“...lots of red meat and Gin.” ― Julia Child, on the reasons for her longevity
Booze. Hooch. Sauce. Liquid Courage. Whatever you call it, your home bar would be incomplete without a few bottles of some classic spirits. They are the backbone that connect all of the supporting players in a cocktail, which I like to think of as divided between “basics” and “extras.” In this edition of Cocktails with Carolyn, I’ll cover what I think of as the most important “base” bottles to keep on hand to be best poised for classic or inventive cocktails done well...at home!
And while I haven't paired Gin with a good steak before (but I do love a challenge), I'll start off by saying that the spirits you choose should be tailored to your tastes. In my years of enjoying a cocktail at home, my tastes have certainly changed. What I once thought of as the pinnacle of sophistication (looking at you, College Carolyn) now serves as my “house” bottle; a tried and true classic, but by no means the final destination in exploring the world of spirits. So in stocking the liquor cabinet for your home bar, there are two important things to keep in mind: price and use. Don’t buy what you know you won’t use, and certainly don’t break the bank on something you only use once in a blue moon…or Manhattan. You know your taste better than anyone, so keep an open mind, but also know that these are simply suggestions from my experience. This is all part of a fun, cocktail-fueled adventure, so let’s get going!
Now that you've got your glassware sorted, it's time to choose some liquor! If you only have the space or budget (or desire) to have a few bottles on hand, these are the absolute essentials in my mind.
Ah, Whiskey (or Whisky for some of you across the pond). There are truly endless possibilities in picking a bottle of whiskey for your bar, but if you want one that serves a multitude of purposes and recipes, go with a Bourbon. Whiskey encompasses a vast array of Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Japanese, blended, single malts, Rye...you get the idea. But as a cocktail lover, a good bottle of Bourbon will serve you well, and most importantly, give you the most variety in your cocktails. With a bottle of Bourbon on hand, you can make an Old Fashioned, a delicious Manhattan, Whiskey Sours of all varieties, Mint Juleps, a Boulevardier, and so many more. A bottle of Bourbon also comes in particularly handy for a host of festive fall and winter cocktails like Mulled Cider with Bourbon, Eggnog, and the classic Hot Toddy.
A bottle of Vodka will serve so many fantastic cocktails. As a neutral spirit (intended to not have a strong flavor), you aren’t looking for any particular flavors to shine (like vanilla or spice in a Bourbon, or strong botanicals in a Gin). However, Vodka is made from a whole host of grains or products, so they don't all have the same flavor. For instance, well known Vodkas like Absolut, Kettle One, and Grey Goose are distilled from wheat. Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Smirnoff are distilled from corn. Stolichnaya is made from a mix of grains. Polish Vodka maker Chopin makes theirs from potatoes. Cîroc is even distilled from grapes. So find a brand that you like and keep it stocked. With a bottle of your preferred Vodka on hand, you’re poised to make a whole range of cocktails, including a Vodka Martini, Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule, White Russian, Bloody Mary, Greyhound, Screwdriver, and so many more. It is also a great bottle to have if you want to start playing with your own cocktail creations since it lets your other ingredients shine.
I have one word for you: Margarita. Personally, I believe no home bar is complete without Tequila. Taco Tuesday is a real thing in my house, and with it comes all varieties of Margaritas. Tequila has such a range of flavors and types that it can feel a bit overwhelming to choose one (at least it was for me when I started learning more about them). Essentially, you’ve got three main types of Tequila to pick from: Blanco/Silver (unaged/strait from the still), Reposado (started life as a Blanco and then aged 2-11 months in oak barrels), and Añejo (started life as Blanco and aged for 1-3 years in oak barrels). If you pick just one, I think you can’t go wrong with a good Blanco (or silver) Tequila as it is the most affordable and most versatile option. Also, skip the stuff that doesn’t clearly say “100% agave,” which means it is a Mixto Tequila (blended with neutral spirit and artificial color added). There’s a reason those “cheap Tequila” headaches happen, and you have Mixto Tequila to thank for them. With a good Tequila, you’ll be mixing up all sorts of Margaritas, from classic to jalapeno mango, Palomas galore, and even fun classics like a Tequila Sunrise. Also, if you decide to branch out and explore the other varieties, be prepared to become a Tequila lover. Swapping a Blanco for a Reposado in a recipe can take a clean and fresh Paloma and add richness and caramel/vanilla flavors that are absolutely delicious. A good Añejo can be velvety and rich, perfect for sipping neat just like you would a fine Whiskey.
Needing some variety in your life...or cup? Add Gin! Julia Child was on to something. Gin is my personal favorite when it comes to cocktails, and there’s a reason why: flavor. Gin starts life as a neutral spirit and then gets the ultimate glow up in the way of beautiful botanicals added during distillation. What does this mean? I think this means there’s a Gin for everybody. Some Gins are juniper heavy and (some would say) reminiscent of pine. Others are lighter and floral, and still others are citrus forward. Just by changing the bottle of Gin, you can change the whole nature of a cocktail (and that’s a good thing!) If you pick just one, a good classic London Dry style will be your best bet. Gin will equip you to make classics like the Gin & Tonic, Classic Martini, French 75, Negroni, and the Gimlet. You’ll also be able to make some of my favorite cocktails like a Gin Sour or Gin Fizz, an Aviation, and even tiki drinks featuring Gin like the Saturn.
Like Tequila, Rum comes in many ages and varieties, but I think a good light Rum (aka silver or white) or aged Rum is a final addition to crowning your 5-bottle basic bar. Rums can be crisp and clean or rich and warm, so decide on the type of drinks you want to make and buy accordingly. For me, a Rum cocktail immediately transports me to a place of relaxation and swaying palms. Not to mention Rum is the backbone of the tiki and tropical cocktail world, so if vacation vibes are what you crave, this is the bottle for you. With a light Rum, you’ll be ready to make a Mojito, a Hemingway Daiquiri, or the equally delicious Classic Daiquiri. An aged Rum will get you delicious drinks like a Jungle Bird, Mai Tai, or a Dark n’ Stormy. And let’s not forget the vacation staple Rum-based Pina Colada, which is easy to make fresh, and infinitely better than any bottled mix.
With these 5 bottles, you can tackle almost any classic or inventive cocktails. But remember: don't buy it if you wouldn’t drink it neat. If it tastes bad to you straight, it probably is. And price isn’t always an indicator of how much you’ll like it, so start with a good middle of the road purchase and keep a few bucks in your pocket for other supporting players in your bar. In my experience, I steer clear of sub-$20 bottles, as there is typically a reason for the low price (low quality ingredients, cut corners in production, etc.) and stick to around the $30+ mark. Here, quality is king (or queen). If you wrinkle your nose when it’s in the bottle, you should never expect it to taste better when you’ve used it in a cocktail.
Most importantly, have fun with it and stick to your preferences. If you truly hate Gin (I’m sorry, have we met?), then don’t stock it or only have a small format bottle instead. If you’re a Margarita maniac, perhaps stock a few bottles of your favorite Tequila, but branch out and add a bottle of smoky and sultry Mezcal to mix it up. My experience in growing my home bar from “a few trusty classics” to what it is today began with being at the liquor store and thinking, “Hmm, this looks interesting. Maybe I should buy a bottle to try it out.” The rest, as they say, is history.