Home bartending can be an expensive hobby—very rewarding (and delicious)—but expensive, so I recommend building your bar cart little by little if you’re just starting out. A $300 investment can set you up with a good variety of bottles (spirits, bitters, liqueurs), and the essential tools needed to craft a damn good drink.
Below, we’ve got a pretty comprehensive list of what you’ll need to make a variety of classic cocktails, including spirits, liqueurs, bitters, and bar tools. But before diving in, grab a shot of whiskey and relax a little bit. Remember that you don’t have to buy everything at once. You can either tailor your selection to you and/or your guest’s tastes, or you can dive right in and buy it all.
If there’s a plate of food in front of you, consider spirits to be the meat—they’re typically considered the base on which the rest of the cocktail is built. You can mix with them, or simply just sip them neat. When starting out, there’s no need to break the bank. You can find some really great options of the below spirits in the price range of $15-$35. Buy them all at once, or add them bit by bit. Either way, here’s a good list to start:
Tequila (Blanco or Reposado)
Rum (Unaged or aged)
Non-alcoholic Spirit (It’s important to have options for the moments you or a friend are choosing not to drink booze)
LIQUEURS & FORTIFIED WINES
If spirits are the meat, then liqueurs and fortified wines are the delicious sides. Liqueurs are nicknamed modifiers because they help to modify the flavor profile of a cocktail. They are essentially sweetened spirits ranging in a wide variety of flavors from bitter and herbal, to orangey and coffee-flavored. There are a ton of different liqueurs available, so don’t feel like you have to collect them all at once. Here are several of the most used in my home bar that I recommend you start out with:
Orange Liqueur Used for classic cocktails like a margarita, sidecar, cosmo, and more. A few of my favorites are Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Shrubb J.M. Liqueur D’Orange.
Campari& Aperol Campari and Aperol are Italian bittersweet apéritifs, and are two of the most notable bottles to have in the home bar. Campari is used in classic cocktails like a negroni, americano, and jungle bird. Just know it’s a bitter one though; definitely an acquired taste. Aperol is slightly less bitter, and acts as a great substitute in place of Campari if you’re looking to ease into the world of bitter. Both are worth the pick up.
Amaro Montenegro Amaro is categorized as an Italian bittersweet herbal liqueur. There are many different types of amaro, but Montenegro is my favorite. It goes great in cocktails like this, but it also is a great introduction into the world of bitter.
Fortified wines are a category of their own. They’re wines strengthened by a spirit (typically brandy). There are a number of different types of fortified wines, but the two primary types I recommend starting out with are Italian vermouth (also known as sweet or red vermouth), and French vermouth (also known as dry vermouth). Both can be sipped neat, on ice, or mixed in a cocktail to add different flavor complexities.
Sweet Vermouth Used in classic cocktails like a manhattan, negroni, and more. Each brand of sweet vermouth has its own flavor profile, but several notable brands are Carpano Antica, Martini & Rossi, Punt e Mes, Dolin, Lo-Fi Apértifs. (Pro Tip: refrigerate after opening)
Dry Vermouth Used in classic cocktails like a martini, Old Pal, and more. Several notable brands to choose from are Dolin, Martini & Rossi, Noilly Prat. (Pro Tip: refrigerate after opening)
Bitters are typically referred to as the “salt & pepper” of the cocktail world. They’re small alcoholic tinctures that help to impart different flavors, and to help balance out a drink. If you taste your cocktail and think to yourself, “Something is missing,” then consider adding bitters. Here are three of the most common (and versatile) to start with:
Angostura aromatic bitters: (used in cocktails like an old fashioned & manhattan)
Orange bitters (used in cocktails like an old fashioned, martini, & more)
Peychaud’s bitters (used in cocktails like a sazerac)
If you build out your home bar starting here, then you’ll be good to go on having the foundational elements of making a wide variety of classic & creative cocktails at home.