In this edition of "Cocktails with Carolyn," find out about the "supporting cast" your home bar needs to help you transform good drinks into exceptional ones.
Article & Photos by @CarolinaVerbena
“Sherry? What an intriguing idea. I think I can scare up a bottle of Sherry!” ― Frasier Crane
Sure, a Bourbon on the rocks is delicious...but have you ever had a perfectly crafted Manhattan in which a touch of Sweet Vermouth and a dash of bitters really makes the Bourbon sing? What about an icy cold Martini beautifully balanced by a whisper of Dry Vermouth? Or a delightfully sweet and tart fresh Margarita in which a splash of orange liqueur makes its citrus flavors shine? Once you've settled on your liquor basics, adding the right “extras” to your home bar can truly elevate your drink making. This "supporting cast" as I like to call it includes lower alcohol liqueurs, fortified wines, and bitters, each of which plays an important part in how a cocktail looks, tastes, and feels. Many of these are delicious on their own (just like Frasier and his brother Niles, my personal favorite, I also enjoy a Sherry), while some are better left to play a supporting role (I don’t typically enjoy sipping on Triple Sec neat, for example).
First, “liqueur” is not just a fancy spelling of liquor. Liqueurs are typically lower in alcohol (although not always) and are made by infusing a base spirit (like Vodka or Brandy) with fruits, herbs, and/or spices for flavoring, which is then sweetened with sugar or sugar syrup.
But what cocktails actually call for liqueur? Should you use Grand Marnier for your Margarita...or Cointreau or Gran Gala? Or can you just use a trusty bottle of Triple Sec and still have a great drink? What exactly is Campari and is Aperol the same thing? The world of liqueurs is vast and can often be confusing. But to me, the most fun part of going to the liquor store is the incredible variety of flavors, histories, and uses to be found in the liqueur section. Of course, this means there are infinite possibilities when it comes to choosing what to buy, so to help you narrow down your options, these are my "must-have” favorites:
CAMPARI (OR APEROL): Campari is that vibrant electric red liqueur, without which we would not have the Negroni. Campari not only makes your drinks beautifully jewel toned, it adds a bitter citrus note that is unmistakable in classics like the aforementioned Negroni, the Old Pal, and that summertime favorite the Spritz. You can also use it to make a Boulevardier, an Americano, or a Jungle Bird, and you can even use it to amp up the flavor in other cocktails. A personal favorite is making a Greyhound with a splash of Campari. In addition to Campari, there are producers making fantastic “Campari-style” liqueurs of their own like St. George’s Bruto Americano and Tempus Fugit’s Gran Classico.
That said, if you dislike the more aggressive bitterness of Campari, you can’t go wrong swapping it for a bottle of Aperol. Aperol lends that same gorgeous citrusy note and color, but is slightly sweeter and less bitter.
AMARETTO: You’ll know the sweet, syrupy almond aroma of Amaretto the second it hits your nose. I think it is delicious alone, sipped neat as a perfect ending to dinner, but it's also a key component to cocktails like the Amaretto Sour and Godfather, and lends an unmistakable nuttiness to a variety of dessert-style cocktails like an Almond Joy or a Toasted Almond. Try adding a touch of Amaretto to a White Russian, Espresso Martini, or any fall cocktails (think boozy apple ciders or eggnog). Also, your morning coffee will never be more decadent than with a splash of Amaretto and a topping of whipped cream! DiSaronno (the iconic rectangular bottle) is what I stock at home because I like the balance of sweet to bitter notes, but there are plenty of options out there, so experiment to find which bottle you like best. (Fun fact: While the flavor and scent of Amaretto is unmistakably “almond,” it actually owes its almond quality to apricot pits!)
COFFEE LIQUEUR: Most of us know coffee liqueur simply as Kahlua. Which makes sense because it is the number one selling coffee liqueur in the world! Coffee liqueur is a delicious sip alone, but will also keep you ready to whip up delicious drinks like a Black Russian, Bushwhacker, Toasted Almond, or Mudslide. Personally, I use it most in “after dinner” style drinks like the White Russian or Espresso Martini. Kahlua is iconic (and delicious), but there are also some amazing producers making their own offerings. Check out St. George, Gran Brulot, Mr. Black, and even experiment with making your own.
CITRUS LIQUEUR: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And when life gives you a bitter orange, turn it into Triple Sec! Originating in France, Triple Sec is a clear, sweet orange liqueur made from bitter orange peels. A citrus or orange liqueur like Triple Sec (or something similar) will come into play for drinks like a Margarita, Cosmopolitan, White Lady, Kamikaze, or Sidecar. A standard bottle of Triple Sec (like the recognizable Bols or De Kuyper) will be the most affordable options that will give you great citrus flavor (although perhaps without as much nuance or depth as other offerings, since they are made from a neutral spirit). But you also have choices like Cointreau (the most recognized and popular Triple Sec), Luxardo Triplum, Gran Gala (Brandy based), Grand Marnier (Cognac based), or Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao (a personal favorite, which is Cognac and Brandy based.)
No bar is complete (in my opinion) without at least one bottle from the fortified wine category. Fortified wine starts life as wine and then has additional spirits (this is the “fortified” part, which increases the ABV) and spices added for depth and flavor. Options here include Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth, Sherry, and Port (among others), which all have their place in the cocktail world.
If you have to pick just one fortified wine to keep on hand, pick Vermouth. Vermouth comes as either sweet or dry, and the most important part of choosing between the two is what you’ll want to drink. Manhattans, Negronis, and Boulevardiers all call for Sweet Vermouth and there’s truly no substitute. A crisp, cold Martini on the other hand calls for Dry Vermouth. I’d recommend having a bottle of both, but if only one is in your budget, let it be Sweet Vermouth (life without a Manhattan is just plain harsh). But don’t buy the cheap stuff, quality matters here. Since you’ll only use small amounts in your cocktails, it will last you a while and will make the difference between an acceptable, but not great drink and a truly delicious one. It is also worth noting that you can absolutely drink Vermouth alone as a delicious aperitif, so don’t relegate it to “cocktails only” status. Notable (and personal favorite) brands include Dolin, Carpano Antica, or Martini & Rossi Reserva.
Four words: Bitters make it better. Think of them as the “seasoning” for your cocktail, adding depth, nuance, and that extra “something.” Without them, you wouldn’t know what’s missing...but as soon as you add a few dashes, the cocktail sings. Bitters started life as medicine (or at least, that’s how they were marketed) and moved into the cocktail world to make bad booze taste better! Simplified, bitters are a brew of spices, bark, and roots, but they now come in a huge range of flavors. Iconic and delicious, Angostura Bitters is a “can’t go wrong” option for any home bar. A dash or two in a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, or a Sazerac are an absolute must. But don’t stop there! Try adding a few dashes of bitters to your Margarita, Moscow Mule, or even a Gin & Tonic. Also, if you have a bottle of not so great bubbly, spruce it up with bitters! A dash or two of peach bitters will give you instant Bellini vibes without any of the extra work! There are loads of bitters options available now, so explore adding more than one bottle to your bar. Other personal favorites are Lavender bitters from Scrappy’s (amazing in a Bee’s Knees or a Gin Sour), Grapefruit bitters from The Bitter Truth (a few dashes to your next Paloma and you’ll be sold), Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters (amazing in a Manhattan), and Earl Grey 18.21 Bitters (delicious in a Gin & Tonic or an Old Fashioned).
NOTABLE EXTRA SIPS
While not “essential” to the home bar, here are some other bottles I love that are worth considering if you have the space and/or the budget:
LILLET BLANC: A French aperitif wine that is similar to Vermouth. Absolutely divine over ice on a hot summer day with a slice of lemon and a few herbs. Also try Lillet in your next Martini!
GINGER LIQUEUR: Bringing a semi-sweet, semi-spicy flavor to a variety of cocktails, ginger liqueur can easily be mixed with just about every liquor out there. Particularly delicious in Martinis, Moscow Mules, and Whiskey-based drinks, and it's also a tasty addition to a Hot Toddy or a holiday Cider. This is one liqueur, however, that comes in varying degrees of sweetness and spiciness, so you'll have to test them out to find the one that's right for you. I recommend Domaine de Canton for a great balance between sweet and spice or Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur when you really want a punch of ginger.
ALLSPICE/PIMENTO DRAM: There are two brands I love (and they can be used interchangeably). Saint Elizabeth Allspice Dram and The Bitter Truth Pimento Dram (no, not those slimy red things in your Martini olive...allspice is the berry from the Pimento tree). Think holiday baking spices amped up, this adds amazing flavor to Autumn tipples and festive holiday drinks, and they're a must for Tiki cocktails as well. (Velvet Falernum can substitute as well, and is easily found in most liquor stores.)
LIMONCELLO: Keep a bottle of this syrupy, incredibly vibrant lemon liqueur in your freezer. It tastes like a sunny afternoon on the Amalfi coast and you’ll never be sad you have it on hand. Just be sure to buy only bottles that list ingredients and don’t include any artificial coloring (you want that vibrant yellow color to come from the lemons, not a lab). Favorite brands that are easily found in the store are Limoncello di Capri and Villa Massa (although there are incredible varieties to be found if you’re lucky enough to be driving down the Amalfi coast!). Perfect served neat after a meal, or you can add it to cocktails for an extra lemon kick.
ELDERFLOWER LIQUEUR: A versatile spirit that mixes with everything from sparkling and white wine to Gin, Vodka, and Whiskey. Made from elderflower blossoms (the white blossoms found on Elderberry trees), elderflower liqueur is an easy way to give a sweet, floral flavor to your cocktails. It's most popularly added to Champagne cocktails, but try it in a Gimlet, a Martini, a French 75, and a variety of Sangrias and punches as well. Brands I like in this category are St~Germain (the most well-known) and Giffard Fleur de Sureau Sauvage.
CHARTREUSE: A French liqueur produced by Carthusian monks, Chartreuse is made with a proprietary recipe of 130 herbs and botanicals and has a distinct flavor that's impossible to replicate. It's one of those liqueurs for which there is no replacement as it's uniquely sweet, spicy, and herbaceous all at the same time. Both green and yellow Chartreuse get their color naturally from different varieties of herbs and botanicals that are macerated and steeped in alcohol; however, yellow Chartreuse is slightly sweeter, milder, and less alcoholic than the green. Chartreuse is considered among many as the "king of liqueurs" because it's delicious on the rocks or served neat as a digestif, a perfect complement to wine, Gin, Tequila, and citrus-forward cocktails, a lovely contrast or balance for tropical, floral, and herb-focused drinks, and delicious in both savory and sweet concoctions.
Like your glassware and liquor collections, your supporting cast lineup can be as large (or small) as you have the budget or room for, but keep in mind the importance of balance. You can’t make a Manhattan without Vermouth...and if you love Manhattans (like I do), you’ll want to explore the world of Vermouth to find your “perfect match.” But if you never drink White Russians and can’t stand coffee...well then, don’t stock coffee liqueur! Find something different that you love and stick with it. You’ll thank yourself when you want that “perfect” cocktail or a nice little tipple as a post-dinner treat. Having an assortment of these extras is not only practical, but delicious too!
Carolyn is a self-taught home bar and cocktail enthusiast. She enjoys a drink on the porch in the evening and is a strong believer that you can never have too many glassware options. She is the creator and curator of @CarolinaVerbena, featuring the cocktails she mixes up at home with her husband and two cats. Carolyn lives in Atlanta, GA, but is a nomad at heart who loves to explore the world one sip (or bite) at a time.