What are the most essential spirits you need to start a home bar with? The world of alcohol being so wide and vast, that is certainly a daunting question for those just starting out.
Looking at the myriad of options out there can easily confuse and paralyze your purchasing decisions. From gins to rums, whiskies to vodkas, it seems like there are just too many choices, and even within each category, you’ll find so many sub-categories and variations that it’s simply mind-boggling. And don’t even get us started on mixers, bitters and liqueurs.
Thing is, the joy of owning a home bar means that it’s entirely up to you what you want to stock up on. Buy only what you love to drink and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (us included!).
However, if you’re looking for tips on what spirits you need to cover the most bases, then read on. Owning these following five spirits means most classic cocktails will become available to you. Granted, you’ll still need modifiers and other ingredients, but the spirit is the most crucial element to consider. So start with these ones.
No bar is complete without whisky (or whiskey as well, if you’re a stickler for semantics). It’s the one distilled spirit that many actually enjoy drinking neat. Whisky also has such broad scope that one variant can give you a completely experience from the other.
The safest bet when choosing an everyday whisky for your home bar is to get a bourbon or a blend. Bourbons are a type of American whisky known for their richness in flavor, and many find it the standard go-to whisky when making an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
Personally, we prefer blended whiskies. This is also the most commonly drank whisky type in the world. Monkey Shoulder and many Johnnie Walker labels are all blended Scotch. Often more affordable than single malts and single grains, blended whiskies come at a great price point while offering versatility and diversity when used in cocktail-making. We find blends preferable to bourbons as a starter whisky, since bourbons can be too overpowering and singular in its flavor profile for beginners.
After a long dry spell, gins have surged in popularity in recent times, and we’re glad it has. Offering such a wide array of flavor profiles and room for creativity, gins have become most people’s go-to white spirit (sorry vodka). Juniper is the ingredient used in the making of all gins that gives it that uniquely identifiable gin taste.
If getting only one bottle of gin, you’re best off stocking your home bar with a London Dry style of gin, as most classic cocktails are based off that. To that end, the Beefeater (more affordable) and the Tanqueray (better quality but slightly pricier) are your best bets. They work great in Martinis and Negronis, and any riff off those classics can usually be supported well with those labels.
If you’re asking us as a friend though, we highly recommend getting the Roku gin instead. It’s more elegant and floral compared to your typical gins, and is less harsh for beginners to accept in stronger doses. Perfect in spirit-forward cocktails like a classic Martini, and great for Gin & Tonics too, where the gin is allowed to shine. If you’re feeling experimental, try the Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz from Australia or the Rojak Gin from Singapore’s Compendium distillery and be wowed by how different gins can be.
There are generally two main branches of rums – white (same as light and blanco) or dark (same as aged). Rum is also either made from molasses or cane sugar, and the resulting tastes can be very different. Either way, as a consumer, choosing between a white or dark rum is the main concern.
For starters, the white rum is best to begin with, since it’s used in the making of all your basic rum-based cocktails. Once you’ve gotten the hang of that, easily substitute your recipes using dark rum as you see fit. Dark rums generally have more nuanced characteristics, since they’re aged in barrels just like whiskies, and thus gain depth and flavors not found in an unaged rum.
Bacardi really is the standard when it comes to rums, both white and dark. Their premium range is also particularly impressive. We find Mount Gay from Barbados to be great as well. But if you’re looking for something more affordable, but still tastes good in a cocktail, Cruzan rums won’t disappoint either. For craft or more refined labels, go for Plantation or Dictador rums.
You won’t find many vodka fans around, and for good reason. Vodka is known to be a neutral, flavorless spirit, and because of its lack of nuance, there really isn’t much to wax lyrical over. But times are changing, and there are now more and more vodkas in the market that are challenging that notion.
Still, if you’re stocking your home bar with just one type of vodka, you can’t go wrong with your tried and true brands like Absolut, Belvedere and Grey Goose. They may vary according to smoothness and sweetness, but they all do their job as a neutral spirit just fine. We prefer the Haku vodka, made from rice, for its faint aromatics, giving the drink you’re making just that much more complexity.
A few brands out there are quickly changing the vodka landscape, however. Check out The Orientalist Spirits’ Origins Vodka and be captivated by its subtle fruitiness, or sip on Compendium’s Straits Vodka, a sterling showcase of what Asian spices can do to elevate the flavors of a traditionally flavorless spirit.
If, like us, your first experience with tequila was in shot glasses with a salted rim and lime wedge chaser, we’re sorry and we feel you. Tequila is an amazing spirit with many varieties, and is better appreciated in a well-made Margarita or Paloma rather than a shot. Citrus tends to work really well with tequila.
When choosing your first bottle of tequila, we’d generally recommend going for a reposado (aged) tequila, rather than a normal blanco tequila. Aged tequilas tend to be more rounded and balanced, so it tastes better to most palates. If you enjoy the real taste of agave however, feel free to get a blanco. If possible, get one made using 100% blue agave (it’ll say on the label), though that tends to be more expensive.
Jose Cuervo is the most popular (and affordable) tequila brand in the world, and you can’t really go wrong with their stuff. If you can though, definitely go for bottles by Espolon or Patron. They’re pricier, sure, but taste categorically better. The intrepid among you can try mezcals as well, a cousin of the tequila, also made using agave, but tends to offer more toasty, smoky notes.
One you’ve got your basic five spirits down, there’s no harm getting a bottle of brandy either. Brandies are aged spirits made from grapes (basically distilled wine), and many love them for their rich, deep flavors. Cognacs are a type of brandy produced in the eponymous region of France.
Like whiskies, brandy offers a huge spectrum of choices and price points. There’s no harm getting the cheapest bottle of brandy off the shelf to get your bearings, but we’d recommend getting at least a St Remy XO Brandy to start. It’s not too pricey, and we are at least certain of its quality, since adulteration isn’t unheard of in the market. Tasting a bad brandy might give you the wrong idea about brandies in general, and we don’t want that.
If you’re ready to enjoy brandy neat as a digestif (or when making something like a Brandy Old Fashioned), we’d recommend getting a Remy Martin VSOP or Hennessy VS at least. Cognacs are special, and appreciating their characteristics goes a long way in honing your palate for detecting greater levels of subtlety.
Ready to get your home bar started? Other than spirits, here are the 10 most essential home bar tools you need to get the ball rolling. Also, find out what common household ingredients are great for making cocktails with, and the only three ways there is to mix drinks.