What You Need to Set Up A Complete Home Bar
STEP 1: Clear Spirits
Vodka, Gin, and Tequila
Vodka is a spirit made from ethanol (distilled from wheat, corn, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, roots, or barley) and water. The actual definition of vodka in the US is ‘a neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.’ That’s right, the whole point of vodka is to be flavorless! This makes it excellent as a neutral base for mixed drinks, where its flavor is meant to blend seamlessly into the background.
The vodka currently on my bar cart is Simple Vodka: not only is it high-quality (and the bottle is gorgeous which is perfect for a bar cart!), but the mission behind the brand is really impactful. For every bottle sold, Simple provides 20 meals to those in need in the US through direct support of the local and national hunger relief organizations (that comes out to a bit more than 1 meal per drink!). Simple Vodka is made in America from locally sourced Idaho Russet potatoes, and the distillery uses sustainable energy sources and recycles their wastewater to minimize the impact on the environment.
You can think of gin as the original flavored vodka: first, the base material is fermented and distilled to make it completely neutral and flavorless, water is added (so, at this stage it’s basically vodka), then it’s flavored with juniper berries (all gin must by definition have some level of juniper) and other botanicals. Sometimes the juniper and botanicals are distilled with the neutral base, and sometimes they’re infused into it after distillation (this is known as a ‘compounded’ gin vs. a ‘distilled gin’.) Juniper has a distinctive piney taste that can also be herbaceous and floral.
The gin currently on my bar cart is Gin Mare from Spain. Spain is highest per capita consumer of gin in the world (Spanish ‘gin tonic’ culture is genuinely a whole movement!). It has a Mediterranean-inspired recipe of botanicals that include olives, thyme, rosemary, and basil. It’s herbal, spicy, and floral, definitely a savory style of gin.
Tequila is distilled from the blue Agave plant, and by definition, must be made in Mexico. For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the clear ‘Blanco’ style because it’s the most neutral for cocktail-making; other styles like Reposado and Anejo are aged in casks and will pick up a golden color. Agave is a succulent that’s actually a member of the lily family; there are 166 different species of agave, but only the Weber Blue (named after the German botanist who first classified the species) can be used to make Tequila. Blue Agaves take a minimum of six years to mature; when they’re harvested, the hearts are roasted to break down the starches into simple sugars for fermentation and then distillation.
The tequila currently on my bar cart is Tanteo. Locally grown in the Jalisco region, home of 90 percent of Mexico’s tequila production, the agaves are handpicked and distilled twice to make an 85 proof tequila that’s really versatile in mixed drinks. Tanteo also makes a jalapeno-infused version that’s really great in a spicy margarita!
Shop clear spirits:
The foundation for the majority of cocktails, a well-rounded bar should include at least one bottle of each of the six base liquors. Stocking a good selection of these will ensure you can mix up almost any cocktail on a whim. If you feel like a whiskey cocktail tonight, you'll be ready. When brandy, gin, rum, tequila, or vodka sound good, you're also prepared to grab the shaker and mix up a drink.
Vodka Is Essential
Vodka has a clean, transparent flavor, and it is used for more cocktails than any other distilled spirit. Some people like vodka more than others, so stock according to your preference.
- A good budget-friendly bottle is ideal for tall drinks like the screwdriver and bloody mary.
- If you fancy a vodka martini, spend a little extra for a top-shelf bottle as well.
- Add your favorite flavored vodkas. In a traditional bar, citrus and vanilla vodkas are the trusted standbys.
A Versatile Gin or Two
Not everyone is a fan of gin. However, it is nice to have at least one bottle in every bar.
- In the least, a good bottle of a London dry gin is recommended. This is the most versatile and can work in everything from a dry martini to a gin and tonic.
- From there, explore the gin's versatility. Every brand is different, and you can customize your bar with a fascinating array of botanicals.
Tequilas for Margaritas
Tequila is key to margaritas, though there are other fascinating tequila cocktails to explore. Generally, you'll want to stock at least one nice tequila.
- The most versatile style is blanco (or silver) tequila, and it's the best option for a one-tequila bar.
- For a little upgrade, add a slightly aged reposado as well.
Two Rums Are Good
A well-stocked bar has at least two bottles of rum. You can spend as little or as much as you like, though rum tends to be one of the more affordable liquors.
- A light rum will be your workhorse for most cocktails, from the daiquiri to the mojito.
- As a secondary rum, take your pick of aged, dark, or spiced rum. Each has its own purpose, and which you choose will depend on your taste and the drinks you enjoy. If you really like tropical cocktails, dark rum is essential.
Choose Your Whiskey
Things get complicated when it comes to stocking whiskey because each style has its own characteristics and uses. This category is definitely going to be adapted to your personal style. In general, two bottles are good to start, and you can always add more. Ideally, a bar should have one bottle of each style.
- For the most versatility and mixability, stock a bourbon and Canadian whisky. The bourbon will give you that robust whiskey flavor, while the Canadian blends tend to be very smooth.
- Rye whiskey is another excellent choice for everyday mixed drinks. Though some drinkers find it too spicy, rye is excellent in almost any cocktail that calls for a generic whiskey. If you enjoy classic cocktails, give rye a try for an authentic taste.
- A bottle of Irish whiskey and a decent blended scotch are good complements to any bar. While they make excellent cocktails, they're not as common or as versatile as the other styles.
A Basic Brandy
A bottle of brandy rounds off a well-stocked bar, but it's not necessarily essential. Some people simply will not drink or mix with it, but if you want to explore classic cocktails, you'll find brandy very useful.