The well-stocked home bar is a question of curation, not quantity: it’s not how many bottles or spirits you have, but which ones. The right selection and you’ll have a thousand transformative cocktails within reach. Go with a grab-bag of what came first-to-mind, and you'll have just a handful of cocktails you may have to live with for a long time.
The following bottles will give your home bar the greatest reach, and the most promising start!
How Much Does It Cost to Set Up a Home Bar?
Starting up any home bar, your first real question is how to balance affordability and reasonable quality. Spending somewhere between $200 and $350 could give you a semi-substantial bar, capable of pouring up more decent cocktails than you’d have friends to drink them. Investing $300 to $500 would put an entire world of cocktails within reach, with aged spirits, more characteristic vermouths, and an otherwise unimaginable array of modifiers to add richness, depth of flavor, and complexity.
While there is no need to go top-shelf, you’ll also want to aim for a higher-quality than your volume discount bottles. You’ll still be tasting them, after all, and they’ll pair more reliably with the other ingredients of any recipes you’re following.
Approximate cost: $120
- Gin: Begin with a classic London Dry like Beefeater or Tanqueray. It’s not only a standard, but a quality workhorse – as comfortable in craft cocktail bars as it is in an affordable home bar.
- Rum: Depending on your tastes, a light rum may be the most adaptable and best embody the classic Cuban-style rums of the 20th Century. Bacardi is still a reliable choice in the affordable-but-quality club, but you could also consider Jamaican-style rums like Appleton Estate or Smith & Cross.
- Bourbon or Rye Whiskeys: The rich, sweet taste of bourbon or the spicier, sharper taste of rye is necessary for any home bar. Ideally you’ll have a bottle that is affordable enough to use as a mixer but delicious enough to sip. This can be tricky and will vary by taste, but Elijah Craig and Bulleit bourbons are both reliable, as is Rittenhouse or Old Overholt rye.
- Tequila, ideally 100% agave: As much as any other core spirit, tequila quality varies significantly. An unaged, or blanco, style tequila will not only be most affordable, but best embody the magic of the agave plant. Espolon Blanco’s light body and low price tag is a great starter bottle.
- Brandy, perhaps the first “base spirit” in the world of cocktailing, is a world unto itself. From French cognacs to American applejacks, there’s a varied, complex, and delicious landscape one can spend a long time crossing (and enjoying). Hennessy VS Cognac is an affordable beginner brandy, and Remy Martin VSOP Cognac a still-better option, while Laird’s Apple Jack is a unique blend of apple brandy and a neutral grain spirit that’ll make drinks livelier and more complex.
Approximate cost: $50
- Sweet vermouth: One of the holy cocktail trinity (along with your base spirit and bitters), sweet vermouth is the indispensable bridge between the strength of your spirit and the sharpness of your bitters. Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth is a classic choice that will never fail you, but you shouldn’t sleep on Dolin’s Vermouth de Chambery Rouge (sweet red vermouth).
- Dry vermouth: With a comparable ability to balance strong alcohols with bitter modifiers, dry (or “French”) vermouths help anchor a cocktail on the lighter, drier (or less-sweet) side. Your most reliable place to start with dry vermouth would be Dolin’s Vermouth de Chambery Dry.
- Aperol: A bitter apéritif made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, Aperol adds brightness and complexity to cocktails. Less bitter and more sweet than Campari, Aperol can be refreshing and bracing at the same time, rounding out cocktails while providing a bright edge of taste.
Liqueurs / Modifiers
Approximate cost: $115
- Luxardo Maraschino: Just a dash of this cherry-flavored liqueur – distilled from the whole marasca cherry – transforms almost any cocktail, and with far more complexity than you might imagine.
- Cointreau (or other orange liqueur, like a dry curacao): Triple sec – a category of orange liqueur – magically bring 900+ cocktails within reach with an ability to balance sweetness, orange accents, and substance. Cointreau is the most reliable and desirable option.
- St-Germain: A lovely elderflower liqueur that’s more than earned its nickname as the “bartender’s ketchup”, St-Germain keeps harmony with most ingredients.
Approximate cost: $17
- Angostura bitters: There is no more commonly called-for component of your craft cocktails than the aromatic bitters of Angostura, perhaps the longest-surviving and most canonical company of its kind.
- Orange bitters: While Angostura itself produces fine orange bitters with notes of cinnamon and clove, the cardamom notes in Regan’s Orange Bitters are ideal for a terrific range of cocktails. Fee Brothers Orange Bitters are also a good choice.
Keeping Your Home Bar Organized
While you can’t be blamed for stocking your bar (or bar cart) for aesthetic beauty, you might want to avoid haphazard, willy-nilly placement.
Begin by placing like spirits next to one another, and when you’re building a cocktail you can easily find your needed ingredients. As your bar grows, those groups will only become more useful in keeping everything organized, as well as helping you think through variations.