Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

How to start your own home bar: the essential spirits

Home Bar
Pixnio / NastyaSensei Sens

When you start getting into cocktails, drinking them is only half the fun — making them is part of the appeal too. If you start making your own drinks at home, you’ll soon find that you can often create better or more interesting drinks than what you’re served in most bars. And even better, making drinks for other people is a great way to try out new combinations, learn about spirits, and make your friends and family happy too.

However, moving beyond the simple spirit plus mixer style of drinks which most people make at home and into the world of cocktails means that you’ll need a wider array of spirits on hand than you might be used to. It can take some time and research to build up a well stocked bar, and choosing high quality spirits isn’t a cheap endeavor. It’s worth it, though, for the pleasure of being able to try out classic cocktail recipes and experiment with making up your own creations too.

Most cocktail experts agree that there are a few key spirits that are required for a well stocked bar, and to help get you started we’ve compiled a list of the key bottles you’ll need and a recommendation for what to buy. You don’t need the most expensive, top-shelf spirits available in order to make good drinks, but you do need solid quality and an understanding of what mixes well. And there are also some optional extras which are fun to have if you enjoy particular cocktails and want to branch out a little from the basics.

The best gin for your home bar

Tanqueray Gin

Image used with permission by copyright holder

From a gin & tonic to a martini to a negroni, gin is the key ingredient for a huge raft of classic cocktails. A classic gin should be juniper forward, with a hint of other botanicals for bittering and nuance and some spice to set it off. Tanqueray provides just that: a London dry style gin that will work in just about any cocktail you try with it, thanks to its smooth character and hints of herbs. This is my go-to choice for cocktails like negroni where you are looking for gin to bring strength and heft to a drink. It won’t make the world’s most exciting martini, in all honesty, and if you’re a big fan of that drink then you might want to look for some more specialty gins, but it will do serviceably for pretty much anything you’ll need it for, and at an affordable price.

The best vodka for your home bar

Tito’s Handmade Vodka

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Even if you’re not a big vodka drinker yourself, it’s always useful to have a bottle in the bar because it’s such a popular choice. It’s often the default spirit that people opt for when they want a simple mixed drink like a screwdriver or a vodka and coke, and it has its place in popular cocktails too like the espresso martini or the vodka martini.

While craft vodkas encompass a surprising range of flavors and textures, when choosing a vodka for mixing you’re primarily looking for something which lacks rather than has: you want a vodka which isn’t harsh, and doesn’t have any sharp plasticy scent. Unless you’re a vodka enthusiast you’ll likely want to look for something which is clean and simple, and which can easily disappear into other ingredients. Not all vodkas are created equal, though, so don’t be tempted to grab the cheapest option. Go for a mid-range bottle like the classic Tito’s which is smooth enough to be the basis for a range of mixed drinks.

The best rum for your home bar

Flor de Cana 7 Year Rum Gran Reserva

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Rums are a whole world unto themselves, and if you’re interested in Tiki drinks then you’ll soon learn about the vast number of styles and types of rum that are out there. If you’re just looking for a basic rum for your home bar, however, you needn’t go too wild. Generally speaking, you’ll want two bottles of rum to cover most non-Tiki drinks, one light and one dark. Light rum styles are often referred to as blanco or gold, and are used for classic cocktails like the mojito or the daiquiri. You’ll also want a bottle of aged or dark rum for use in drinks like the dark and stormy or a rum old fashioned. The brand Flor de Cana makes decent quality rums for a reasonable price, and you can find both light and dark options to fill out your bar.

And a bonus: Novo Fogo Cachaça

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Another spirit that might be worth adding to your home bar is the Brazilian drink cachaça. It’s similar to rum in some ways as it also comes is lighter unaged or darker aged versions and is made from sugarcane, but unlike rum it’s made directly from fermented sugarcane juice rather than rum which is made from molasses. It’s most often enjoyed in the caipirinha cocktail, which is popular all over the world and has made this spirit better known outside of Brazil. Caipirinhas are a fun crowd pleaser so you might consider picking up a bottle of this as well.

Best whiskey for your home bar

Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Another spirit with endless variations available is whiskey. From the quintessentially Amercian bourbon to a classic peaty Scotch, there are whiskeys from around the world and in many different styles. If you’re a whiskey enthusiast then you probably already have a sense of whether you prefer a sweet bourbon, a spicy rye, or a smokey scotch, and which bottles work for sipping and which for mixing. But if you’re not a huge whiskey drinker and you’re looking for something flexible and adaptable to have in your home bar, then bourbon can be a great choice.

The Maker’s Mark bourbon is smooth and on the sweeter side, so it fits well in drinks like the mint julep or the Manhattan. It’ll even do justice to the most classic of whiskey cocktails, the old fashioned. It’s probably not a fine whiskey for sipping, but it does the job in your mixed drinks without any fuss.

The best tequila for your home bar

El Tesoro Blanco Tequila

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tequila is another classic bottle you’ll want to have on hand for when your guests are in the mood for margaritas, palomas, or even slammers. While great tequilas can be sipped, a decent tequila also makes for a greatly improved mixed drink. Often the favorite tequilas for sipping are the aged, darker spirits like añejo or reposado styles, but those can be more challenging to use in cocktails unless you’re experienced with them. For the tequila novice, starting with a solid quality blanco or unaged tequila is the way to go for cocktails.

El Tesoro is a well regarded brand for its smooth, easy drinking character with notes of citrus and pepper. You can sip on this if that calls to you but it’ll be an ease favorite in a cocktail thanks to its sweetness, lending itself to a whole range of drinks.

And a bonus: Banhez Espadin Barril Mezcal

Image used with permission by copyright holder

If you’re interested in tequilas then you’re likely also aware of mezcal. The two spirits are both made in Mexico from agave plants, but tequila uses only one type of agave while mezcal can be made from a range of agave types. That makes mezcal rather more varied than tequila, with arguably a more distinct terroir. While mezcals are most often sipped, you can also use them in cocktails. You can sub in mezcal in place of tequila for a smokier take on classic cocktails, or  try cocktails designed specifically around mezcal like the naked & famous or the ultima palabra, a twist on the last word.

The Banhez Espadin Barril Mezcal is mild, smooth, and easy to mix, making it a good introductory mezcal and a fun one to play with in your home bar.

Optional extras for your home home bar

With a selection of these spirits you’ll be well set up to start mixing cocktails at home. But in addition to these essentials, you might want to pick up some optional extra spirits as well. These are typically used more as modifiers for cocktails rather than base spirits, but having them on hand increases the range of drinks you can make and allows you some space for experimentation.

You may want an orange liqueur, which is useful even if you wouldn’t ever think to order it at a bar. From the margarita to the white lady, there are a whole bunch of classic cocktails which use it. The traditional choice is Cointreau, which is high quality and has a tasty orange zest flavor, but any other triple sec can do at a push. If you enjoy these cocktails though, it’s worth spending on the pricier Cointreau. And once you have a bottle, it’s surprisingly good as an addition to coffee for an after dinner treat.

Another frequently used cocktail ingredient is brandy, which comes in endless varieties ranging from very cheap to extremely high end. You’ll find use for it in sidecars and sazeracs, though it’s probably not worth getting expensive brandy unless you happen to enjoy drinking it neat or using it in drinks like the brandy old fashioned.

In a similar vein, absinthe can be a diverse spirit category with some quality options despite its rather messy reputation. It has an extremely strong flavor, but a tiny spritz added to a drink like the corpse reviver no.2 can be game changing. Not an essential by any means, but certainly something fun to have in the bar for special occasions.

Lastly, a similarly strong flavored spirit is Chartreuse. Available in yellow or green varieties, this spirit is powerfully herbal with an anise-like spicy note as well as complex herbal flavors. The yellow version is rather sweeter, so I find it the more useful of the two in cocktails, but the green version is arguably the more traditional and popular. These aren’t cheap bottles but they’re worth picking up particularly if you enjoy experimenting with your own creations or you want to make a classic last word cocktail.

How we chose these home bar essentials

Building up a home bar can be the work of years, so the first thing to know is that you needn’t rush anything. Buying just a handful of bottles will still allow you to mix a huge range of drinks, particularly if you’re careful about choosing a range of bottles which go together well. It can help to take your time selecting each spirit, as you learn more about what kind of drinks you like to make and what kind of flavors you enjoy. You absolutely don’t need to buy everything on this list all at once. Instead, space out your acquisitions so you have time to experiment and get to know each spirit individually before buying the next.

Relatedly, the best way to start your home bar is to begin with what you love to drink. If you’re a whiskey fan, you might want to start with several different types of whiskey as the backbone of your bar. And if you hate tequila, for example, you needn’t stock it!

All of these spirits are useful to have, especially if you are making drinks for a wide range of people. There’s absolutely something satisfying about being able to provide a drink tailored to the individual tastes of your guests, and it can be a fun challenge to mix a drink using ingredients you don’t normally care for. But when you’re starting out, the best way to feel good about the bar you’re building is to have it full of things which you personally are excited to mix and to drink.

If you already have a favorite brand for particular spirits that you like to drink when you’re out, then that’s a no-brainer as a bottle to buy for your bar. And our recommendations here can help point you in the direction of good starting points for spirits you don’t often pay much attention to. But with ever more craft spirit brands available, there are hundreds of options to explore for every kind of spirit you can imagine. One great way to expand your bar is to look around at what craft spirits are being made in your local area – you’ll very often find spirits like vodka and gin being made locally, as they don’t require tons of equipment or time to make so many small brands have popped up in the last decade or so. For spirits like whiskey or tequila, these are more region-dependent, but it’s worth looking around to see if there are tastings or small local suppliers in your area which might have spirits you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

Another option when you’re starting out is to buy smaller size or tasting bottles of spirits so you can perform your own taste tests at home. While 750ml bottles is the standard size for most spirits, and larger 1000ml options can be the best value for something you know you’ll use, it can be cheaper in the long run to buy a range of samples and try them out to pick a favorite, rather than shelling out to buy a large bottle of something you might end up not enjoying.

That said, you’ll always be better off if you look for quality in your essential home bar spirits. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive options available – in fact, there’s often little point in using a really top-shelf whiskey in a cocktail, for example, as the nuances will be lost when it’s mixed – but don’t opt for bottom shelf booze or you’ll never be able to make a really satisfying cocktail.

These essential spirits are also just the starting point of a home bar. You’ll want to add in a variety of liquors, bitters, and mixers, not to mention some key tools to enable you to make the best drinks at home. We’ll have further parts of this home bar guide covering those topics coming up soon, so keep an eye out for that and you can start building a home bar to be proud of.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet

Georgina Torbet is a cocktail enthusiast based in Berlin, with an ever-growing gin collection and a love for trying out new recipes. When she's not in her other life writing about science she's sampling local craft beers, hunting down interesting Italian amaros, or making strange and experimental cocktails for anyone who stops by her compact but much loved home bar.

Want to jumpstart your gut health? Try these 5 breakfast foods
5 delicious gut-healthy breakfast ideas your tastebuds will also love
a raseberry smoothie in a mason jar on a table

Whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day is a food fight. Generally, you want to eat nutritious, filling foods throughout the day to power through your to-dos and feel good doing so. Still, breakfast sets the table for all that. In particular, a filling, nutrient-dense, gut-healthy breakfast can do wonders.

"After fasting overnight, your gut is ready to efficiently absorb nutrients," said Beata Rydyger, BSc, RHN, a registered nutritionist and nutritional contributor to HPVHUB. "Eating a breakfast rich in fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, improves digestion, and keeps the balance of microbes healthy." 

Read more
The paper plane cocktail puts a bourbon twist on a classic drink
This contemporary take on the Last Word is already a classic.
Paper Plane

The cocktail renaissance of the early aughts has returned many classic cocktails to the prominence they deserve. It’s also paved the way for talented, creative bartenders to create contemporary cocktails that will one day be referred to by the “classic” moniker. While there are countless complex cocktails crafted in the last few decades, one of the best is the Paper Plane.
What is a Paper Plane?

Similar to a classic Last Word which consists of equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice, and maraschino liqueur, the Paper Airplane is made with equal parts bourbon, Amaro Nonino, Aperol, and lemon juice. While the two drinks might not seem similar, it’s the number of ingredients and equal parts that make them mirror images (albeit a bit foggy) of each other.

Read more
How to open a beer bottle without an opener – you have lots of options
Don't worry, you will get that bottle open
Opening a bottle with a lighter

The crisis? You want to enjoy a beer, but you have no bottle opener. Don't panic, because we're going to get through this thing. After all, it's surprisingly easy to open a beer bottle without an opener. All the bottle opener does is use a bit of leverage to bend the cap, anyway. So let's create some leverage, and then let's drink some beer.

A quick note before we get started: It's easy to open beer bottles using rings, but the potential for damaging your ring or your metacarpal is very high, so we've left that one out.
How to open a beer bottle with a lighter

Read more