Home bartending can be an expensive hobby—very rewarding (and delicious)—but expensive, so we recommend building your bar cart little by little if you’re just starting out. A $200 or $300 investment can get you set 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 and that you can tailor your selection to you and your guests’ tastes. If your friends don’t love bourbon whiskey—get new friends (kidding)—skip it and invest in that gin you know will be a hit.
Here’s a list of action items to get you started:
Purchase a set of home bartending tools
Pick up a couple of the recommended spirits that you’re most excited about
Buy Angostura Aromatic Bitters and Orange bitters
Grab whichever recommended liqueurs you’ll use in your first couple cocktails
HOME BARTENDING TOOLS
Having the right tools to make drinks is essential. You can get away with using typical household items like a mason jar, but overall these tools will make your life a whole lot easier when mixing bar-worthy cocktails at home.
Fine mesh strainer
Y-peeler or paring knife
If there’s a plate of food in front of you, consider spirits to be the protein—they’re typically what the rest of the cocktail is built on. You can mix with them, or simple just sip them neat. Here’s a good list to start out, including a few solid brand recommendations.
Bourbon Whiskey: Four Roses (yellow label), Buffalo Trace, 1792 Bourbon, Old Grandad
Rye Whiskey: Old Overholt, Bulleit Rye, Knob Creek Rye, Redemption (For more, check out our favorite reader-recommended whiskeys under $100.)
Gin: Hendrick’s, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth Gin, Ford’s Gin, Sipsmith, St. George Terroir Gin, The Botanist
Tequila (Blanco or Reposado): Altos, Milagro, El Tesoro, Patron, Herradura, Espolon, Azunia
Rum (light or aged): Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Bacardi Superior, Cana Brava, Mount Gay Black Barrel
Liqueurs are essentially sweetened spirits ranging in a wide variety of flavors from bitter and herbal, from coffee-flavored to orange. They can be sipped on their own, or mixed with to add different flavor complexities to a cocktail (which is why they’re also called modifiers). There are a ton of different liqueurs available, so don’t feel like you have to collect them all at once. Here are the ones most heavily used in my home bar.
Sweet Vermouth: Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, or Dolin
Dry Vermouth: Dolin, Noilly Prat
Campari: This one can be a bit too bitter if you’re just starting out. It’s definitely an acquired taste, so if you want to ease into the world of bitter, start with Aperol (it’s much more forgiving and amazing come time to brunch)
Orange Liqueur: Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Shrubb J.M. Liqueur D’Orange
St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Coffee liqueur: Mr Black or St. George Nola coffee liqueur
Bitters are typically referred to as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. They’re small alcoholic tinctures that help to contribute to the flavor profile and to balance out a drink. If you taste your cocktail and think to yourself, “Something is missing,” then consider adding bitters. Here are four of the most common (and versatile) to start with.