila or even a mezcal. You can find Reposado (aged from 2-12 months in oak barrels) and Añejo (aged from 1-3 years in oak barrels). There is also Extra Añejo which is aged more than 3 years and you can also find Joven which is mixture of Blanco and Reposado tequilas.
Mezcal is a whole other thing. Although also made from agave. Although they are both made with agave, their production method is completely different. Tequila is made by steaming the agave in an oven before distillation, while mezcal is roasted inside earthen pits before being distilled, giving it a smoky flavor, like whisky. It can be sipped on its own, but also add a real depth to any traditional tequila recipe.
I’ve kept whisk(e)y (no matter how you spell it) for last because there are so many options – Scotch, Irish, American, Japanese, just to name a few. The question you need to ask yourself is – do I want to sip it or shake it?
I love an Old Fashioned. Therefore, you can always find a bottle of Bourbon (American whiskey) in my liquor cabinet. I also have a peated single malt Scotch Whisky around for those long, cold nights.
My advice is to have one bottle of American whisky (Bourbon or Rye) and one Scotch Blended or Single Malt. Feel free to fight me on this.
If you want to learn about whisky, I really suggest listening to WhiskyCast, my friend and former guest, Mark Gillespie’s award-winning podcast. There are also a few specialty whisky bars where you can sample whiskies at your leisure, such as Milroy’s of Soho or Shoreditch and Black Rock in London, The Whiskey Ward in New York, or Barrel Proof in New Orleans.
Pour & Sip is a new whisky club subscription service! Receive a box of five hand-picked tasters each month curated by our experts and filled with whiskies you’ll love, delivered straight to your door!
The Master of Malt has a full range of 30ml samples of whiskies, rums, gins, vodkas, brandies and other spirits to try, without breaking the bank. Order a few drams of each or buy a whisky advent calendar and try them all now! There is a selection of rum in the Lush Life store as well.
You might not see Amaro as a category on most beginning home bar lists, but I think it is essential. Two of the most popular cocktails in the world right now are the Negroni and the Spritz, both of which are made with Amaro spirits.
Campari is a must for your Negroni and Aperol or Select for your spritz. Not as well known outside of Italy, but Averna, Montenegro, Cynar and Fernet are several of the most well-known brands and can add a bit of bite to your cocktail.
Technically a fortified wine, but if you want to make a Martini or Negroni, you must have vermouth. Buy a bottle of white and a bottle of red and you are sorted!
Brandy & Liqueurs
If you want to make a White Russian, Sidecar, Grasshopper or Amaretto Sour, then you need to fill your bar with a few other liqueurs. There are too many flavors to list them all here, but you can start with your favorite one!
- Brandy, either a Cognac or Armagnac.
- Coffee Liqueur – I suggest a bottle of coffee liqueur if you plan on making Espresso Martinis and/or White Russians. Kahlua and Baileys are the most famous brands. Don’t miss Mr. Black which has the fastest Espresso Martini recipe you can find.
- Orange – Triple Sec, Grand Marnier and Curacao are the top sellers here. If you are making a margarita, you gotta have one of these.
- Herbal – Jägermeister leads the pack in this category, but there is also Bénédictine and Chartreuse. All are great with honey, lemon and hot water for snowy nights!
- Cream Liqueurs – Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders are having a hey day, so for most of those 1950’s after-dinner cocktails, you need to have Creme de Menthe and Creme de Cacao behind the bar!
Now Go Make a Cocktail!
You have the spirits now, so no excuses! So read your books, buy your shaker and bash about your home bar, then invite over a few folks and start shaking, stirring and straining!