Bartender Basics: The Most Important Bottles to Have That Aren’t Liquor


When it comes to stocking your home bar, liquor is the easy part. A bottle each of staple spirit—whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, rum, maybe brandy—usually does the trick. If you’re aiming for a versatile bar that can make a wide variety of cocktails without taking up too much space, however, deciding which other bottles to stock is where things often get tricky.

Here’s a loose guide to the most important mixers, liqueurs and other ingredients to stock at home. We’ve prioritized those that can be used in the widest array of drinks, but this may change depending on personal preference. If your favorite way to unwind at the end of the day is with a homemade Mai Tai, orgeat may have a higher place on your list than others.

Must Haves

Vermouth: We’ve covered why this fortified wine is such an integral ingredient in so many cocktails. Aromatic, adaptable and useful in an array of situations, vermouth is to many cocktails what sauces are to cooking.

Take the time to taste through vermouths on their own to home in on one you enjoy. When you’ve found a few vermouths you like, try to always keep at least one bottle of sweet and dry on hand, along with a blanc/bianco if you’ve got room. Just don’t keep them opened too long—these aromatized wines do have a limited shelf life.

Bitters: If vermouth is to cocktails what a sauce is to cooking, then bitters are your salt and pepper. A single bottle is small, usually only a 4–10 ounces, and since only a few dashes are used at a time they should last for a long time. While there are a wide range of delicious craft bitters on the market today (and some prefer to make their own), Angostura has been the standard bearer since its creation almost 200 years ago. If you’re looking to expand, Angostura, Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange Bitters constitute the “holy trinity” of bitters at most bars.

Red Apertivo: It’s hard to celebrate Negroni season without a bottle of bitter red apertivo on hand. Most popularly seen in Campari or Aperol, countless brands now line shelves. It’s worth tasting around to find one you like, as flavor profiles can vary. Campari tends to be more bitter and heavy than Aperol, making the latter better for a spritz and the former weighty enough for Boulevardiers, but most can be interchanged in recipe on personal taste. Meletti 1870 is another widely available take on this style, as is Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter.

Triple Sec: While there are countless fruit-based liqueurs, triple sec is a component of so many cocktails—the Sidecar, Margarita, Corpse Reviver #2 and , yes, the Cosmo—that it remains a must-have in most homes. It may be tempting to pick up a bottom-shelf $8 triple sec from your local liquor store, but for how often it’s utilized you’re better off finding quality options.

Good to Have

Brown Amaro: While amaro devotees may feel strongly that these bitter, herbal digestifs are a must-have, they’re more often sipped neat rather than used in cocktails (though we do love a good amaro highball). For that reason, we classify these as nice to keep around the home if you’re a fan of them, but feel free to forgo if your personal taste skew elsewhere. The breadth of the category is staggering, so spend some time learning the styles and tasting a variety of bottles to find your favorite.

Absinthe or Anise-flavored Pastis: These are a key component in a handful of cocktails, like New Orleans’s classic Sazerac or the aforementioned Corpse Reviver #2. However, if you’re not a fan of anise, or licorice-like flavors, you can safely omit this ingredient. Good to keep on hand if you’re a fan of the style, and there are many types of bottlings worth exploring, but aren’t essential for mixing purposes.

Maraschino Liqueur: This liqueur, not to be confused with the red juice cocktail cherries are soaked in, is a key component in many classic cocktails like the Aviation, Martinez, Last Word and Hemingway Daiquiri. It can be substituted with simple syrup in a pinch, but the actual flavor is hard to replicate without a bottle of the real stuff, like Luxardo. You can skip it if you don’t see the ingredient often in your favorite cocktails, but for some this may be a staple.

Cream Liqueurs: Another specialty liqueur worth having around if you enjoy it, for cocktail purposes, most are likely to call for regular cream combined with the base spirit than a pre-mixed brand. That said, if you just enjoy having a bottle in the freezer for an after-dinner treat, we fully support it.

Not Strictly Necessary

Grenadine and Most Pre-Bottled Syrups: While found in plenty of recipes, commonly called-for syrups like grenadine, lime cordials and ginger or honey syrup can be created at home in just a few minutes using sugar and a bottle of regular juice or other pantry staples.

Endless Liqueurs: Trying to stock every variation of proprietary flavored liqueur is nearly impossible, and most aren’t featured in enough cocktails to be persistently useful. If there’s something you’re partial to that’s hard to approximate, like elderflower liqueur or crème de violette, keep a bottle on hand. For others, like coffee or grapefruit liqueurs, you can often get away with a combination of other ingredients.

Flavored Vodka: Technically a spirit, a lot of these still straddle the liquor/liqueur divide. We won’t begrudge if there’s a favorite flavored vodka you like to keep around, and there are plenty of labels worth checking out. Still, if you’re trying to keep a lean bar and don’t want a dedicated bottle of citron or cucumber vodka for a specific cocktail, you can recreate by muddling some of the actual ingredient into your drink, or creating a DIY version by soaking the ingredients in the bottle itself. Boom, you’ve become an artisan.

Bloody Mary Mix: Friends don’t let friends use premade Bloody Mary mix. You can do better.