Ready to jump into this whole cocktail thing? Stuck with a home bar consisting of one dusty bottle of pineapple vodka from that birthday party three years ago? Fear not: You only need a handful of items on hand to make a wide variety of tipples (and keep cocktail-geek guests happy, too.) Here are your first five purchases. Along with the below, you’ll want to have sugar, lemons, limes and club soda on hand to be able to whip up a wide variety of drinks. Already got these? Stay tuned for my intermediate guide next month.
From the Old Fashioned, to the Manhattan, to the Whiskey Sour, everybody’s favorite brown spirit is an absolute mixological must. Any kind of whiskey will do, but a sweeter and smoother bottling—bourbon or Irish whiskey as opposed to rye or Scotch—is going to be your best bet. Choose something good enough to drink neat but not so expensive that you’d feel bad pouring a not-so-great cocktail experiment down the drain. Buffalo Trace, Four Roses or Evan Williams are great bourbon options, and for Irish, you can’t go wrong with Green Spot, Tullamore DEW or Kilbeggan.
Even if you don’t like gin, your bar needs a bottle of gin; if you can’t make a Martini, you don’t have a bar. Plus, the spirit is good for experimenting to create masterpieces of your own—play with different juices, liqueurs and club soda for an instant original. Gins essentially break down into two categories: The classic London dry style is heavy on juniper, while less traditional gins tone down the juniper in favor of other botanicals. If you’re a fan of all-spirits gin drinks like the Martini and Negroni, you want London dry, and you should go old-school with one of the “big 3”—Beefeater, Tanqueray or Bombay. If you like a bubbly or fruity gin tipple—a Gimlet or Tom Collins, try a more unusual gin: Hendrick’s, Plymouth or Aviation.
The old-school fortified wine is indispensable for a range of classic cocktails, most notably the Martini and Manhattan. There are, of course, two main types: the sweeter and earthier sweet vermouth and the herbal and acidic dry vermouth. You should probably have both on hand, but if you have to pick one, choose sweet if you prefer whiskey cocktails and dry if you prefer gin cocktails. You can’t go wrong with a pair of bartender favorite brands: Carpano Antica Formula sweet or Dolin Dry. Pro tip: Store your vermouth in the fridge! After opening, it’s only good for a couple weeks at room temperature but a couple months cold. (It’s not unsafe to drink after that, but it does get dull and kinda flavorless.)
A Liqueur You Like
There are hundred of liqueurs out there in a rainbow of flavors, but the beginner bar really only needs one—as long as it’s one you really enjoy. Just a half-ounce (use it in place of sugar in an Old Fashioned or Sour) will change any drink into something deliciously different. If you’ll only have one on hand, go with a high-quality spirit that’s versatile enough to match a wide variety of base spirits, like the elderflower-infused St-Germain, which has been dubbed “bartender’s ketchup” for its ubiquity, or the sweet-and-tart Pama Pomegranate Liqueur.
If bitters are the spice cabinet of the cocktail world, the classic Angostura is like black pepper—a sprinkle will improve just about anything. You can get into the wider world of bitters later, but for now, Angostura is needed for Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, and just a few dashes can transform fizzy drinks like the Gin & Tonic or Whiskey Soda.