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Home Bar Essentials

Sat, Sep 24, 22  |  spirits

Over the last year, we all had to adjust our daily routines and habits, coming up with new and inventive ways to entertain ourselves and our loved ones. With the shutdown of full capacity bars and restaurants, expanding and curating a home bar was a project that many people went through, myself included.

Several things that became essential for me while “bartending” at home during the past year:

Let us start at the top of the list with my favorite topic, bourbon. This is a big one. The circumstances of the last year did not help ease the burden of hunting down hard to get bourbons. So, I am going to focus on items we can get regularly. I think every good home bar should have some fine bourbon on it. Four Roses Single Barrel, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, Knob Creek Single Barrel, and Old Forester 1920 are a great start to giving yourself some real options when looking for a glass of bourbon. After these, an everyday pour of bourbon is a necessity for your bar, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Knob Creek 9-year, Larceny Wheated Bourbon, and Makers Mark 46 are a good group to start with. Of course, what type of bar does not have a great mixing bourbon? Look no further than Old Forester Signature 100 Proof, a staple of bartenders for making cocktails without breaking the bank while also maintaining quality.  Bourbon is a big category these days, but I think the above selections are a great start that can be supplemented over time with store-selected barrel picks and hard-to-get allocated items.

I am going to stay with whiskey, every home bar should have at least one rye whiskey or more. It is a hot category that continues to sizzle and is becoming more mainstream by the minute. For something readily available that is a little more high-end, Pikesville Rye will do the trick. After that, Old Forester Rye, Michters Rye, and Knob Creek Rye are great everyday items to have on hand. It is probably best to start with one Rye and add new items over time, which is also part of the fun.

One of the best parts of exploring the world of whiskey is branching out to the other types that are out there. Scotch Whisky, Single Malt Scotch, and Irish whiskey are widely popular in a lot of areas in the U.S. You do not have to go too deep here, just have enough for self-exploration or the friend who is coming over who tends to like these whiskies. For an Irish whiskey, Jameson is the standard-bearer here in the U.S., but Red Breast or Slane Castle are two great options if you are looking to have something a little higher end. The word of Scotch is very broad and there are a lot of offerings with many different profiles. To keep it easy, it is probably best to start with Single Malt Scotch. Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood, Glenfiddich 12 Year, or Glenmorangie 10 Year are great starting points. If you would like to expand your offerings, it is good to have a nice peated scotch as part of the line-up, Ardbeg 10 Year or Laphroaig 10 Year will fit the bill nicely. Of course, some people simply prefer a classed blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Black or Famous Grouse. Once you are familiar with these brands and types, there is a world of brands to explore and build out your collection.

Now, for my second favorite topic, Tequila! My love affair with tequila is almost as deep as my love for bourbon, but that is for another blog. I would start with some sipping tequilas. This includes the three main types, Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo. These should all be clearly labeled “100% Agave”, “100% Blue Agave”, or “100% Blue Weber Agave”.  This lets you know it is made with the highest quality ingredients and craftsmanship. My current favorite brand that meets all these marks is El Tesoro, you cannot go wrong with any type from this distillery. Herradura, Fortaleza, Siete Leguas, Corazon and Patron are all certainly up to the task as well. Now, tequila cocktails are quickly gaining steam here in the U.S., in particular, a well-made Paloma. You can certainly use a high-end sipping tequila for a great tequila cocktail, but sometimes you want to keep those for sipping and get something a little more economical while maintaining a certain degree of quality. Espolon is great tequila for sipping or mixing. El Jimador, Lunazul, and Sauza are also good choices when thinking about batch cocktails.

Rum, while not admittedly one of my favorites, is an essential cog in the wheel in any bar, home, or out.  Most rum cocktails are made with a light, clear rum, sometimes called silver or blanco, like tequila. This one is easy. Bacardi Superior, or Captain Morgan White, are perfect for these types of cocktails. If a clear rum is not used, typically spiced rum is used. Sailor Jerry Spiced or Captain Morgan Spiced will work just fine. Where I do find some love for rum at my house is on sipping rums. Some of these are hard to find based on availability, but if you can find a Four Square Rum, it certainly lives up to their quality reputation. The Plantation line of rums is also well made and highly thought of by aficionados.

An old classic that is now re-emerging in the drink world is Gin. I prefer some of the newer American Craft-style gins as opposed to the very juniper-forward examples that have been around for years. If you are here in Kentucky, you cannot go wrong with Castle & Key Roots of Ruin Gin, it is perfect for a variety of cocktails, new and old. Bowling and Birch is another great gin made by Limestone Branch in Lebanon KY. While Hendricks Gin is not an American Craft gin, it is a great modern gin that is widely popular on cocktail menus around the U.S. If you are a traditionalist, it is very easy to just go with a Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire.

As popular as bourbon and tequila are these days, vodka is still the largest category and a prime ingredient in numerous cocktails. If you are looking for a top-shelf vodka for a martini, or something simple, numerous items will fill this role. Reyka Vodka, Belvedere, Grey Goose, and Ketel One are great examples to use for these types of cocktails or sipping. If you are looking for something that is not as expensive but still high quality, Wheatley Vodka, Svedka Vodka, and Skyy Vodka will all work for a fine cocktail. If you are looking to make batch cocktails and save a little money, Burnett’s Vodka and New Amsterdam Vodka are at an affordable price and available in a variety of flavors. If you just need a standard vodka but want some quality and at a very affordable price, you cannot go wrong with Platinum 7X Vodka.

Here are few other items that can be added as you build your essential bar collection. You probably need an orange-flavored liqueur for various cocktails. You can easily find Grand Marnier, or Gran Gala, which is just as good, cheaper, and at a higher proof. St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur has also become a key component in many cocktails, particularly vodka cocktails. An herbal liqueur like Campari, or Aperol, is also increasingly found in a variety of cocktails these days. Bitters are all the rage with bartenders and there are many brands and types within the brands. Fee Brothers is a great craft version along with two old staples, Angostura and Peychaud’s.

I have found that things like tonic water, club soda, vermouth, and fruit are best bought fresh, so there is no need to always try and keep these things on hand.

As you can see, there are plenty of things to add to your home bar that can be essential to your cocktail and spirits enjoyment and putting it all together is part of the fun.


Brad Williams
Liquor Barn-Party Mart
Bourbon Master
Vice President – Purchasing & Product Development