When it comes to stocking up your first home bar, your initial goal shouldn’t be about building the most eclectic portfolio, nor having loads of bottles.
There are many reasons for this, but the one that I feel most strongly about is price. Quality doesn’t always come with the heaviest price tag. You don’t need to fork out a loan for the most expensive bottle when there are some fantastically priced brands with amazing quality. Neither should you look to get several cheaper ‘one trick ponies’ when a more adaptable workhorse would mean you can save money overall.
When it comes to the fundamental cornerstones of a cocktail cabinet, consider versatility, accessibility and purpose.
You have got to be realistic too. Think about what will be easy to work into a variety of different cocktails and what you want to make at home. Think about what genre of cocktail and flavour profiles you tend to lean towards most and work from there.
To start a well-considered booze shelf I suggest you split it into 5 spirit categories, 3 critical cocktail components & 2 wild cards. This will cover most cocktails you'll ever want to make, as well as focus the mind for how to curate your own selection further. You’ll also need to accept that you need to commit space for vermouth in the fridge.
10 bottles, starting with the main spirit categories… Here we go!
Hard-core agave fans will agree that the cleaner, more refined and subtle nuances of great quality sipping Tequila’s will typically come with a price tag to match. You don't have to go crazy, but you should look for 100% Agave and not a Mixto, which means you’ll be in for £30 plus for a decent 70cl bottle.
Even if you don’t sip it neat, quality matters in cocktails so a 100% Agave offering is a good investment. Given that cocktails are the end intention, go for something that is versatile, light, bright and adaptable for a variety of different styles. Blanco Tequila is a style that works flawlessly.
If there is one standout Blanco Tequila I can’t recommend enough, it's Ocho Blanco Tequila and your first cabinet essential. It’s a favourite amongst aficionados and bartenders across the world, where cooked agave, honey sweetness, white pepper, crisp minerality and lively citrus notes brighten up any serve.
There are many opinions about what Whisky styles (and which brands) make great cabinet essentials for cocktail enthusiasts. It’s most likely that your chosen sipping Whisky will be different from what you choose to mix into cocktails. It’s not a snob thing, it’s due to both price and flavour considerations.
Peat is not your friend for a workhorse whisky to make mixed drinks. It’s such a specific flavour note and will always standout, whether you want it to or not. You can pick a Scotch, Irish or a Japanese Whisky here but I suggest you choose something more versatile and intrinsically linked to the origin of so many Whisky cocktails, like a Bourbon or a Rye. They are a better fit for the purpose of cocktail making and my vote is for a tasty Bourbon as you can make the classics with ease (Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Whisky Sour, Julep and Boulevardier).
As for which? Wild Turkey 81 Straight Bourbon is a personal favourite which has a unique and user-friendly flavour profile that still offers up that familiar spicy kick to finish. I find that Wild Turkey is versatile enough to not dominate in cocktails and quite affordable given the quality it brings to the glass.
Two things to think about when selecting your resident Rum are: balance and styles of cocktails. Again, this all comes down to versatility.
Unless you are a dedicated rum drinker and opt for more intense serves that showcases the spirit, like a Rum Old Fashioned or a Treacle, you’re naturally going to be looking for something a bit lighter.
When you consider Flip’s, Fruit Daiquiri’s, Mojito’s, and Mai Tai’s - they are all classic cocktails that typically project an assertive sweetness. Balance is key and you don’t need an overpowering rum to dictate your focus.
Choosing a Spiced or Dark Rum is a commitment that will determine your drinking experience in every serve, so opting for a dry and slightly aged Golden Rum will be a much more amicable choice as you can always inject that spice later through a different ingredient.
An example of such an offering (again, that is resolutely affordable enough to be a staple) is Havana Club 7yo Rum. An original Cuban sipping rum, I look at it as the best of both worlds. There is so much flavour packed in there and you can expect sweet Cuban tobacco, lush tropical fruits, soft vanilla, and dry cocoa to taste. It’s the kind of rum you want to be looking for when it comes to having a versatile bottle to use no matter your serve.
When it comes to Vodka, this may the easiest choice over all the categories. As it’s a neutral spirit, you’re naturally going to be looking for something plain, clean and subtle.
Avoid picking a flavoured vodka as your foundation bottle, as this will defeat the principle of commanding flexibility in your serves and a booze shelf that’s fit to service any occasion. Besides – you can always play around with home-made infusions if you’re searching for that special component in your cocktails, which is far better than having every colour in the rainbow cluttering the shelf.
I suggest opting for a Vodka like Ketel One, it’s an immensely versatile vodka and one where you’ll immediately detect freshness with hints of citrus honey and a crisp lively tingle. An excellent choice for those looking for a cocktail workhorse.
Gin holds a similar principle to Vodka; pick a reliable and classic Dry Gin as a cabinet essential.
Something like Tanqueray Gin is the very definition of a cabinet essential and one where its botanicals stand strong in any cocktail. It’s so simple in its construct and a benchmark for what classic gin is all about. This is a fail-safe companion that won’t let you down.
However, if you’re on the search for a must-have staple of the new generation, Tarquin’s Cornish Gin is a modern-classic. It has orange peel upfront, followed by that thick, cheek-filling juniper texture.
The thing about reducing gin to just one bottle means you have to pick a solid allrounder as the attributes needed to make a lovely Martini, Negroni, G&T, Gimlet or Southside are all quite different. Go for an offering that’s punchy on the juniper and you’ve got a good starting block.
You already have 5 serious contenders that cover the most sought-after spirit categories. But this is when to consider your desired cocktail repertoire. What’s going to work best is also a space consideration… Whether you have a small shelf or even a sturdy little cocktail trolley, space will always be a never-ending issue and in this case, it’s going to invade your fridge.
Vermouth is best stored in the fridge. It’s fortified wine and just like actual wine, it will eventually oxidise and go stale. Keep it in the fridge and you slow this right down and an open bottle can remain fresh for a couple of months.
You need both a sweet and a dry vermouth if you are serious about wanting to cover all bases. Having a respectfully sweet vermouth will pave the way for cocktails like a Hanky Panky, Manhattan, Negroni or Martinez, whereas a flexible dry vermouth will bring balance to Martini’s or Clover Club's. Most vermouths are also delicious in their own right, when served as an Aperitif or alongside food, or in a Vermouth and Tonic so really, it’s a win win all round.
The power of aromatic cocktail bitters is underestimated given how much they help elevate the quality of your serves.
However, because technically they are mere 10cl pipettes, I don’t think it’s fair for a little bitters bottle to take up a spot on this space for 10 only countdown. Furthermore, Angostura Aromatic Bitter’s can be considered a food item that you cook with, so sits in the cupboard next to the Worcestershire sauce and salt… or at least that’s how it’s been justified in this household.
You will need an Italian style bitter though. Things like Aperol, Campari, or the French equivalents like Suze, Chartreuse. Perhaps one of the various Amaro brands – the kind of liqueur meets bittersweet treat and that form the anchor in so many cocktails.
Your choice will all depend on your individual cocktail style but if you side with serves like Negroni’s, Boulevardier’s and Americano’s, then naturally you are going to need Campari as an undeniable essential.
WILD CARD 1: LIQUEUR
Picking the liqueur for your home bar should all be about personalisation. You’re never going to start off with all the liqueurs you need to make all the cocktails in the world, so think about what you love making the most.
Consider a good Triple Sec like Cointreau for those Margarita’s, Cosmopolitan’s and Corpse Reviver’s. Or alternatively, if your preference veers towards the likes of an Espresso Martini, Mr Black’s Coffee Liqueur. Same goes for Elderflower Liqueurs, or Maraschino or Amaretto. This is a Wild Card slot on your shelf that’s all about what you are most likely to make the most at home.
WILD CARD 2: PERSONALISATION
It goes without saying that you could add a second liqueur in your tenth and final spot. Personally however, I look at it as a bit of customisation that works sideways with your favourite tipple. Most people have a favourite spirit and that’s what I advise doing with Wild Card No.2.
Let’s say you’re into Tequila – in which case one bottle is just not enough. Why not take this as an opportunity to explore a different style of agave like Mezcal?
Same with Whisky, you might have your smooth, accessible Bourbon but you really enjoy the flavour profile offered by a Single Malt Scotch or a Peated Whisky. Add it as an alternative to the shelf for different occasions, be it on its own or in different drinks where that whisp of smoke is a pure delight.
Another way to look at this ‘personalisation’ slot is if you love a specific cocktail and you make it all the time (such as the Negroni) and where a certain spirit (in this case gin) shines above and beyond. Then pick it as you’ll make drinks that you truly love! I started off this article by suggesting avoiding one-trick-ponies. But here’s the exception to the rule - a Signature cocktail that you LOVE and make often is as good a reason as any to have a tailored bottle to really take it to the next level.
And there you have it, a ‘back to school’ toolbox consisting of 10 bottles to make a home bar fit to suit any occasion and some suggestions for brands that collectively will cost you less than £500 in total.
Have mixing and honing your skills this term..