Being able to mix an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, Margarita, Martini, or any of a thousand other cocktails on demand is a delicious prospect. You’re avoiding the sky-high bar prices of mixed drinks, practicing your own hospitality, looking cool while you shake intoxicating drinks in a shiny metal cup, and drinking something that tastes great. It makes fiscal, social, and aesthetic sense to invest in a well-stocked home bar.
So let’s get you started down that road. Stock up your bar cart and get entertaining. These are the essentials for every home bar.
Let’s start with the backbone of the bar cart: the liquor. The first rule of thumb is: Buy what you like. If you know you only like particular cocktails, keep the requisite spirits on your bar cart at all times. But, if you want to be a good host, keep a full and diverse lineup on hand. You’ll want bottles that are mid-range that you’d drink straight but wouldn’t feel bad about mixing. We have a few suggestions.
Purists out there will tell you certain cocktails can only be made with certain whiskeys (including us, at times), but you probably shouldn’t listen. Every whiskey cocktail can be made with every type of whiskey. As long as the whiskey itself is a solid pick, your cocktail will be delicious.
For bourbon, you have quite a few options. A bottle of Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark won’t do you wrong, nor will Bulleit or Redemption. If you go with Redemption, make it the high rye bourbon. Four Roses also has some solid offerings.
- Buffalo Trace Bourbon
- Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky
- Bulleit BourbonRedemption Straight High Rye Bourbon
- Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Rye’s a little more limited (though growing quickly). We recommend Rittenhouse. We sincerely believe Heaven Hill doesn’t know how good it is. If they did, they’d be charging more for their Pikesville Rye Whiskey. If you’re willing to splash around some coin, WhistlePig has some excellent rye too.
Irish whiskey options are expanding by the day. You could go with Jameson or Bushmills and not be wrong, and Powers just had a rebrand in a cool new bottle. Slane is around the same price and goes down smoother. West Cork Distillers are more expensive and rare but feature less straightforward flavors. Roe & Co. is extremely limited in distribution but well-worth the search. There are a dozen others we could name but won’t for the sake of the rest of this article’s word count.
- Jameson Irish Whiskey
- Bushmills Irish Whiskey
- Powers Irish Whiskey
- Slane Irish Whiskey
- West Cork Original Irish Whiskey
- Roe & Co. Blended Irish Whiskey
Scotch is trickier because purists will double down and protest that tradition dictates that you not mix scotch. Stay strong. Keep ignoring them. Jura’s offerings are on the pricier side, but the peat is dialed down and accentuates instead of dominates a cocktail. Glendronach also has some excellent offerings that are relatively available stateside.
- Jura 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch
- The GlenDronach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Original Aged 12 Years
Gin is straightforward. Aviation is a solid bet and not just because Ryan Reynolds said so. If you want to spend a little more, we’ve started mixing with Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. It’s sweet and doesn’t come with the harshness that puts people off other gins.
Tito’s won’t hurt you in anything but the hungover ways, but Stateside in Philly is making vodka that genuinely surprised us in both taste and price. If it’s in your area, have a bottle on hand for your weird friends who don’t drink whiskey or those weird nights where you don’t either.
Captain Morgan and Bacardi always seem to be in arm’s reach at the liquor store. Grab them if you want. If you want to dig a little for something unexpected, try Don Q Cristal rum for clear and Baron Samedi for spiced. Both of the latter are higher-quality alternatives.
- Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum
- BACARDÍ Superior White Rum
- Don Q Rum Cristal
- The Baron Samedi Spiced Rum
Round out your liquor cabinet with a reliable tequila and/or a bottle of mezcal. Espolón Blanco absolutely fits the bill. It’s at about the same price point as most of our other spirit picks and the award-winning flavor profile is exactly what you’d want for a night of responsible margarita consumption. Additionally, Madre Mezcal makes some of the most accessible, cocktail-worthy mezcals around.
It’s not technically a spirit, but you’re also going to need sweet and dry vermouth. You can’t make a Manhattan or martini without it. But, remember, once you open a bottle, store it in the fridge, not on your bar cart.
- Martini & Rossi Rosso Sweet Vermouth
- Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambery
- Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino
- Lo-Fi Aperitifs Dry Vermouth
From today on, please don’t pay any more money for bottled simple syrup. It’s wildly overpriced and tastes manufactured. Take ten minutes and make it yourself. You can infuse it with literally anything you want. Steep herbs, spices, fruit peels, or whatever else in the mix for an easy way to change up the flavors of your cocktail. Or switch out the sugar for honey or maple syrup. Just remember to keep things roughly at a 1:1 ratio and don’t let it boil. If you want a thicker syrup, leave it on a low heat for a little to condense it down. It’ll also thicken up as it cools.
Simple Syrup Recipe: Add equal parts sugar and water to a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until fully sugar is fully dissolved. Let cool and then pour into an airtight container like a mason jar. Keep refrigerated.
Bitters are similarly easy to make at home and come with roughly the same kind of freedom. Find a base recipe, then customize for your favorite flavors. Orange bitters are super easy to make at home and you can make a respectable Angostura with the right infusion. If you’re going homemade, you’ll notice the recipe says to use the highest proof alcohol you can find, specifically calling out Everclear. We tried that and the result was an unpleasantly harsh burn that we couldn’t mask no matter what we were mixing. We tried the same infusion with 100 proof vodka and ended up with a delicious, aromatic addition to every drink, which is the whole point of bitters.
But, there’s nothing wrong with going store-bought either. Look for Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6, the good old mainstay Angostura Aromatic Bitters, and Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters. Those should cover almost everything you’ll want in the near future.
Liqueurs are one of those bar essentials that sneak up on us. We think we’re stocked up and ready to make anything, then we find out whatever we were craving needs something we never considered. Like how we consistently forget Margaritas have triple sec in them. So definitely get a bottle of triple sec. Along with bottles of elderflower and coffee liqueurs. Maybe a bottle of Bénédictine, just in case.
- L’Original Combier Liqueur d’Orange
- St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
- Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liquor
- BÉNÉDICTINE D.O.M. Liqueur
Essential Mixers & Garnishes
Oranges, lemons, and limes are your most reliable allies. Virtually every major cocktail requires juice or a peel from one of the three. It might save some effort if you go on a peeling and juicing spree. Buy a couple of pounds of each, get a quality juicer, and make an afternoon of it. You can freeze your juice and peels to have plenty ready for whenever you need them.
Essential Equipment & Glassware
Buying everything is work. Mixing everything is fun. But there are two last things you potentially need to buy before you can get to the fun.
Depending on your venue, the Elite Mixology Bartender Kit and MOFADO Crystal Cocktail Mixing Glass Set are two excellent barware choices for aspiring mixologists. The former is an attractive and practical adornment for your bar cart. The latter is a handsome portable kit that turns tailgates, campsites, vacation rentals, and really any location that isn’t your house into a fully equipped bar.
Finally, you need something to pour it all in. We have full breakdowns of bar glassware elsewhere on the site, so look at those for recommendations for specific styles. But the truth is that if the cocktail’s well made, it’ll taste great no matter what it’s in. With that in mind, as long as you have a good set of tumblers, your guests will be happy.