Top Ten Essential Bottles For Your Home Bar
Okay so you want to start a home bar, now what? You want to have all of your favorite spirits, liqueurs, mixers and tools, but you don’t want to break the bank doing it. Here’s how to begin. If you’re currently beefing up your own home bar, I’d recommend reading our earlier post, Home Bar Essentials — All The Bar Tools You Need Plus Alternatives first. Go ahead and get the tools out of the way, then you can work on inventory.
Once you’ve squared away all the tools, it’s important to think about what type of bottle collection you’re looking for. Are you a whiskey nerd? Neighborhood entertainer? Cocktail enthusiast? Depending on who you’re making drinks for, your home bar can take on a variety of different themes. I’ve compiled a list of my top ten bottles for any home bar, with the goal of covering as many bases as possible. These bottles will give you a solid foundation so that no matter who you’re entertaining, you should be able to whip up something fun and creative, and build a more taste-specific collection from there. Let’s get to it.
The Top Ten:
Tito’s Handmade Vodka ~ $20 / 750ml
I know, I know. Boring, right? The fact is, Tito’s is trusted by and ordered by more vodka drinkers than any brand currently on the market. This is in part to their marketing the vodka as “gluten free” right when that trend started to pick up speed a decade ago. Nevermind the fact that all spirits are gluten free — as the gluten is lost in the distillation process — people still lean on Tito’s as a clean, pure vodka at a value. Tito’s is a workhorse vodka that does just as well in a martini as it does with soda and a lime.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ~ $23 / 750ml
The namesake bourbon from the world’s most award-winning distillery, you just can’t go wrong with Buffalo Trace. Sporting a mash bill that has a low rye content and an estimated age statement of 8-10 years, this bourbon is an extremely drinkable crowd-pleaser. Great in Old Fashioneds, Whiskey Sours, or on the rocks — and it’ll suffice in a Manhattan if there’s no rye around. This is my go-to rocks order at most bars and it’s an absolute value to keep in your home bar.
Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin ~ $23 / 750ml
If you’ve only got one bottle of gin, you’ll want something that’s dry but also packing a botanical backbone. Bombay Sapphire is my choice for your one stop shop gin. Fantastic in a G&T, dry enough for a Dry Martini, and not overpowering in a Negroni. Bombay’s famous blue bottle also looks great on the shelf.
PS – Be sure to get Bombay Sapphire and not Bombay Dry, which comes in a clear bottle.
Havana Club Añejo Blanco Puerto Rican Rum ~ $20 / 750ml
I love Havana Club’s Añejo Blanco because it’s a white rum with a bit of age on it. With notes of pineapple, banana, vanilla and oak, it adds depth to a mojito or a daiquiri and punches above its weight at $20 a bottle. A good white rum should taste clean and crisp, without a harsh finish. This one does just that.
History – Wait, “Havana Club” Puerto Rican rum? Yep. Originally created in Havana in 1936, the brand was nationalized after la revolucíon in 1959 and was subsequently purchased in 1994 by Bacardi and is now made in Puerto Rico but retains its original Cuban recipe.
Don Julio Reposado Tequila ~ $55 / 750ml
This is one you’ll have to splurge a bit on, but hear me out. There are plenty of quality reposado tequilas that come in at lower price points and will make a fine Margarita, but if you want one bottle that is great for sipping and mixing, it’s Don Julio. The master, Don Julio himself still oversees planting and harvesting of the Blue Agave in the highlands of Jalisco and that quality and love is there for you to taste.
PS – Beware of newer “socialite” tequilas on the market (looking at you, Casamigos and Clase Azul) which may be trendy orders at the bar but taste a bit too much like vanilla and residual sugar. Also, if you’re only looking to pound margs and don’t care to sip your tequila, El Jimador makes a reposado that is delicioso and much easier on the wallet.
Aperol Aperitivo ~ $20 / 750ml
If you know Aperol at all, you probably know it from the Aperol Spritz, that famous drink Romans sip languidly during the Golden Hour in the piazzas and terraces of the Italian capital. While the Spritz is an amazing and simple cocktail, Aperol itself has far more uses than just mixing with Prosecco. It finds its way into many of the modern classics we know and love (the Paper Plane, Naked & Famous, and Joan Rivers to name a few) but it can also be substituted for Campari in drinks like the Negroni as a less bitter little brother. I reach for Aperol whenever I want a citrusy, bitter, orangey flavor to balance sweetness or add complexity to a cocktail. It plays extremely well with gin, but its versatility allows it to go well with almost anything — from whiskey to mezcal, as the aforementioned cocktails show. A favorite easy combination of mine is Aperol, vodka, and lemon. Shake the three together in whichever formula you’d like and enjoy the refreshing, slightly sweet balance of bitter/booze/citrus.
St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur ~ $25 / 750ml
Dubbed “Bar Tender’s Ketchup” by many of us behind the stick, St. Germain is often teased for being overly sweet and something you can add to almost anything to make the drink better. It’s seen by some bartenders as a cheat or bandaid in cocktails, but the bottom line is, it’s damn delicious. The floral liqueur just absolutely sings with gin, prosecco, vodka, anything effervescent, herbs, citrus, etc. It’s best used in .25 oz increments, as you don’t want it to become the star of the show, which it certainly wants to do. Try a splash early in the afternoon in your bubbly with a lemon peel and shake it later on with some gin, grapefruit and basil. Total bonus that the ornate bottle looks killer and can be repurposed when it’s empty as a candle or infusion bottle for cool at-home experiments!
Amaro Lucano ~ $29 / 750ml
The word amaro in Italian means bitter, so right out of the gate you know how this entire class of digestifs are going to taste. Amaro (plural, amari) can range from sweet with a background bitterness, to bitter as hell with citrusy spicy notes, to bitter with alpine and coniferous flavors. It is as wide ranged and varied as the country of Italy itself, with amari in the North tasting differently than Sicilian amari in the South and a wide swath of flavor profiles in between. I chose to suggest Amaro Lucano because to me it is the perfect balance of bitter, sweet, herbaceous, and citrus. It has the body to darken and deepen cocktails like the Paper Plane (traditionally made with Amaro Nonino, which I find too light/sweet), while also serving as one of my favorite substitutes for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan or Negroni (or Mezcal Negroni!). Many Italians enjoy amari with soda water and a peel of citrus or as a digestive after dinner to sooth the stomach. It is versatile, palette-cleansing, and complex and will only add an interesting depth to your home bar. Have fun buying and tasting the different amari you can find and see which of the exotic flavor profiles you like best!
Cointreau ~ $30 / 750ml
Every good home bar needs a quality orange liqueur, whether it be for Sidecars or Cosmos or Margaritas. Orange liqueur or Triple Sec is going to pop up in many a classic and modern classic recipe book, so it’s good to have one on hand. Cointreau is my choice for quality, flavor, and availability – its clear color also lends to the perfect bubble gum pink Cosmo, and it’s not too sweet or too cognac-heavy as Dry Curaçao or Grand Marnier can be.
Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth ~ $27 / 750ml
Antica, as bartenders refer to it, is the oldest sweet vermouth recipe in the world, dating back to 1786 in Turin, Italy. The dark bottle, dusty brown label and bright red cap immediately signify quality vermouth (as long as it’s refrigerated!) to those in the know. This vermouth is a favorite of mine not only for its complex flavor profile and delicate chocolatey notes, but for the bass it adds to cocktails. Carpano Antica Formula seems to thicken drinks that taste too thin or watery. It makes a luxurious, velvety Manhattan when paired with a great rye and adds herbal depth to a Negroni or Boulevardier. Try it with soda water, a slice of orange and an olive for a low-ABV sipper. You’re gonna love this stuff.
PS – AGAIN, be sure to refrigerate your vermouth; sweet, dry, blanc, all of it. It is fortified wine and will spoil at room temperature once opened (this is probably why you think you don’t like dry vermouth in your martinis).
PSS – Antica is also available many places in 375ml sizes, if you can’t fit the full size bottle in the fridge.
The title “Top Ten Bottles” sounds nice, so I stuck with it, but the truth is you’ll need a few more little things before you’re ready to rock…
Angostura Bitters ~ $10 / 4oz
Wanna make an Old Fashioned? You need “Ango”. Wanna make a Manhattan? Yep, Ango. How about a Champagne Cocktail? You guessed it. Angostura is the king of bitters and there really is no substitute. It’s the bitters all others are measured against. In addition to being used in myriad cocktails, it’s also great for an upset stomach — a few dashes in some ginger beer or ale along with a squeeze of lime and you’ll be back at it in no time.
PS – Feeling adventurous? Try out this bartender favorite cocktail that calls for a over an ounce of Angostura bitters: The Trinidad Sour
Luxardo Cherries ~ $20 / 12.7oz
Those delicious, dark, syrupy cherries you get at your favorite cocktail bar have a name and are attainable for your home bar. Most cocktail bars use the industry standard, Luxardo, but some go for a cheaper and just as good alternative, the Amarena cherry. Both are expensive, as cherries go, but necessary as quality garnishes for some of the cocktail world’s most loved drinks. Try not to binge and eat them all at once!
Demerara Sugar Cubes ~ $6 / 1.5oz
Demerara, the unrefined, raw sugar originally came from a historical colony of the same name in the Guyana area of South America. It is brown in color with a richer, more distinctive molasses flavor than normal white sugar. Demerara sugar is the historically-accurate sugar to use in most classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned or Champagne Cocktail. Turbinado or other unrefined sugars are just fine, too.
PS – boil Demerara down 2:1 in a pot with filtered water, i.e. 2 cups Demerara, 1 cup water to create a “Rich” Simple Syrup that can be a more mixable, easier sugar to use in your Old Fashioneds and other cocktails. I find that .25oz of Rich Simple is perfect in an Old Fashioned.
There are a few other optional items to consider for your home bar, such as Peychaud’s Bitters, Orange Bitters, Agave Syrup, (this doesn’t include oranges, lemons and limes, which are essential) etc., so feel free to pick up as much as you’re comfortable with! If you feel that we’ve left out something important, let me know and maybe I’ll add it in!
Cheers, and happy shaking!