Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Buy these quality, yet affordable bottles: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Beefeater Gin, Bacardi Superior Rum, Espolón Blanco Tequila, Tito's Vodka. Then buy Campari, Cointreau, and a sweet vermouth.
Now go read the article. It took me way too long to write. Pity me.
I remember walking into the liquor store when I was 21 and being overwhelmed with the amount of choices. I had no idea what any of the labels meant, and I certainly had no idea which brand to buy of any particular liquor. I remember searching forever to find "orange liqueur." Because the recipe I printed off said I needed it. Little did I know that the Triple Sec is orange liqueur. I certainly didn't know the subtleties of all the different types of orange liqueur.
Then I found myself staring at large whiskey wall. I didn't want to get the cheapest bottle, but I didn't want to spend a fortune. I had no idea what was a good whiskey? I ended up grabbing Jack Daniels because it's the only one I knew. It must be good! When I decided that I was ready for something a little more pretentious, I moved to Gentlemen Jack. It was a few more years before I even dared to grab a Gin. And what the hell was Cognac? I was an excited young guy who had the desire to create cocktails but had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Oh the world I could have been exploring! Fantastic whiskeys were within my reach! Old Overholt Straight Rye whiskey was just sitting there! Waiting for me to grab it and take it home. I spent so long thinking I didn't like Gin, when Old Tom Gin was right there before me getting dusty as I walked by year after year. Little did I know that Old Tom Gin is a sweeter and gentler Gin. It's an excellent gateway to the world of Gin. But I didn't know...
Moral of the story. I don't want you to waste years like I did. Let's get you started off right. But first.
Alcohol refers to all liquids containing ethanol. Which is created by fermentation of either grains, fruits, or vegetables. This includes beer (fermented grain, flavored with hops), wine (fermented fruit), vodka (fermented potatoes), tequila (fermented agave), whiskey (fermented grains), rum (fermented sugar cane), etc.
Liquor though, is non-brewed alcohol thats been distilled (so not beer or wine). It may help to think of liquor as spirits. Although if we want to get very technical, all spirits are liquor but not all liquor's are spirits. Although they are technically not the same, most people use spirits and liquors interchangeably. So to make things simple, we will too. Think of spirits and liquors as both referring to fermented and distilled beverages with at least a 40% ABV. These are going to be the beverages one expects to find at a liquor store - whiskey, rum, tequila, vodka, etc.
Liqueur is made from liquor. Liqueur's are generally infused with sugar in multiple ways to achieve a particular flavor. Generally starting with a neutral grain liquor, and adding sugar/nuts/fruits/herbs to create a sweeter and (usually) lower ABV concoction. Examples of this would be: Schnapps, Amaretto, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Amaro, Bailey's, etc.
Almost everything found in a liquor store that is not wine or beer, can usually be split into these two categories: liquor and liqueurs.
Here are some terms that may seem contradictory to what I said, but are actually just specific types of liqueurs: Amaro (bitter liqueurs), cordials (generally referring to sweet and creamy liqueurs), aperitif/digestif (liqueurs used to stimulate an appetite or used to digest a meal).
While liqueurs can be bitter (thinking Campari, Amaro's, Aperol, etc), we're talking about what the bar world actually calls - bitters. They are liquors that pack an intense flavor in just a few drops. Thats why they are sold in small bottles and recipes usually call for "dashes" or "drops" of these highly concentrated flavors. Now, contrary to the name bitters are often times not very bitter at all. They can be bright and lively in flavor too, with lots of citrus, herbs, nuts and spices. I like to think of bitters in two categories, binding and enhancing. Some bitters enhance flavors that are in your cocktail and others bind multiple flavors together and make everything work together. If you ever create a cocktail and something just seems a little "off." Chances are, a dash or two of Angostura bitters will bring everything together. Bitters can usually be found at liquor stores, but if not, you can order them on Amazon (or a speciality online shop).
Vermouth is actually not a liqueur or liquor. It's wine. Wine that has been fortified with added flavors/spices/nuts and sometimes sugar. This is why vermouth only lasts a month or so after being opened and should be stored in the fridge. I have a theory about why folks seem to always order Martini's dry or extra dry ("dry" means to be made with very little vermouth) is because they haven't had fresh vermouth. Since most people assume that vermouth is a regular liquor, everyone seems to have it on their liquor shelf...for months...or years... Vermouth at this point is so past its prime that of course it tastes disgusting! Because of this, everyone thinks they don't like vermouth. But vermouth can add so much to a cocktail. Without vermouth, there would be no Boulevardier or Negroni. Can you imagine? The world is a better place because of Negroni's. All this to say. Throw your preconceived notions of vermouth out the window and try again with an open mind.
Let's summarize real quick before moving on.
Liquor/Spirits: A fermented and distilled liquid usually at least 40% ABV.
Examples: Rum, Whiskey, Tequila, Vodka
Liqueur: Made from liquor, generally sweetened and flavored with a lower percentage ABV.
Examples: Amaretto, Baileys, Schnapps, Triple Sec
Vermouth: Fortified wine, usually sweetened and flavored.
Examples: Sweet, Dry, Rouge, Blanc, Carpano Antica
Bitters: Highly concentrated and flavored liquor sold in small bottles where small drops go a long way.
Examples: Angostura Aromatic, Peychaud's Aromatic, Orange, Black Walnut, Lavander
Now to the fun part. Let's start stocking that bar of yours!
The best way to start building a home bar is to get stocked with a few basics and then as you come across recipes you want to try, buy the ingredients to that particular cocktail. Most of the time this will entail buying particular liqueurs. Since liqueurs are used in smaller quantities in cocktails, they tend to last much longer than your spirits. Over time, you will start to see your home bar grow.
Avoid the tendency to look up cocktails to make with whatever liqueur you buy. You'll never build a home bar if you keep doing that. We want your collection to grow. Pick another recipe that looks exciting that lets you try something new!
Every home bar should begin with a few staple spirits. A whiskey, a rum, a gin, and a tequila. If you notice. I omitted vodka. When it comes to cocktails, I personally don't find much joy in using vodka. By definition, it's a flavorless liquor. I personally enjoy cocktails that let me highlight the base spirit and I tend to find that vodka-based cocktails leave me unsatisfied. But don't let me rain on your parade. If you love vodka, I'll cover that too.
Prices vary greatly across all the spirits. It can be overwhelming knowing which bottle to buy that isn't going to break the bank, but isn't going to be a waste of money either. We're going to seek affordable and quality bottles. Nodbody wants to use a $130 bottle of whiskey in a whiskey sour. Not that it won't make an excellent Whiskey Sour, but a whiskey that expensive is costing you $10.50 for a 2 oz pour. For that price, you might want to sip and appreciate the notes and flavors that whiskey has to offer instead of putting it in a cocktail. But if you can afford $10.50 for every cocktail you make at home, by all means, live your best life and invite me over.
For all others, I have found bottles over the years that meet our need of being affordable and incredibly delicious. Obviously, prices of alcohol vary greatly from state to state, but to give you an idea. Most these bottles cost me between $20 and $35.
I once heard the term "workhorse spirit." I don't remember where I heard it, but I've adopted it. When I say Workhorse Spirit, I mean a spirit that doesn't quit. It performs again and again in cocktails that you throw it's way. To be a workhorse spirit, it must be affordable. With that said. Let's get into it.
Here are my workhorse spirits. High quality, great flavor, and won't break the bank. Now obviously, each of these spirits have their own subcategories. For example, there is Rye Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, etc. There is Spiced Rum, Dominican Rum, Cuban Rum, etc. There is London Dry Gin, Old Tom Gin, Bols Genever Gin, and speciality gin like Aviation Gin. Tequila has blanco, reposado, and anejo. Then there is Mezcal, Cognac, Brandy. All this to say. There is so much variety and so much to explore. But what I have listed below is a much more simplified and less overwhelming place to start. If you choose one from each category below to build your home bar, you will be off to an excellent and delicious start!
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon
Elijah Craig Bourbon
High West American Prarie Bourbon
Flor de Caña Extra Dry (can be challenging to find in some areas)
Caña Brava (white)
Bacardi Superior (white)
Appleton Estate Signature Blend
El Tesoro Blanco
Titos (literally way better than any other vodka I've tried)
Bitters (get both)
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Peychaud's Aromatic Bitters
Now that we've covered the liquors. Lets move on to the liqueurs. This is a much more difficult category. There is just SO many. I'm going to break this category into two mini categories: "starter pack" & "one-by-one." What I mean by this is start with the starter pack and then begin to purchase the one-by-one over time.
Campari (A bitter-sweet liqueur that every bartender comes to love. There can be no Negroni without Campari.)
Cointreau (Certainly the best and most versatile orange liqueur. Your Margarita will thank you.)
One-by-One (in no particular order)
St. Germain Elderflower
Creme de Menthe (clear)
Creme de Cacao (clear)
Now remember. Vermouths are fortified wine and need to be stored in the fridge after they are opened and only last a month or two. So buy as small as bottles as you can. If you can only afford one, I recommend getting a sweet vermouth, and later down the line getting a dry vermouth when a recipe you want to try calls for one.
Dolin Dry Vermouth
Cocchi Vermouth di Torrino (this is a sweet vermouth)
These shouldn't be hard to find. But if you reside in a state like Utah, it can be hard. Any sweet and/or dry vermouth that is available to you will do.
The reason I recommend starting with Campari, Cointreau, and Sweet Vermouth is that it allows you to create a wide variety of classic cocktails. Try a Negroni/Boulevardier, Margarita, or a Sour! All of which can be made with these basics.
Lastly, let me leave you with just one more piece of advice. Use fresh fruit juices in your drinks when you can. Cut open the lemon or lime or grapefruit or whatever AS you make the cocktail. Please do not buy citrus concentrate from the juice aisle or those little bottles in the produce section. Stick to real fruit and fresh ingredients. They will make a huge difference in the quality outcome of your drink. Let the cocktail creating begin!
Did I forget anything? Let me know!