Home Bar Guide: Essential Bottles to Stock for Every Budget

by
December 23, 2020

So you’ve made a few drinks at home this year and you’re really getting the hang of it. But you’ve reached a point where you’d like to add more variety to your cocktail hour. Having just a couple of bottles in the house isn’t cutting it anymore. You’re ready to up your game but just don’t know quite where to begin. That’s where our Home Bar Guide filled with a list of essential bottles comes into play.

The first thing to remember is you’ll want to stock bottles based on which type of cocktails you and others in your household like to drink. If you’re a whiskey drinker and your significant other is into gin, you’re going to want to cover those categories with your favorites. However, if you like to entertain, it’s a good idea to also set up your home bar so you can make some of the most requested classic cocktails.

Our home bar guide offers up suggestions in a few price points. You can certainly build up a solid home bar for around $200. For this budget, it’s a good idea to look for value bottles. You’re going to be mixing them after all so they needn’t be high end. Of course, budgets vary so you can certainly level up with more premium and super premium bottles as you wish.

Pantry items like fruit (lemon, lime, cherries), sugar, eggs, tonic or soda and the like aren’t included. However you’ll want to make sure to keep these on hand at all times. Also, you’re going to need some bar tools so make sure to read our article on that subject. In a pinch you could just use a mason jar and a spoon to shake or mix respectively. But do consider investing in a jigger or small measuring cup with a spout at the very least.

Home Bar Guide: Essential Bottles

The examples below are just a guide. If you prefer another brand, by all means substitute that instead. We’ve chosen products that offer good value for the style and price. I’d advise against 1.75L sized bottles because they take up a lot of space and are difficult to pour from accurately. They are also rough on your wrists. Buy only in large party situations when making punches and the like.

home bar guide: Woodford Reserve BourbonWoodford Reserve Bourbon /Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve

These bottle suggestions will help you make the cocktails below and more:

Old Fashioned, Martini (gin or vodka), Manhattan, Negroni, Margarita, Paloma, Moscow Mule, Daiquiri, Sidecar, Collins (John, Tom, Ron), Sours (Whiskey, Gin, Brandy), Mojito, Kamikaze, Gimlet (vodka or gin)

Whiskey

Since we are such fans of whiskey, we suggest getting two styles of whiskey if your budget allows. One bottle should be either a bourbon or rye and the second should be an Irish or Scotch whisky blend. The bourbon or rye will serve you well with Old Fashioneds and Manhattans while the blend will work for long drinks using mixers like tonic, soda and ginger ale.

Of course, each of these styles can make any of the aforementioned drinks just fine if you have just the one. Also, if you’re upping your budget in the whiskey category, you might as well purchase a single malt while you’re at it. Go big or go home!

Budget ($25 or less): Jameson, Dewar’s, Old Overholt Rye (86 proof or 100 proof), Wild Turkey 101, Four Roses Bourbon

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Maker’s Mark, Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye, Johnnie Walker Black, Teeling Small Batch, Glenlivet 12 Year

High End (over $50): Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Whistlepig 10 Year Straight Rye, Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year, Bushmills 16 Year, Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Cask

Gin

For your gin selection, it’s best to have a juniper-forward London Dry style on hand for overall versatility. Look for something in the 43%-46% ABV range for just a little added punch. Of course, you’re free to explore here with a second bottle. Perhaps grab a more of a modern, less-juniper forward bottle like Hendrick’s or Aviation. Or why not support your local distillery and pick up a bottle from them too? There are so many gins out on the market today so have some fun.

Budget ($25 or less): Gordon’s London Dry, Broker’s Gin, Fords Gin

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire

home bar guide: Fords GinFords Gin /Photo Credit: Fords Gin

Rum

You’d be best served by choosing a rum for mixing rather than one for sipping. That’s where a bottle of lightly aged rum will come in handy. We covered this subject previously, but the color of your rum doesn’t necessarily help to evaluate its flavor. Removing the color of rum after aging is a common practice — and for that matter so is adding color. So selecting a bottle based on its color is a poor estimation of how it tastes. Unfortunately, many of the rum world producers don’t label their bottles as such. But consider these as good examples of the category.

We suggest a lightly-aged rum that was distilled entirely in a column still or a mix of column and pot stills. The former will be more neutral in flavor and the latter will offer a bit more oomph to your glass. Also the colors are on the light side so your drink won’t look muddied. In this instance, since the age of the rum is on the low end, so too is the price.

Budget ($25 or less): Don Q Cristal, Plantation 3 Star, Denizen Aged White Rum, El Dorado 3 Year

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Banks 5 Island, Probitas White Blended Rum

Vodka

Even if you don’t drink the stuff yourself, I guarantee that at least one family member or friend drinks nothing but. Keep them happy by picking up a bottle. P.S. If you want to make a Cosmopolitan, you’ll need to pick up a bottle of citrus vodka. Absolut Citron will do.

Budget ($25 or less): Wódka Vodka, Tito’s Vodka, Smirnoff No. 21

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Chopin Potato Vodka, Ketel One, Belvedere

High End (over $50): Stoli Elit, Purity Vodka Connoisseur 51, Grey Goose Ducasse

home bar guide: Tito’s VodkaTito’s Vodka /Photo Credit: Tito’s Vodka

Brandy

Brandy is often an overlooked category, especially when it comes to cocktails. Our home bar guide recommends that you stock a VS or VSOP cognac or brandy made for mixing. As an added bonus, brandy comes in handy when it comes to cooking and baking so it should definitely be in your home.

Budget ($25 or less): Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, Christian Brothers Sacred Bond, Courvoisier VS

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Bertoux Brandy, Brandy Sainte Louise, H by Hine

High End (over $50): Hennessy VSOP Privilege, D’USSE VSOP, Ferrand Reserve Double Cask

Tequila

For your tequila, a blanco or reposado would be preferable for Margarita and Paloma applications. Save your mezcals and añejo/extra añejo tequilas for sipping.

Budget ($25 or less): Arette Blanco, Espolòn Blanco, Cimarron Reposado

Mid-priced ($50 or less): Fortaleza Blanco, Siete Leguas Blanco, El Tesoro Reposado

High End (over $50): Roca Patrón Reposado, Tequila San Matias Tahona Blanco, Clase Azul Plata

home bar guide: Fortaleza BlancoFortaleza Blanco /Photo Credit: Tequila Fortaleza

Triple Sec/Orange Liqueur

And speaking of a Margarita, you’ll need triple sec. Our home bar guide recommendation is Cointreau. Other low cost options are lower in ABV and are very one-note. Consider getting a half bottle of Cointreau instead of a full bottle of a lower priced option if the price is a bit tough to swallow. As for an alternate orange liqueur, our recommendation is Grand Marnier. However do keep in mind that it’s made with cognac and offers a deeper, more complex flavor that could overpower your cocktails.

GrandMa is my preference when mixing with aged spirits (and Champagne) and Cointreau is my go-to for unaged/lightly aged spirits. Grand Marnier is sold in a variety of sizes but most common in 375ml or 1L. The SRPs come in at $22-25 for the former, and $41-45 for the later. The same goes for Cointreau.

Campari

If you drink Negronis, you’ll need Campari. Furthermore, if you swap out the gin in a Negroni and replace it with bourbon, you’ve got yourself a Boulevardier. Campari is also great served on the rocks with sparkling water and a slice of orange. You’ll find it for around $30 for a 750ml.

home bar guide: CampariCampari /Photo Credit: Campari

Vermouth

We’ve covered vermouth pretty extensively in our Vermouth Guide so do check that out to get you up to speed on this category. You will want to buy both sweet and dry vermouth as they are essential in many cocktails. You’ll need sweet vermouth for Manhattans, Negronis and Boulevardiers. And dry vermouth is required for a Martini.

Vermouth can often be purchased in either 375ml and 750ml. It’s important to remember that vermouth is a type of fortified wine so you’ll want to take some care with these bottles. Keep out of direct sunlight and consider refrigerating them, especially if you don’t go through them quickly. Vermouth is fairly inexpensive, so feel free to play around with different brands.

You’ll find most 750ml vermouth to be in the $10-15 range. The most common brands to look for are: Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Dolin, and Carpano.

Bitters

Think of bitters as the salt and pepper for your cocktails. You don’t need much, but when used they make a difference to the end result. If you only have one, get Angostura. Others to consider adding are Peychaud’s and orange bitters like Regans’. They’re typically around $7 each and last forever.

Bonus Round

Once you’ve got your home bar going, inevitably you’ll want to add more to your arsenal. These bottles below are what should be on your list next.

Absinthe: This will come in handy for your Sazerac, Vieux Carre and Corpse Reviver #2.

Maraschino Liqueur: Make a Martinez, Manhattan variations and Casinos.

Chartreuse: Coupled with the Maraschino, you’ve got yourself a Last Word.

Amaro: Pairs wonderfully with whiskey and is great on its own as a digestif.


Ready to try some of our home bar guide suggestions?

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