I remember the first time I set up a home bar for myself. It was in the early 2000’s; I was in college and had been bartending at my hometown bowling alley and was ready to dazzle my friends with everything I had learned inside and outside of the prestigious community college I was attending. I had visions of us discussing Kant and Descartes over Alabama Slammers and Tequila Sunrises, so I went to the liquor store and bought every bottle from the Mr. Boston lineup, a bottle of Southern Comfort, and because this was going to be a classy college flop house I also threw in a bottle of Alize and a bottle of Hypnotiq because I had been watching a lot of MTV Cribs in my downtime. It was not the most impressive home bar, but it got the job done, and thankfully, over the years my home bar as well as my tastes have evolved.
It would be nice to build a library of liquor, but it’s probably more practical to build your bar around your personal preferences and familiarize yourself with the various drinks you can make with those ingredients. Think about the type of bars and restaurants that you frequent and model your home bar after the style of drinks that they serve. If your objective is to become an anti-aristocratic nuisance and rack up noise complaints around an unsuspecting cul de sac, by all means follow the aforementioned approach, it won’t let you down, but if your goal is something a bit more understated, here is the approach that I recommend for setting yourself up with a home bar that you can knock out a few classic cocktails.
The beauty of most classic cocktails is their simplicity. Most classics came into fashion in a time when options were limited, so the ingredients are usually somewhat familiar and easier to find, and that makes stocking up a lot easier. That being said, we are living in modern times, and the options may seem limitless when you’re standing in the liquor store, so let’s start with the shopping list.
Gin- Tanqueray is my go-to all around gin. It has enough body and juniper to hold up in a Gimlet or Last Word, but the other botanicals are soft enough not to take over the vermouth in a Martini.
Rye- Rittenhouse Rye. This whiskey is dry, herbaceous, and surprisingly easy to drink despite it being 50% abv. Rye whiskey reigned supreme in the U.S. prior to prohibition, and the majority of classic whiskey cocktails were conceived with rye as the base. So if you normally stick to bourbon and want to switch it up with something a little drier, Rittenhouse is a good place to start.
Bourbon- My personal preferences on bourbon change with drink, and if I’m drinking it straight, it changes by the hour. But if I am picking out a bottle for someone else, it’s probably going to be Buffalo Trace. It is a straight up crowd pleaser. It knows its place in a cocktail and goes down easy on its own.
Cognac- Courvoisier VSOP. I’ve seen a lot of noses snubbed at cognac and brandy over the years, and I don’t get it; cognac is great. You need it to make a Sidecar, which in my opinion is woefully under appreciated.
Rum- Appleton Estate Reserve 8 Year. This is one of my favorite rums; it’s not too sweet, it has good body, and it's Jamaican. I love Jamaican rums because they have what people in my industry refer to as “that funk.” If you’re wondering what “that funk” is, and want to sound smart, you can say "its vegetal and fruit notes on the nose and palette that come from rum-esters and create unique flavor profiles". Or, a less bookish analogy goes like this: Bacardi Rum is like a bass solo from Sting. Is it good? Sure, but it’s like a turtleneck sweater or a 401k. It’s safe and familiar. Appleton Estate’s Rum is like a Bootsy Collins’ solo, the only descriptor that truly matters is, “that funk.”
Green Chartreuse- In my opinion this bottle should be behind every bar and in every home. It’s high test, wholly unique, and there is no substitute. If you aren’t already familiar with Chartreuse, today is the perfect day to remedy that.
Campari- This bright red aperitivo is bracing in its bitterness and balanced with sweetness.
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao- This is the sophisticated version of triple sec. An orange liqueur with a great nose, that is not too cloying.
Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur- This old-school, old-world liqueur is made from the pits of marasca cherries. I have a love hate relationship with Luxardo Maraschino. It is extremely unique, but it is also a bit of a sledgehammer. I recommend a delicate touch when using this or it can take over a drink.
From there it’s time to tackle the non-spirit side of things, and you are home free. For your juice, just squeeze some lemons and limes. Yes, you can buy little plastic bottles shaped like fruit and pour that in your drink, but it’s just not the same, and juicing citrus is easy and cathartic. In addition to juice you will need some simple syrup. I’ve seen this popping up on the shelves lately, and I implore you to make your own. Like the name suggests it’s pretty easy to make: equal parts sugar and water, then heat it up and stir it until it is clear. It’s not that store-bought simple syrup is going to taste different, or that it even has a lower quality, it’s that store bought simple syrup is an expensive rip off. Lastly, you will need some vermouth, both sweet and dry. You will need these for Negronis, Manhattans, and Martinis, at the very least. If you do not go through your vermouth quickly, a couple brands sell 375ml bottles. And remember to refrigerate after you open them!
I realize that the shopping list above is a bit deep, but remember you are building a home bar, and like all worthwhile building projects you can take your time to do it right!
Here are a few recipes to get you started.
Written by Mark Hibbard, Beverage Director at Via Vecchia in Portland, Maine.