Guide to the home bar
This page identifies basic ingredients to have on hand to be a home mixologist. With each, thought has been placed into what mixes well in cocktails, but drinking any of the brands listed below straight shouldn't cause any offense. The below list will enable you to make everything on the Flight Club approved traditional cocktail lists.
But first, a word from Alton Brown:
Gin - Start with a single bottle of London Dry Gin, but don't be afraid to branch out, as Gin styles can vary greatly from the traditional juniper-forward style many of us know and love. Beefeater is a good buy. Consider finding an American style Gin to add a bit more class to your bar. Some of these are more citrus-forward and more pleasing to a non-gin palate.
Mezcal - If you are familiar with the contrast of a smokey Scotch as compared to a lighter Irish Whiskey, then you are prepared for the contrast between Tequila and Mezcal. Both are agave based liquors, but Mezcal is typically much smokier. It is not often a good substitute for Tequila, but can be supplement 25% of many recipes to add a layer of smoke. Don't buy anything with a worm, and plan to spend a little more than you have to spend with Tequila (roughly $40). Alipus makes several nice Mezcal available in many markets.
Rum - Ignore everything you think you know about Rum, other than it is typically made from sugarcane. Today's rums can be aged or unaged, and the aging process varies greatly by location and brand. Mount Gay makes excellent aged and unaged (clear) rums great for any cocktail.
Tequila - Consider adding two tequilas to your home bar - a clear blanco tequila and an aged reposado tequila. If you have room for one more, add a more heavily aged anejo tequila (if you don't, just substitute your reposado tequila in any recipe calling for anejo). Stay away from the highly marketed brands. Instead, for mixing basic cocktails, consider El Jimador as a go-to (for blanco, reposado and anejo). To step it up to tequilas that are more palatable neat, consider Don Julio or Herradura.
Vodka - One bottle will do. At Flight Club, we find the Tito's brand to be a great buy, especially in the 1.75 liter version. It has a creamy mouthfeel and a nice, smooth taste and little burn. If you prefer something spicier, try Stoli or Kettle One.
Whiskey/Bourbon - For mixing cocktails a typical $20-$30 bottle of non-age stated bourbon will do. Consider bourbons like Buffalo Trace (sweeter), Four Rose Small Batch (spicier), Knob Creek (nuttier), or Elijah Craig. If you want to up your game, consider a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon or high proof whiskey (like Old Grand Dad or Wild Turkey 101). If you desire a softer approach to a whiskey (where the whiskey doesn't shine through as boldly), consider wheated bourbons like Weller' Special Reserve or Maker's Mark.
Absinthe or Herbsaint - This may be one of the pricier items on the list. However, a bottle will likely last a lifetime (unless you are one of the few who really likes absinthe served the traditional way, with simple a cube of sugar and some water). Having this on hand will allow you to make some truly exceptional complex cocktails. Herbsaint is a U.S. made brand that is ideal in the Sazerac cocktail and works just fine in just about anything else.
Campari - A bitter orange Italian liquor. A required ingredient in the Negroni and the Boulevardier. If you are not familiar with this, it is very bitter. If you have tried it and simply can't take the bitterness, opt for Aperol instead.
Dry Vermouth - Basic brands such Dolin are serviceable, but consider picking up whatever your local store has in the $15 per bottle range. a reminder, vermouths are typically low proof fortified wines and have a limited shelf life. Keep them refrigerated. Decent, fresh vermouth can be great in various quantities in a cocktail, but vermouth that has soured is what has given vermouth a bad reputation.
Elderflower Liquor - a seemingly odd, yet fantastic addition to your home bar. Elderflower liquor is, obviously, very floral, but also very sweet. Many recipes call for it specifically, but it can be used as an excellent substitute for other ingredients like Triple Sec. St. Germain is the go to here.
GranGala - An orange liqueur often described simply as Triple Sec. This liquor is brandy based and therefore has a deeper, richer flavors. Many insist on stepping up to Grand Marnier, but for less than half the price (and for just a few dollars more than a decent Triple Sec) you can still get a quality mixing orange Liqueur in GranGala.
Peach Schnapps - A traditional, and inexpensive ingredient that will liven up many cocktails. There are not many choices here, and given the lower quantities used in most cocktails, even standard Peachtree works well.
Sweet Vermouth - Basic brands such Dolin are serviceable, but consider picking up whatever your local store has in the $15 per bottle range. As a reminder, vermouths are typically low proof fortified wines and have a limited shelf life. Keep them refrigerated. Decent, fresh vermouth can be great in various quantities in a cocktail, but vermouth that has soured is what has given vermouth a bad reputation.
Angostora Aromatic Bitters - THE bitter to have on hand in any home bar. In a pinch, this can be used as a substitute for just about any other traditional old-fashioned aromatic bitter. It is widely available. If you want to step it up, add other bitters, but never be without this one.
Peychaud's Bitters - This can be a bit more difficult to find in stores but is widely available online. It is incredibly different from Angustora, so don't try to substitute, especially in a Sazerac. A bottle will last years.
Orange Bitters - Readily available alongside Angostora Aromatic Bitters in many stores, this is a must in a quality home bar. Take a look around in many liquor supply stores, as there are dozens of brands around, all of which provide a different flavor.
Other Items/Fresh Ingredients:
Simple Syrup - If you get caught buying this at a store, you deserve to lose your home bar license. This is a "simple" as mixing one cup of water with one cup of sugar, and boiling until dissolved. This will last refrigerated for a month or more. If you want to shake it up, try mixing other kinds of sugar (Demerara, turbinado, etc), or up your concentration to 2:1 sugar to water.
Fresca - Fresca is a citrus/grapefruit soda made by the Coca-Cola Company. It is traditionally used in a Paloma, but it works very well as a simple mixer with Rum or Vodka. Simply add 1.5-2 oz of your favorite clear Rum, Vodka or Tequila over ice in a highball and top with Fresca. Add a garnish of lime or grapefruit if you are feeling adventurous.
Tonic Syrup - Not just any tonic water will do. Take a look for Fever Tree branded tonic water, or pick up a bottle of tonic syrup from brands like Jack Ruby, which requires the addition of soda water. These syrups pack a ton more flavor and will never leave you thinking of tonic again the same.
Lemons and fresh lemon juice
Limes and fresh lime juice
Lemon Lime Soda