Bartender Basics: The Most Important Non-Alcohol Bottles to Have


When it comes to filling your home bar, alcohol is the easy part. A bottle of basic spirits – whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, rum, maybe brandy – usually does the trick. If you’re aiming for a versatile bar that can whip up a wide variety of cocktails without taking up too much space, however, decide which one other bottles to store is where the going gets tough.

Here’s a quick guide to the most important blenders, liquors, and other ingredients to store at home. We have prioritized those that can be used in the widest range of drinks, but that may change based on your personal preferences. If your favorite way to wind down at the end of the day is with a homemade Mai Tai, orgeat may be higher on your list than the rest.


Vermouth: We explained why this fortified wine is an integral part of so many cocktails. Aromatic, adaptable and useful in all kinds of situations, vermouth is to many cocktails what sauces are to cooking.

Take the time to taste vermouths on their own to savor one you like. When you’ve found a few vermouths that you like, try to always have at least one bottle of dry candy on hand, as well as a blank / bianco if you have room. Do not leave them open for too long, these flavored wines have a limited shelf life.

Bitter: 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 4-10 ounces, and since only a few dashes are used at a time, they should last a long time. While there is a wide range of delicious artisanal bitters on the market today (and some prefer to make their own), Angostura has been the standard bearer since its inception almost 200 years ago. If you are looking to grow, Angostura, by Peychaud and Regan’s Orange Bitters constitute the “holy trinity” of bitters in most bars.

Red aperitif: It’s hard to celebrate Negroni season without a bottle of bitter red apertivo on hand. The most popular at Campari or Aperol, countless brands are now lining the shelves. It’s worth tasting to find the one you like, as flavor profiles can vary. Campari tends to be more bitter and heavy than Aperol, which makes the latter better for a spritz and the former quite heavy for boulevardiers, but most can be swapped out in the recipe to personal taste. Meletti 1870 is another widely available version of this style, just like 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, the Margarita, the Corpse Reviver # 2 and, yes, the Cosmo – that it remains a staple in most homes. It can be tempting to buy an $ 8 triple sec at your local liquor store, but for how often it’s used, you’re better off finding quality options.

Good to have

Amaro brown: While amaro enthusiasts may think strongly that these bitter, plant-based digestives are a must-have, they’re more often sipped neat rather than used in cocktails (although we love a good amaro highball). For this reason, we classify them as nice to keep in the house if you’re a fan of them, but feel free to forgo them if your personal tastes lean 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 Pastis: These are a key component in a handful of cocktails, like the classic New Orleans Sazerac or the aforementioned Corpse Reviver # 2. However, if you are not a fan of anise or licorice flavors, it is safe to omit this ingredient. Good to keep on hand if you’re a fan of the style, and there are plenty of types of traffic jams worth exploring, but not essential for blending purposes.

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

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

Not strictly necessary

Grenadine and most pre-bottled syrups: Although found in many recipes, commonly used syrups like grenadine, lime syrups, and ginger or honey syrup can be created at home in minutes using sugar and a bottle of regular juice or other staple foods.

Endless liqueurs: Trying to stock all of the exclusive flavored liquor variations is nearly impossible, and most don’t feature in enough cocktails to be consistently useful. If there’s something you like that is difficult to assess, like elderflower liqueur or crème de violette, keep a bottle handy. For others, like coffee or grapefruit liqueurs, you can often get by with a combination of other ingredients.

Flavored vodka: Technically a spirit, many of them still overlap with the liquor / liquor division. We won’t blame you if there’s a favorite flavored vodka you like to keep, 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 lemon or cucumber vodka for a specific cocktail, you can recreate it by mixing some of the actual ingredient into your drink, or by creating a DIY version by dipping the ingredients into the bottle itself. Boom, you have become a craftsman.

Bloody Mary Mix: Friends don’t let their friends use a pre-made Bloody Mary mix. You can do better.


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