I get asked this a lot: “Will you help me set up my own home bar?”
Yes. Yes, I will.
If you’re just starting out and really don’t know much about booze or mixing drinks, this Home Bar 101 article is meant for you! I’m going to go over the standard 5 bottles of Hard Stuff you should have, plus a few extra bottles of Mixers you should add in for mixology coverage.
Before I dive into these, a quick note on what you DON’T need when starting out:
- You don’t need flavored vodka.
- You don’t need Scotch whiskey nor Irish whiskey.
- You don’t need Chambord nor POM.
- You don’t need Absinthe.
You need the basics. You can branch out later.
The below list contains the Five Basic Bottles of Booze you should have if you can only have ONE bottle of each in your house. These aren’t going be the cheapest, but they will be outstanding!
#1: Whiskey – Buffalo Trace or Four Roses
No, I do NOT recommend you go hunt down a bottle of Rendezvous Rye for your first foray into Home Bar-ownership. It’s not universal and, as I mentioned, if you mix that booze, I will track you down and cut you.
Head for your local boozerie and get a bottle of Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon. Buffalo Trace is mixable, but stands tall on its own. It is most definitely the best bottle of whiskey you can get for under $24.
If you can afford to pay just a bit more, get Four Roses Small Batch or Single Barrel. They’re more complex but oh so smooth.
All the Scotch Whiskey drinkers I know enjoy Four Roses and Buffalo Trace. Worry about expensive whiskeys like Scotch Whiskey later. I quote Sterling Archer:
Hey, Scotch whiskey fans. You know they invented Bourbon, right?
#2: Rum – Mount Gay Silver
Normally, I’d tell you to go black, or go home when it comes to rum. No, I don’t mean “dark” I mean BLACK. However, for the starter bar, you need silver/white/clear/blanco. It’s much more user friendly and more often used in cocktails.
Steer clear of the Captain and snub Bacardi here. You want Mount Gay Silver or Appleton White. While being clear rums and therefore more approachable, both have those distinctive tastes that make rum… RUM.
#3: Tequila – Tequila 1921
As noted in my Tequila 101 post, the only true Tequila is clear Tequila. That said, you still have scads and tons of white/silver/blanco/platina Tequilas to choose from. …stop shouting “Patron!” I can hear you. And I’m ignoring you.
Under normal circumstances, I advise that folks should avoid funny little bottles. You wind up paying for the bottle and not what’s inside. *cough*CrystalHeadVodka*cough* But let’s face it, most Tequilas come in funny little bottles. And my recommendation is no exception. You want Tequila 1921. It’s the same just a tad more expensive than as Patron, but higher quality. Can’t find 1921? Grab Don Julio. It should be $5 cheaper, is nearly as good, and is GREAT in Margaritas.
#4: Gin – Plymouth Gin
Plymouth Gin is the very definition of what Gin should be while still being on the neutral side. You want Plymouth Gin. Period.
“But Booze Guru,” you cry, “I’m already spending so much on the other stuff! Can’t you recommend something cheaper?” Yes, I can.
For $5 to $10 less, get yourself some Aviation Gin. This stuff is quickly becoming my favorite and may surpass Plymouth Gin in a matter of months. Like Plymouth, Aviation is stingy in its application of juniper, making it neutral; however, it’s a tad floral. This makes it perfect for Fizzes, The Martini Variations, The Bramble, my own Portland Polar Bear, and the classic French 75.
Or, can halve the cost by upping the citrus: New Amsterdam Gin. I’m dead serious. It’s a bit too citrusy for a very dry Martini, but for proper Martinis, Gin & Tonics, Rickeys, and Vespers, it’s PERFECT.
#5: Vodka – Jewel of Russia Classic
I’m not a fan of most Vodkas because they are so neutral they smell like disinfectant. Of course, Vodka is supposed to be neutral… it’s supposed to disappear into whatever drink you mix it into. But I like booze that announces its presence. If you agree with me, you want Jewel of Russia Classic. Jewel of Russia Classic is the Best Vodka on the Planet. (FYI: Jewel of Russia makes the best Burnt Martini you’ll ever have.)
If you disagree with me and want a very neutral Vodka, you want Green Mark Vodka. This stuff is so neutral that it will completely disappear into whatever drink you’re making. Green Mark is the very definition of “Plays Well With Others.” (Plus, it’s easy to find and about one-quarter the cost of Jewel of Russia.)
Mixers & Liqueurs
Here are a few other basics you should have to round out your newly established home bar:
- Triple Sec – Necessary for a Sunrise, a Sidecar, and a Margarita.
- Dry Vermouth – Necessary for a Gibson, a Martini, and a Kangaroo.
- Sweet Vermouth – Necessary for a Rob Roy, a Brooklyn, and a Manhattan.
- Tonic Water – Splurge for Fever Tree. If not, go classic: Schweppes.
- Bitters – Orange, Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Amargo Chuncho (think Angostura, but with notes of cherry) are all solid choices for your bar. Pick one, and expand when you can.
- Grenadine – It pops up now and then. Just please: refrigerate when not in use!
Strive to always have these around, especially when entertaining:
- Maraschino Cherries
- Queen Olives
- Lemons & Limes
This should launch you into a solid start at setting up your own home bar. You can start adding to it once you have the basics.
Looking for inexpensive alternatives to this list? Head over to Home Bar 101a for cheaper bottles when starting up your first home bar.
Stick around for Home Bar 102 – The Hardware. Luckily, you only have to buy most of this stuff just once!
Note: The Hard Stuff & Mixers I’ve listed here can all be found at BevMo. You’re welcome!