There are many tricks to building a useable home bar. Essential bar tools are a must, as is knowing a few key recipes by heart and finding the right way to display everything. But the most frustrating part of getting an at-home mixology space in working order is finding the right combination of the right spirits.
In the end, your bar should, of course, be worthy of appearing on-screen with Nick and Nora—the thirsty, old-school detective duo that always has just what they need to make everything from Martinis and Manhattans to classic highballs. But most of us didn’t inherit a railroad company and don’t have a personal barback to stock the bar cart when supplies run low.
But there is an accessible solution: affordable, high-quality booze. If you want a quick primer, start with an entry-level guide to four bottles that will launch—or optimize—your home bar. Or read on to learn nine of the most reasonably priced bottles for instant bar stocking. New year around the corner; new thirstier, more cocktail-savvy you can come along for the ride.
DrinkWire contributors Bernie Lubbers (aka The Whiskey Professor), Bourbon & Oak and Modern Thirst created a list of their five favorite bourbons under $30, and the whiskey pros unanimously picked this dozen-year-old whiskey. It’s supposedly the first small-batch bourbon Heaven Hill Distilleries ever created and comes in at 94-proof—a strength higher than average. It’s still smooth enough to sip on its own and strong enough to shine through in cocktails.
The DrinkWire community also knows its way around peated whisky. As anyone with a penchant for this smoky spirit knows, it’s easy to spend a small fortune on a single bottle. This Glenmorangie expression, which can be sipped neat or mixed in cocktails, costs only $30. It hails from the Scottish Highlands and is aged in ex-bourbon casks for what Cocktail Enthusiast calls a whisky that’s “flush with ripe fruit—apples, lemons, peaches—and is accented by sweet vanilla and creamy malts.”
Coming in at just over $20, this smooth and peppery agave spirit is great on the rocks and in Margaritas. Really, it’s good in pretty much any cocktail. It’s even a safe choice for those that like a good tequila shooter. However you want to use it, your favorite tequila drinks are safe with Espolón.
A product of the picturesque island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this unexpectedly easy-drinking rum is as appealing as it’s birthplace. A mere $20 buys nearly two liters of the classic white rum or its golden, aged counterpart—encouraging for anyone seeking a quality mixing rum. The low price is no reflection of its quality. The smooth, oak-aged spirits blend seamlessly into drinks like rum Old Fashioneds and even your favorite tiki cocktails.
One of the most popular mezcal brands in the United States, Del Maguey’s portfolio includes everything from a freaky pechuga made with a whole chicken breast to more floral expressions, like the Minero. Mezcal aficionado Ken Taylor chose this reasonably-priced spirit because of its balance between sweet and savory.
A stalwart in the bartending community, this English gin dating back to 1793 blends easily and is the ideal base for many classic gin cocktails. It’s no easy task to find a comparable gin at a similar cost, so if you’re a fan of a good Martini or Aviation, we recommend adding this bottle to your home bartending arsenal.
As Liquor.com advisory board member and cocktail consultant Aisha Sharpe says, “There is no need to spend a lot on vodka.”
She’s right: This $14 vodka can be mixed with just about anything. And c’mon—it costs about the same as most craft cocktail bars charge for one specialty drink.
Think you can have a functional home bar without these two vermouth stalwarts? Consider this: From Manhattans and Martinis to Negronis and multiple other tasty drinks, sweet and dry vermouth can help you make a range of drinks that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And these two recommendations come from talented mixologist and master distiller Allen Katz. Though they cost a bit more than Martini & Rossi, the step up in complexity and overall flavor is well worth the difference.
It would not be at all surprising to see a bottle of Old Overholt both against the back wall of a dive and in a fancy cocktail bar. While inexpensive, it’s certainly not cheaply made. This whiskey presents a great case for not spending upwards of $50 on good rye.
Old Overholt dates back to the early 19th century and saw a significant rise in popularity after Prohibition—probably because of its low cost and surprisingly smooth taste. For the home bartender, it’s the ideal whiskey for learning how to make classics like the Sazerac and Manhattan, as it’s spicy enough to hold its own when mixed.