Building your Home-bar: Cabinet Essentials for Spirited Newbies

Building your Home-bar: Cabinet Essentials for Spirited Newbies

Posted by Lauren Burfield on 14 Feb 2024

What are the essential spirits you need for a home bar fit for any occasion?

When it comes to stocking up your first home bar, your initial goal shouldn’t be about building the most eclectic portfolio – nor having an excess number of bottles for namesake.

There are many reasons for this, but one that I feel most strongly about is price. Quality doesn’t always come with the heaviest price tag. You don’t need to fork out a loan for the most expensive bottle when there are some fantastically priced brands with amazing quality. Neither should you look to get several cheaper ‘one trick ponies’, when more adaptable workhorses can save you money overall.

The fundamental cornerstones of a beginner’s cocktail cabinet to consider are: versatility, accessibility, and purpose. Be realistic. Think about what genre of cocktail and flavour profiles you tend to lean towards the most and work from there.

For your first well-considered booze shelf, split your cabinet into 5 spirit categories 3 critical cocktail components and 2 personalised wild cards (more on that later). This will cover most cocktails you’ll ever want to make, as well as exposing the areas of your selection you might want to hone in on in the future.

9 bottles, starting with the main spirit categories…Here we go!

Critical Cocktail Component 1: The Lead Spirits

Picking a Gin for your Home Bar

Something like Monkey 47 is the very definition of a cabinet essential and one where its botanicals stand strong in any cocktail. Monkey 47 is a name that has travelled the world – this fail-safe companion won’t let you down, no matter the style of serve. Use Indian Tonic and a sprig of lavender to bring out the floral qualities if you’re a strict G&T only household. Or a handful of cranberries to highlight that sour, juicy heart…our favourite however, is a Monkey 47 Martini with a lemon zest.

If you lean towards more aromatic gin styles, Audemus Pink Pepper Gin makes for a Negroni unlike any other. This bold new-style of gin steers away from the dry juniper leads of yesteryears. This is a gin made to evolve and change depending on how it’s enjoyed. Pink peppercorn, cardamon, honey, three secret ingredients and of course… Juniper all contribute to a decadent gin tipple. So cocktail away, this gin can keep up!

For a more modern contribution to your booze collection, Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin has huge fresh orange flavours with a sharp peppery pinch to anchor that steely juniper core in place. The soft citrus sweetness helps slow the charge of deep-rooted spice notes. With hints of green salad and bushy herbs, it makes for a sublime Basil Smash.

The thing about reducing gin to just one bottle to start with, means that you’ll need a solid allrounder to stand up in different styled gin serves, such as the MartiniNegroniGin Rickey or Gimlet. Go for an offering that’s punchy on the juniper and you’ve got a good starting block.

Versatile vodka for home-cocktails

Vodka holds a similar principle to gin; reliable and simple. This may be the easiest choice over all the categories. As it’s a neutral spirit, you’re naturally going to be looking for something plain, clean and subtle.

Avoid picking a flavoured vodka as your foundation bottle, as this will defeat the principle of commanding flexibility in your serves and limiting the ability of your booze shelf being fit to service any occasion. Besides – you can always play around with home-made infusions if you’re searching for that special component in your cocktails (which is far better than having every colour in the rainbow cluttering the shelves).

I suggest opting for a Vodka like, Chase Original Potato Vodka. Mineral, creamy aroma wafts up with hints of vanilla. To taste, there is a creamy, almost buttery texture. There’s a clean smooth finish with earthy undertones – perfect for the ultimate vodka martini!

Or look to NEFT Vodka – an immensely versatile vodka with notable viscosity and subtle white pepper spice. This is a vodka that lends itself to straight sipping over ice, or in spirit forward cocktails. An excellent choice for those looking for an easy cocktail workhorse.

Whisky Options for your Home Bar Cart

There are many opinions about what Whisky styles (and which brands) make great cabinet essentials for cocktail enthusiasts. It’s most likely that your chosen sipping Whisky will be different from what you choose to mix into cocktails. It’s not a snob thing, it’s due to both price and flavour considerations.

For beginner’s, choose something versatile that’s intrinsically linked to the origin of so many Whisky cocktails, like a Bourbon or a Rye. American Whiskey can be seen as a gateway into the category for newbies, as they are a better fit for the purpose of cocktail making. Take the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carré, Sazerac, Whisky Sour, Julep, or the Boulevardier – my vote is for a tasty Bourbon to make these classics with ease.

Consider Bulleit BourbonBuffalo Trace Bourbon or Woodford Reserve Rye.

For those you already have sort of an idea of what they like but still want some advice, just remember – Peated Whisky is not your friend for an accessible drinks workhorse. It’s such a specific flavour note and will always standout, whether you want it to or not. If you’re familiar with the flavour profiles usually found in Scotch, Irish or Japanese Whisky, here are some suggestions:

Scotch – Opt for King’s Inch Single Malt Whisky for a good quality, easy-sipping Lowland-styled Scotch with great depth or Glenmorangie X Single Malt Whisky – for a dram that has been specially developed with mixing in mind.

Irish – Look to Teeling Single Malt Whiskey for a fruit-forward dram with aromas of lemon, citrus and a long sweet finish. Or Two Stacks the First Cut Whiskey that blends the very best of contemporary Irish flavour.

Japanese – Suntory Toki Whisky is silky with a subtle sweet and spicy finish, perfect in a long and refreshing Whisky Highball. Or turn your attention to Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky, for a delicate and floral serve with fresh aromas and a long oak finish. Use this for straight sipping, or to stir into whisky-forward cocktails. 

Rum Recommendations to stock on your spirits shelf

Two things to think about when selecting your resident Rum are: balance and styles of cocktails. Again, this all comes down to versatility.

Unless you are a dedicated rum drinker who usually goes for more intense serves to showcase the spirit, like a Rum Old Fashioned or a Treacle, you’re probably going to be looking for something a bit lighter.

When you consider Flip’s, Fruit Daiquiri’s, Mojitos, and Mai Tai’s - they are all classic cocktails that typically project an assertive sweetness. Balance is key and you don’t need an overpowering rum to dictate your focus.

Choosing a Spiced or Dark Rum is a commitment that will determine your drinking experience in every serve, so opting for a dry and slightly aged Golden Rum as your rum resident, will be a much more amicable choice as you can always inject that spice later through a different ingredient.

An example of such an offering (again, that is resolutely affordable enough to be a staple) is Chairman’s Reserve Original Rum – a fine quality rum that represents the iconic rum-style of St. Lucia. I look at it as the best of both worlds. There is so much flavour packed in there and you can expect caramelised tropical fruit and spicy oak derived vanilla to taste. It’s the kind of rum you want to be looking for when it comes to having a versatile bottle to use, no matter your serve.

If you’re solely on the Daiquiri train and looking for a White Rum that’s up for the job each and every time – we suggest going for Plantation 3 Stars White Rum for a bittersweet and light-bodied Daiquiri; expect a white rum at its grassy, herbal best.

Tequilas for your Home Bar

Hard-core agave fans will agree that the cleaner, more refined and subtle nuances of great quality sipping Tequila’s will typically come with a price tag to match. You don't have to go crazy, but you should look for 100% Agave and not a Mixto, which means you’ll be in for £30 plus for a decent 70cl bottle.

Even if you don’t sip it neat, quality matters in cocktails so a 100% Agave offering is a good investment. Given that cocktails are the end intention, go for something that is versatile, light, bright and adaptable. Blanco Tequila is a style that will work flawlessly here.

If there is a standout Blanco Tequila I can’t recommend enough, it's Ocho Blanco Tequila. It’s a favourite amongst aficionados and bartenders across the world, where cooked agave, honey sweetness, white pepper, crisp minerality and lively citrus notes brighten up any serve.

For a sweeter, more citrussy impression, Espolòn Blanco Tequila is double distilled using column and pot stills to give it a smooth, lighter taste profile. On the nose, lemony and zesty aromas lift up with a hint of pepper, while the cooked agave flavour will aptly step up your home-margarita game.

Critical Cocktail Component 2: Versatile Vermouths

At this point, you already have 5 serious contenders that cover the most sought-after spirit categories. But this is when to consider your desired cocktail repertoire.

What’s going to work best is also a space consideration… Whether you have a small shelf or even a sturdy little cocktail trolley, space will always be a never-ending issue and in this case, it’s going to invade your fridge…

Vermouth is best stored in the fridge. It’s fortified wine and just like actual wine, it will eventually oxidise and go stale. Keep it in the fridge and you slow this right down and an open bottle can remain fresh for a couple of months.

You need both a Sweet and a Dry Vermouth if you are serious about wanting to cover all bases. Having a respectfully sweet vermouth, like Antica Formula Carpano Sweet Vermouth, will pave the way for cocktails like a Hanky PankyManhattan, Negroni or Martinez.

Whereas a flexible dry vermouth, like Noilly Prat Original Dry Vermouth, will bring balance to Gin Martinis or Clover Clubs. Most vermouths are also delicious in their own right, when served as an Aperitif or alongside food, or in a Vermouth and Tonic so really, it’s a win win all round.

Critical Cocktail Component 3: The Bitters

If we’re talking about a Beginner’s Cocktail Cabinet on somewhat of a budget – The ‘Bitters’ element is where you need to be strict with yourself. The easiest way to think about Bitters is to split them in two categories: tinctures and potables. Don’t panic, we’ll explain.

“Tincture bitters include common suspects such as Angostura Aromatic Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters. They deliberately come in small formats, and you only add a dash or two in a cocktail.” – Spirits Beacon.

So, for those who liked the sound of the whisky and rum cocktails we mentioned earlier – Angostura Bitters could be your next addition.

On the other hand, “potable (drinkable) bitters are exemplified by brands like CampariAperol, Suze or Cynar”. When it comes to Aperitifs and aperitivo cocktails like the Negroni, Aperol SpritzAmericano, and the Milano Torino, then you’ll naturally lean towards drinkable bitters being the undeniable essential.

Wild Card 1: Liqueur

What would be the point of having the best Dry Gin for a Last Word, or the most ideal Blanco for a Margarita if you don’t have any liqueurs to complete the recipe?

Picking the liqueur for your home bar should all be about personalisation. You’re never going to start off with all the liqueurs you need to make all the cocktails in the world, so think about what you love making the most.

Consider a good Triple Sec like Cointreau or Vedrenne Triple Sec for those who enjoy MargaritasCosmopolitans, and Corpse Revivers. If your preference veers towards lighter spirit style concoctions (gin, vodka, tequila), cocktails like the Bramble, El Diablo, Aviation etc. you’ll need liqueurs in the likes of: Vedrenne Crème de MureVedrenne Crème de CassisLuxardo Maraschino Originale Liqueur, and Crème de Violette.

This Wild Card slot on your shelf is all about what you are most likely to make the most at home.

Wild Card 2: Personalisation and Preference

It goes without saying that you could add a second liqueur in your tenth and final spot. Personally however, I look at it as a bit of customisation that works sideways with your favourite tipple. Most people have a favourite spirit and that’s what I advise doing with Wild Card No.2.

Let’s say you’re into Tequila – in which case one bottle is just not enough. Why not take this as an opportunity to explore a different style of agave like Mezcal?

Same with Whisky, you might have your smooth, accessible Bourbon but you really enjoy the flavour profile offered by a Single Malt Scotch or a Peated Whisky. Add it as an alternative to the shelf for different occasions, be it on its own or in different drinks where that whisp of smoke is a pure delight.

Another way to look at this ‘personalisation’ slot is if you love a specific cocktail and you make it all the time (such as the Negroni) and where a certain spirit (in this case gin) shines above and beyond. Then pick it as you’ll make drinks that you truly love! I started off this article by suggesting avoiding one-trick-ponies. But here’s the exception to the rule - a Signature cocktail that you LOVE and make often is as good a reason as any to have a tailored bottle to really take it to the next level.