Building Your Bar
Stocking a bar that can make cocktails can be overwhelming, and expensive. This page outlines the essential bottles you need to build a solid foundation. You can also find a lot of this introductory information about spirits and other liquor on the Liquor Guide page, which is still under construction. In the coming months, I'll be adding individual pages for each spirit category with more details and brand recommendations to help you navigate the liquor store.
The 10 Must Have Bottles
The key to building a bar, particularly one from scratch, is to buy efficiently and affordably. Many cocktail recipes have overlapping ingredients, particularly classics. So you can cover a lot of ground with just a few bottles.
These 10 are called for in recipes again and again. They will serve as the core foundation of your bar.
1. Rye or Bourbon Whiskey
Whiskey is perhaps the king of all cocktail spirits, or maybe it's just my favorite. While there are several delicious categories of whiskey - Scotch, Irish, Canadian, etc. - for cocktails you generally want American whiskey. This means either bourbon or rye.
Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn, which is a sweeter grain, so the resulting whiskey is a bit mellower and rounder. On the other hand, rye is made with at least 51% rye, which makes a whiskey that's sharper, spicier and drier. Both are excellent in cocktails, just different. Whichever you choose is purely a matter of personal preference. Or if you’re like me, you’ll get one of each.
High West Double Rye
Wild Turkey Rye 101
Russell’s Reserve 6
A spirit, aka hard liquor, is a fermented beverage that has been distilled to at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). For example, when beer and wine are distilled they become whiskey and brandy, respectively. Spirits are used in cocktails in the largest quantities, which is why they’re also sometimes referred to as “base spirits”. There are many different spirit categories, but the majority of cocktail recipes contain one of just five: whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, and vodka.
Most of these categories also contain multiple sub-categories or styles. For example, bourbon and Scotch are both kinds of whiskey (among many others) and there are white and aged style rums. The specific types of spirits I've listed below are what I recommend getting first.
Bonded Evan Williams - 100 Proof
Old Forester Signature, 100 Proof
Four Roses Single Barrel
Henry McKenna Single Barrel
2. London Dry Gin
Gin is one of the most versatile cocktail spirits. It mixes well with just about anything. Gin is made by infusing a neutral spirit with a variety of botanicals, most prominently juniper berries, which have a bright pine needle-like aroma (so, gin is basically a flavored vodka).
The gin category is evolving quite a bit these days and there are a lot of new styles emerging, but a traditional London dry gin is the best place to start. These are the crisp, clean, juniper-forward gins that you’re probably most familiar with and what you generally get any time you order a Gin & Tonic.
4. Blanco Tequila
Tequila is made from the agave plant which looks like a cactus but is actually a relative of asparagus. I strongly recommend getting tequila that is labeled 100% agave, which means the only ingredient is agave. If it doesn't say 100%, it’s a "mixto", and has been cut with a non-agave distillate. These also often have artificial flavorings. Many of the largest and most visible brands are mixtos.
A quality tequila's flavors can range from fruity to herbaceous to vegetal to earthy, but they should all possess qualities of roasted and caramelized agave. When a tequila is aged in oak, it can be called a reposado (rested) or añejo (aged) tequila, but an unaged white or “blanco" tequila is what you should get first. It’s what you’ll use in Margaritas.
3. White Rum
Rum is the most diverse, unregulated and underappreciated spirit category. It is made from sugar cane, usually in molasses form. Styles range from clean and light to smooth and rich to earthy and funky and everywhere in between. While I definitely encourage you to explore them all, it's best to start with a white rum, which is what you’ll use in a Daiquri, Mojito and Rum & Coke.
Frustratingly, good white rum can be somewhat elusive. The most popular and best-circulated rum brands are designed to taste more neutral to target a broader audience. A good white rum should always retain some fruit and spice flavors derived from the sugar cane. They're out there, but are more common at boutique liquor stores.
Plantation 3 Star
Flor de Caña 4
El Dorado 3
Vodka is a neutral spirit with no specific or added flavor (that's excluding flavored vodkas of course). It can be made from any agricultural product, but the most common is grain. Because of its neutrality, vodka will take whatever flavor you add to it, making it the most adaptable spirit in cocktails. While I personally don’t use it as much, vodka is one of the most popular spirits in the world, and an important addition to any bar. The general rule is that any cocktail that has gin will work great with vodka.
You don’t need to shell out extra cash for premium vodka for cocktails, though marketing has successfully convinced people otherwise. These brands are not as widely circulated and all quite good, but the Smirnoff's and Stolis of the world are perfectly solid and affordable options.
Modifiers & Bitters
Modifier is a term coined by bartenders that refers to an ingredient used as a secondary flavor in a cocktail, in support of the base spirit. They are usually a lower proof, but not always, and are typically either wine-based (vermouth), or spirit based (liqueur). They encompass an exceptionally wide array of different products, but the 4 bottles listed here have the broadest applications.
Bitters are an intensely concentrated infusion of herbs, roots and other botanicals. They are usually alcohol-based, though some are glycerin-based. I think of bitters like cooking spices; they are used in small quantities to enhance and deepen other flavors, not to be the primary one.
Where to Buy Bitters?
A little tip on shopping for bitters; because they are classified as a food product and not an alcoholic one, in most states they cannot be sold in a liquor store. You'll find them in the grocery store, usually around the spices and condiments, not a liquor store. Or just buy them online. Links are below.
Recommended brands: The big three vermouth brands, Martini & Rossi, Noilly Prat and Cinzano, each make sweet and dry, and all are totally solid. I personally would go with Cinzano for sweet and Noilly Prat for dry, if you have options. But outside of those, there are lot more diverse and complex vermouths available nowadays, particularly in the sweet category. I highly recommend one of these if you can find them:
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Del Professore Rosso
Cardamaro - Technically not a vermouth. But mixes like one.
6 & 7. Sweet & Dry Vermouth
Vermouth is a wine that has been both fortified - meaning a little spirit is added - and aromatized - meaning it’s been infused with a variety of herbs, roots and other botanicals. Sweet and dry vermouths are both made from a base of white wine. Sweet vermouth has caramelized sugar added which gives it a reddish brown color, in addition to supplying sweetness. Dry vermouth is clear, has less sugar added, and fewer botanical flavors overall. So in addition to being less sweet, dry vermouth is also milder and, for lack or a better word, "winier".
You need vermouth to make Manhattans, Martinis and Negronis. It's hard to make a better case than that for including something in your bar.
8. Cointreau, or another orange liqueur
Broadly speaking, liqueurs are spirit based modifiers that are sweetened and flavored with a wide array of herbs, fruits, flowers, roots, nuts and even cream. They generally won't spoil like vermouth unless something perishable is added.
If you have one liqueur, it should be an orange liqueur, aka curaçao or triple sec - they are all variations on the same theme. It is a pivotal ingredient in indispensable classics like the Margarita, Side Car, Mai Tai and Cosmopolitan. I generally swear by Cointreau for its bright, clean orange flavor. Other great orange options are Combier, Gran Marnier and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao.
A bitter liqueur is simply a liqueur with some kind of bittering agent added. Many of them come from Italy, where they are called amari (plural for amaro). While bitterness is not the most widely appreciated flavor - especially in the United States - it is well worth acquiring a taste for, in drinks anyway. Bitter liqueurs - which are really better described as bittersweet - bring another dimension to cocktails of captivating depth and complexity.
While there are many wonderful options available, the flagship bitter liqueur would have to be Campari, primarily because it is a keystone ingredient in the flagship the bitter cocktail: the Negroni. But if you find Campari to be too in-your-face, and some do, try Aperol instead. It has some more fruit flavors, the same level of sweetness, with about half the bitterness.
**Note: Vermouth should be refrigerated after opening!
Vermouth should still be considered a wine. Even though it has some spirit added, there isn't enough to fully stabilize it. Don't worry, that bottle of vermouth that's been sitting on your shelf for the last ten years isn't going to hurt you; it's just oxidized and won’t taste as fresh. So keep vermouth in the fridge. Your Martinis will thank you.
10. Angostura Bitters
If you only have one bottle of bitters, make it Angostura. They are essential in Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. Angostura is a brand, not a style. They made in Trinidad and are a type of aromatics bitters that feature earthy baking spices, particularly clove, along with loftier aromas like citrus peel and vanilla, capped off with a distinct bitterness courtesy of gentian. They are the most versatile and, thankfully, most available bitters around. You can't miss them in the store, with their bright yellow cap and an over-sized white label. In keeping with my analogy above, if bitters are like cooking spices, then Angostura is the salt.
The Next Bottles to Buy
Once you've built a solid bar foundation you can expand upon it in whatever direction you desire. Here’s a list of items you might want to consider for your next tier.
Cognac, or another Aged Grape Brandy
Brandy is distilled fermented fruit, aka wine. Naturally, grapes are the most common base. While just about every country makes their own national version of brandy, Cognac, which is a brandy that can only be made in the Cognac region of France, is generally the most reliable option for cocktails. Sometimes it is even specifically called for, such as in the Side Car, one of my favorites. The bad news is it is more expensive, but the good news is the entry-level priced bottlings from any of the major brands, which will be labeled "VS" or "VSOP", will usually work just fine.
Brandy made from apples, as you might imagine. There are two basic styles: Calvados, which can only be made in the Calvados region of France, and American apple brandy, which is also sometimes referred to as applejack. Calvados is more like a true a brandy. It is round, soft, subtle and fruity. American apple brandy behaves more like a whiskey; sharper and more aggressive. I use American apple brandy more in cocktails because of its assertiveness. Laird's 100 proof is my go-to.
Mezcal is the wild, fascinating and recently trending parent of tequila. It can be made using any species of agave, as opposed to just one, as with tequila. Flavor-wise, the main difference between the two is mezcal is distinctively smoky, which comes from the agaves being cooked in earthen pits with hot rocks. But mezcal can also be sweet, floral, earthy, funky and fruity, often all at once. Its eclecticism is enchanting. For cocktails, Del Maguey's Vida is a common choice by bars and very affordable.
Aged rum is an extremely broad term referring to any rum that has spent time in a barrel and/or has some color. They’re often identified by shade, i.e. gold rum, amber rum, dark rum. Generally, whenever a cocktail calls broadly for aged rum I go with an amber color rum like Diplomatico or even Bacardi 8. You may also want to check out Jamaican rum, which is known for its heavier and more robust style. Jamaican rum is the base of the Mai Tai. Appleton Signature or Reserve is a good place to start.
Absinthe is a spirit infused with botanicals, similar to gin. Its primary flavor is anise, or what many of us associate with licorice, and it is quite potent, typically around 55% ABV. Because of this, absinthe is often used in smaller doses in cocktails, so as not to overwhelm other flavors. It plays a key role in several of my favorite classic drinks, including the Sazerac, Corpse Reviver #2, and Improved Whiskey Cocktail. The infamous green color traditionally comes from the addition of green anise, mint, spinach and no, it will not make you hallucinate. Absinthe has been legal in the U.S. since 2007. Pernod and Vieux Pontarlier are two of my favorite brands.
Modifiers are an area where you can really diversify your bar. They are much cheaper than spirits and very versatile. Plus, they are generally used in smaller quantities so one bottle will last awhile.
A Tip: Look for Smaller Bottles
Many of these are available in smaller 375 milliliter bottles. I highly recommend these. It’ll save you cabinet space and money allowing you to expand your bar more.
Lillet or Cocchi Americano - These are fortified and aromatized wines that are similar to vermouth but not technically in the same category. They are lighter and brighter than typical vermouths, with more fruit and citrus flavors. Cocchi has a bit more bitterness on the finish. They are needed to make James Bond’s Vesper cocktail and a Corpse Reviver #2. You can read more details about them here.
White Vermouth (aka Blanc Vermouth)
This is a lesser known vermouth style that is clear like dry vermouth, but with added sugar, so it's sweet, but much lighter and not as earthy as sweet vermouth. It makes for an excellent twist on a Martini or Negroni. I recommend Dolin Blanc.
A Darker Amaro or Bitter Liqueur
While Campari is the most widely known, it is on the brighter side for a bitter liqueur and more in the lighter "aperitivo" style. Traditional amaros are much darker and cover a range of earthy, herbaceous and medicinal qualities. These have endless cocktail applications and possibilities. There are so many, a few of my favorites are Cynar, Ramazzotti, Braulio and Fernet Branca. For more on amaro check out Brad Thomas Parson's awesome book, Amaro.
To be clear, this has no relation to the nuclear red cherry juice from the jar, though it is cherry flavored. Maraschino is an Italian liqueur (they pronounce it mara-SKee-no) made from maraska cherries. Not only are they used as the flavoring agent, but they are also distilled along with their pits and stems to serve as the spirit base of the liqueur, which is very unusual. Luxardo makes one of the most available and best brands. It has a sharp, pungent cherry flavor that's certainly sweet but not at all cloying. Maraschino is a key ingredient in some of my favorite classics like the Last Word, Hemingway Daiquiri and Aviation .
Green Chartreuse/Yellow Chartreuse
Chartreuse is an intense French herbal liqueur made by the Carthusian monks. There are two common varieties: yellow and green, which have corresponding colored lables. Green is much more potent at 55% ABV and medical vegetal flavors that come on very strong, even in small quantities. The yellow is lower proof, though still high at 40% ABV, and comes off a bit sweeter. It blends more seamlessly with other ingredients. Both have their uses, and though I usually go with green. It's in one of my favorite Manhattan variations, the Greenpoint, as well as the Last Word, a great Side Car variation called the Champs Elysees. and the high octane Widow's Kiss.
Another classic French herbal liqueur that’s made by monks, supposedly. It has high proof at 40% ABV, but drinks very smoothly with notes of honey, cardamom, and clove among other baking spices. Benedictine factors prominently in some of my favorite classics including the Singapore Sling, Vieux Carre, and Rolls Royce. You can read more about Benedictine here.
If Angostura bitters are salt, then orange bitters are pepper. I consider them to be practically essential in an Old Fashioned. Most bitters lines make an orange, and they’re all solid. I like Bitter Truth’s the best, or a mixture of equal parts Fee’s and Regan’s, which is what many cocktail bars do.
This is a very old bitters brand from New Orleans. It is technically an aromatic style bitters like Angostura, but much brighter, with notes of citrus and a hint of anise. The main reason to pick up a bottle of Peychaud’s bitters is so you can make a proper Sazerac. Do you need a second reason?
"Baking Spice" Bitters, aka Aromatic Bitters
Aromatic bitters are a style of bitters. While Angostura and Peychaud’s are technically aromatic bitters, both are such classic and iconic brands I think of them each as their own category.
Aromatic bitters made by most other bitters companies follow a more standard model. They tend to be darker with prominent baking spice flavors, particularly cinnamon. One of these is great to have around, particularly in the fall and winter. I use them in several recipes on the Holidays page. I like to use a few drops of them in a classic Old Fashioned as well. On the recipe pages I refer to them as "Baking Spice Bitters", which is an entirely made up term. Here are my preferred bottles, along with purchasing links:
What You Can Make with These:
With these 10 bottles plus some lemons, limes, sugar and soda water, you can make a Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, Negroni, Gimlet, Tom Collins, Margarita, Daiquiri, and Whiskey Sour. Throw some mint and you can add a Mojito, Mint Julep and Southside to the list, and that’s just scratching the surface.
6. Sweet Vermouth
7. Dry Vermouth
8. Cointreau or another orange liqueur
10. Angostura Bitters
1. Bourbon or Rye Whiskey
3. White Rum
4. Blanco Tequila
Once you've established a solid bar foundation, you can then start to add to your bar based on your tastes. Some ideas for what you might want to consider pick up next are further down the page.
You Don’t Need to Buy Top Shelf Booze.
When shopping for bottles, think of the liquor in a cocktail as just another ingredient, like the flour in baking. You just need functionality. Not luxury. Other factors like measuring accurately, using fresh citrus juice, and understanding chilling and dilution will have a much bigger impact on a cocktail than a $40 bottle of bourbon over a $20 one.
Below, along with brief definitions of each liquor category, are a few of my favorite brands at reasonable price points, plus a few higher end options that are worth the extra splurge at the bottom of each list.