Home bartending is an expensive hobby. Very rewarding (and delicious), but expensive. However, there’s a way to stock your home bar and ball on a budget if you’re just starting out.
Depending on where you live, a start up investment of $200 – $300 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.
Before diving into this list, just know that everyone has different taste preferences. I’m taking the approach of someone who wants to learn how to make a variety of classic cocktails, and build their home bar starting with the fundamentals. Here is a list of spirits, liqueurs, and bitters to pick up along with some recommended brands.
If there’s a plate of food in front of you, consider spirits to be the meat on the plate. Spirits make the the majority of the base structure of a cocktail. You can mix them, or sip them neat. Here’s a good list to start out with with a few solid brand recommendations:
- Bourbon Whiskey: Whiskey: Bulleit, Four Roses (yellow label), Buffalo Trace, 1792 Bourbon, Old Grandad.
- Rye Whiskey: Old Overholt, Bulleit Rye, Knob Creek Rye, Redemption
- Gin: Hendrick’s, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth Gin, Ford’s Gin, Sipsmith, St. George Terroir Gin.
- Tequila (Blanco or Reposado): Altos, El Tesoro, Patron, Herradura, Espolon, Azunia.
- Light or Dark Rum: Appleton Estate Signature Blend, Bacardi Superior, Cana Brava, Bacardi Reserva 8 Yr., Bacardi Maestro, Mount Gay Black Barrel.
- Vodka: Reyka, Greygoose, Absolut, Ketel One, Tito’s
Bitters are typically referred to as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. They contribute to the flavor profile, and help to balance out a cocktail. If you taste a drink and think to yourself, “Something is missing,” then consider adding bitters. The most common four you should pick up starting out are:
- Angostura Bitters
- Orange Bitters
- Peychaud’s Bitters
- Chocolate Bitters
LIQUEURS AND OTHER GOODS
Liqueurs are essentially sweetened spirits ranging in a wide variety of flavors from bitter and herbal, to coffee flavored, to orange, etc. Liqueurs 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 there’s no way I’d advise you pick up that many to start. 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).
- Amaro Montenegro
- Orange Liqueur: Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Shrubb J.M. Liqueur D’Orange
- St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Home Bartending Tools of the Trade:
- Cocktail Shaker
- Mixing Glass
- Julep Strainer
- Hawthorne Strainer
- Fine Mesh Strainer
- Bar Spoon
If you feel overwhelmed by this list, grab a shot of whiskey and relax a little bit. You don’t have to buy everything at once (although, if you’re Richy Rich then by all means get after it).
I recommend building your home bar a little bit at a time. Here are some action items for you:
- Purchase a set of home bartending tools
- Pick up a couple of the recommended spirits
- Purchase Angostura and Orange bitters
- Purchase a few of the recommended liqueurs, preferably ones that will allow you to make the drinks you like to drink most often.