This is a guide to the most popular spirits and ingredients. With just a few items, you can start mixing hundreds of cocktails. There’s also a strategy to build up your liquor collection, without spending a lot of money.
The four most popular base spirits to stock are; vodka, gin, rye whisky and white rum. The four most popular modifier spirits are dry white vermouth, sweet red vermouth, triple sec or curacao, and Kahlua. You should be able to find all of these at just about any liquor store.
After the liquor store, head to the grocery store. Pick up limes, lemons, oranges, low fat cream, berry (aka superfine or caster) sugar, Angostura bitters and soda water. With just this handful of spirits and the grocery list, there’s hundreds of cocktails that you can create.
Now with that said, how to stock ‘your’ bar begins with what you like to drink. If you like a Martini, start with gin and dry vermouth. The gin can also be used to make a Tom Collins, Clover Club, Derby Cocktail, Gimlet, Gin Fizz and more, just by adding different kinds of juices and syrups.
If you don’t know where to start, look at our Top 50 Cocktails List, to see what everyone else in the world is drinking. These are the most popular cocktails on the planet. They are also the most important ones to taste and memorize, so you can prepare them for your guests. If you can make them without having to look them up, that confidence makes a great impression.
So the bottom line is to build your bar a bottle at a time. There’s no need to plop down $200-$300 at the liquor store, to get strange liqueurs that are used in only one or two cocktails. Each time you go to buy your usual tipple, pick up one new spirit that’s used in a bunch of cocktails that you want to try.
If you want to try a recipe that has a strange liquor you’ve never heard of, grab a friend and visit a lounge in a nice hotel. Try the spirit straight up in a brandy snifter, or Glencairn glass to see if you like it. Try all the base spirits, then the modifier spirits, then more specialized ones like Aperol, Campari, Lillet, Licor 43, Sloe Gin, Amaro Montenegro, and at least a couple of types of red vermouth. If its something that you and your friends would enjoy trying in cocktails, go splurge on a bottle for your home bar.
Plus, if you go on a Monday to Thursday, the lounge will be a lot quieter than on the weekend. This gives you an opportunity to chat a bit with the bartender. You can watch them work, pick up tips and ask about different spirits.
Most bartenders are happy to talk about their craft if they’re not too busy with customers, or management duties. They might even let you taste a few different bitters and syrups that go into the cocktails if you ask really nice.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a large urban center, there’s probably a few specialized bar supply stores. It’s a good idea to visit them, because most have sampler bottles of the popular cocktail bitters. The clerk will put a drop or two on the back of your hand so you can try them. It’s a great way to discover which bitters you prefer, without having to spend a lot of money.