Want to know the real secret to making amazing cocktails at home? Having the right ingredients on hand. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending hours researching classic cocktail recipes, choosing a promising-sounding concoction, and then realizing that you’re missing a key ingredient.
Serious home bartenders know that maintaining a small inventory of essential liquors, mixers, and tools is the key to making mixed drinks a cinch. At Mash & Grape, we’ve learned a little something about which bottles are real MVPs at the home bar. Think of the following as a standing shopping list of must-have home bartending ingredients. If you never let these run out, you’ll always have what you need to host a stellar happy hour at home.
You’ll want to keep at least two types of whiskey on hand: At least one American whiskey, such as bourbon or rye whiskey; and a Scotch or Irish whiskey.
Bourbon and rye whiskey are aged in new, charred oak casks, giving them a rich, oaky, vanilla-inflected character. While their flavor profiles are different, you can often substitute bourbon for rye in cocktail recipes, and vice versa, with success. You may have made a slightly different drink, but it’ll still be a good one. Bottles we love for cocktailing include Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, Hirsch The Horizon Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey, and Stellum Rye.
Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are usually aged in used casks, and often prominently feature malted barley. Blended Scotch and/or Irish whiskeys are less expensive than single malts, and usually contain a mix of malted barley and either wheat or corn. Single malt is made entirely with malted barley, and tends to have a richer character but cost a little more.
The choice is up to you, although we will say there are some great single malt options out there that won’t break the bank. Glenfiddich 12 Year Old Single Malt, Aberfeldy 12 Year Old Single Malt, Mash & Grape x Compass Box Great Kings St. Artist’s Blend, and Writers’ Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey are all great choices.
Versatility, your name is vodka. Key to drinks as varied as Bloody Marys, Screwdrivers, Vodka Martinis, and Moscow Mules, vodka’s relative neutrality is its strength, getting along with any flavor you can throw at it.
An unflavored vodka should be your first pickup. We suggest Haku Vodka, Tito’s, or Grey Goose. If you’ve got room, a citrus flavored vodka like Honeybell Citrus Vodka from Old Dominick can be nice to have on hand as well.
Who doesn’t like a virtual vacation every now and then? Rum is essential for making some of our favorite tropical cocktails like daiquiris and mai tais. Ideally, you’ll have at least two bottles; a white or unaged rum for drinks like mojitos, and an aged rum to give Tiki drinks that extra oomph.
White rums we love include El Dorado White 3 Year Old Cask Aged Demerara Rum and Quackenbush White Rum. Some great aged rums for cocktails are Don Papa, Kasama Small Batch Rum, and Cutwater Bali Hai Dark Rum.
Martini, anybody? Gin might be the ultimate cocktail spirit, due in no small part to its immense popularity in London, one of the global epicenters of cocktail culture. A London Dry style, which contains no added sweetener and often prominently features juniper, is most versatile behind the bar. Try Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, Plymouth Original Gin, or Monkey 47 Dry Gin.
If you go way down the rabbit hole of vintage cocktails, you may encounter some recipes calling for Old Tom gin, a slightly sweetened, often barrel-aged variant. If that’s you, feel free to grab a bottle of Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom Gin, too.
Distilled from the roasted heart of the agave plant, Tequila can be aged or unaged. If you like margaritas (and who doesn’t?!?) an unaged (often called blanco or plata) 100% agave Tequila is a must-have. Aldez Organic Tequila Blanco, Tequila Ocho Plata, and Casamigos Tequila Blanco all make tippy-top-shelf margaritas and palomas.
Wines and liqueurs
While they’re rarely the star of the show in cocktails, wines and liqueurs play a key role in adding complexity, sweetness, and body to mixed drinks. Your pantry will need a dry vermouth like Cinzano Extra Dry and a sweet vermouth like Antica Torino. You’ll also want a couple of bottles of inexpensive sparkling wine, and an orange liqueur like Cardinal Spirits Valencia Triple Sec or Grand Marnier.
Other essential bar ingredients
Finally, you’ll need a few other items to round out your home bar. Your list should include simple syrup, fresh citrus (don’t bother buying bottled lemon or lime juice; squeezing your own is much more flavorful), cranberry juice, tomato juice, and a selection of bitters. Plus, of course, a cocktail shaker, jiggers, a strainer, a bar spoon, and an assortment of glassware.
If that all sounds like a lot, the good news is that stocking a home bar doesn’t have to happen all at once. Start by picking up the ingredients and tools for your favorite cocktail. When you’re ready, add another one. Before you know it, you’ll be home cocktailing with the best of them.