Bars are built one bottle at a time. If you’re starting from scratch, address the basics first, and as your collection expands you can really begin to experiment. Good cocktails don’t have to be complex, just well-made. With a solid collection of good spirits on-hand, it only takes a little bit of technique (or a classy mixer) to make the drinks of your dreams.
Even a home bar needs rail drinks—choose wisely.
Learning to mix drinks takes practice, so start with spirits that aren’t so valuable you have to calculate every drop. With whiskey, look for something bonded, like Rittenhouse Rye or J.W. Dant, for the base of your Juleps, Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, and more. Bottled-in-bond guarantees a minimum of four years aging and a 50% abv, meaning it’ll be strong enough to dilute over ice and flavorful enough to stand up to whatever garnish you choose. For other spirits, great values often show up in liter bottles, like Arette Tequila, 42 Below Vodka, and Street Puma’s Rum.
Navigate the landscape of gin.
Gin is a lot like perfume. Every bottle has its own fragrance, but some are more special than others. The most famous style is London Dry (think Tanqueray, Bombay, and Beefeater), a standard choice that works well in most applications. But if you have a taste for discovery, distilleries worldwide produce gins using local aromatics leading to unique expressions that can even show terroir.
A standout example is Barr Hill Gin. Founded by a Vermont beekeeper, it’s flavored simply with juniper and their own raw honey which adds rich texture. You can appreciate this gin at its simplest, either sipped on the rocks or stirred with a splash of blanc vermouth and an orange twist to enhance the floral notes. Citadelle, from France, is clean and subtle for the crispest martinis around. High-proof Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin made with Australian oranges and Tasmanian pepper berry leaf packs a punch of flavor and doesn’t need more than a high-quality tonic to shine.
You need more than one vermouth.
Bartenders agree: the best all-purpose vermouths for any cocktail come from Chambéry, France, including Dolin dry and Routin Rouge. These are some of the most balanced and clean vermouths around, and will become a workhorse for all of your recipes. Italian vermouths are more pungent, sometimes approaching Amaro levels of bitterness—but Antica Torino Sweet Vermouth is distinctive without being overwhelming, whether as part of a memorable Negroni or served in a wine glass over ice.
Aperitif as a prelude, digestif to conclude.
A general rule about Italian bitters is that aperitifs, or pre-dinner drinks, are red and orange (think Campari and Aperol), while digestifs are richly caramel to almost black, like amaro. If you keep at least one from each category in your arsenal, you can recreate lots of popular drinks at the drop of a hat.
Forthave Spirits Red Aperitivo is made in Brooklyn in small batches to show off the individual flavors of each component without as much intense bitterness as other brands. As for amaro, there are enough options for a lifetime of discovery. But since you’ve got to start somewhere, Cio Ciaro is approachably sweet, yet complex, and makes a great substitute for vermouth in a Manhattan if you want something a little more substantial.