When starting my home bartending journey, I had no idea what I needed to purchase. I used to roam around the liquor store and pick up unfamiliar bottles that sounded interesting, which is why I have random bottles of Midori and Frangelico that both collect dust in the corner. After a while of tinkering on my own, I purchased the infamous Death and Co cocktail book and started collecting a bunch of their recommended bottles. But in hindsight, their list was long and daunting and I still felt a little lost. It would’ve been so much easier if the list was short but enough to get my feet wet in mixing some interesting drinks. If you’re thinking about starting a home bar but overwhelmed by the long lists of recommended bottles out there, you’re in the right place.
Here, I’ve curated a small list of my most used base spirits and modifiers. If I had to start collecting alcohol from scratch again, I would choose these 13 and will be able to make a variety of decent cocktails. They aren’t the cheapest options, but since you’re already putting in the time and energy to create craft cocktails, you might as well go with the ones that blend well and have great flavor. Most of these bottles are in the $20-$40 range with the exception of Green Chartreuse (around $60). I also didn’t include the most expensive whiskeys and tequilas because the subtle notes that set them apart are usually masked when combined in a cocktail, which is a waste if you ask me. Those are great for sipping on their own.
I’ve also left out some base spirits that I consider “intermediate” bases such as scotch, mezcal, brandy, and pisco. Not because they’re hard to mix with, but because they don’t appear as frequently in classic cocktail recipes as the others. From my experience, you can’t dive head first into creating your own cocktail recipes. You really need to figure out what a balanced drink tastes like, and consuming plenty of cocktails that have withstood the test of time will get you there. To help you get started on your cocktailing journey, I’ve also curated a list of classic cocktails you can make with these spirits. If you want a more in-depth tutorial on how to create cocktail recipes of your own, check out our post on how to balance a cocktail. Now let’s get shaking!
There are many varieties of whiskey: Irish, bourbon, rye, scotch, Japanese… but a good rye and bourbon can cover most whiskey cocktails. Rye is harsher and bourbon is sweeter, so we generally use rye when we don’t want our drinks to get too sweet and bourbon when we want most of the sugar content to come from the whiskey. For example, a drink made with bourbon and orgeat (nut syrup) might be overly sweet but replacing it with rye can balance it out.
- Rittenhouse Rye (a.)
- Belle Meade Bourbon (b.)
London dry gin and American gin have pretty different flavor profiles. London gins tend to have a sharper and harsher taste and rely heavily on juniper for the aroma whereas American gins are more rounded and less herbal. I tend to favor American gins for the more subtle notes of juniper which is why I’m suggesting St George’s Botanivore. It’s very easy to work with and doesn’t play bully when mixed with fresh fruits.
- St George Botanivore (c.)
Most tequila used in cocktails call for tequila blanco, the unaged variety. This is an exceptional tequila but feel free to experiment with other types. Tres Amigos and Don Julio are just as smooth. Just make sure to get the ones made from 100% agave.
- Tres Generaciones Blanco Tequila (d.)
Both of these are very reasonably priced. The Plantation 3 Stars makes an exceptional daiquiri.
- Plantation 3 Stars (e.) – light rum
- El Dorado 5 Year (f.) – dark rum
- Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (g.) – sweet liqueur made from maca cherries and the pits
- Green Chartreuse (h.) – an herbal liqueur made by monks in France
- Cointreau (i.) – sweet orange liqueur
- Aperol (j.) – moderately bitter orange liqueur
- Amaro CioCiaro (k.) – bitter sweet liqueur with herbal notes, Amaro Nonino is also a good one
- Angostura bitters (l.) – use sparingly or use a whole ounce in a drink like in the Trinidad Sour!
- Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (m.) – highly addictive, what a true maraschino cherry tastes like
- The Last Word (gin, Luxardo, Green Chartreuse, lime)
- Classic Margarita (tequila, Cointreau, lime, agave nectar, salt)
- Trinidad Sour (Angostura, rye whiskey, lemon, orgeat)
- Daquiri (light rum, lime, simple syrup)
- Whiskey Sour (bourbon, lemon, egg white, simple syrup, Luxardo maraschino cherry)
- New York Sour (bourbon, lemon, red wine, simple syrup, Luxardo maraschino cherry)
- Aperol Spritz (Aperol, champagne, soda)
- Old Fashioned (bourbon, raw sugar, orange peel, Luxardo maraschino cherry)
- Paper Plane (bourbon, amaro, Aperol, lemon)
- French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon)
- Queen’s Park Swizzle (dark rum, simple syrup, lime, mint, Angostura)
- Hemingway Daiquiri (white rum, Luxardo, grapefruit, lime, simple syrup)
And there you have it! Don’t forget to check out Tools for a Home Bar for a list of tools you’ll want if you’re making drinks at home.