The keys to a top-shelf home bar? Variety, versatility and pours that don’t break the bank. We found the nine bottles every bar should have, and guide you on where to save and when to splurge.
by Jenny Adams
$25 | Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Buffalo Trace bourbon is like a finely tailored seersucker suit: stylish but not pretentious, and respectable enough to please your grandmother. This bourbon has hints of vanilla, toffee, dried fruit notes, a rich wooded maturity and a price you won’t find on many at this level of quality. Made from corn, rye and barley malt, it’s aged in new oak to a perfect spicy sweetness.
$25 | Campari
Every well-stocked home bar needs a few modifiers, and nothing goes as far or does quite as much as a bottle of aromatic, herbal Campari, a bright-red bitter. It’s the main player in classics like the Negroni, and it acts accordingly as a great balancer to the sweet of citrus and simple syrup or the spice and kick of other spirits in more modern recipes. Served solo, it’s a beautiful Italian aperitif.
$30 | Belvedere Vodka
There are literally thousands of vodkas, but many are just cheap booze wrapped in pretty (and expensive) packaging. Belvedere was the first super premium on the market back in 1996, and this Polish dame still wins awards for her exceptional quality. Made from Dankowskie Gold rye and pure artesian water, it’s got a smooth finish and a bready, robust character. A portion of the sales of these limited-edition bottles funds AIDS research and outreach.
$30 | Dorothy Parker Gin
If you only stock a single gin, select one with enough juniper to work well in a dry martini, but is also light enough to mix in more modern recipes. New York Distilling Co. produces this light and flowery version that’s perkier than your traditional London Dry or Old Tom, thanks to botanicals like elderberry, citrus and hibiscus. It’s aptly named for one of the feistiest writers of the 20th century, because while it’s certainly feminine, it’s also got a mouth on it.
$35 | Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
Orange liqueur ups your mixing potential. Before reaching straight for Triple Sec or Cointreau, consider the Sicilian-born Solerno, which swaps the traditional dried peels for essential oils from fresh, handpicked Sanguinello blood oranges. Slightly sweet, aromatic and juicy, it’s the only 80-proof blood orange liqueur on the market—and a fantastic sub for Cointreau or Triple Sec in a margarita.
$45 | Pierre Ferrand Cognac 1840 Original Formula Cognac
Pierre Ferrand’s 80-proof revival of a Cognac style that slid into extinction after Prohibition has a high, rich bouquet of fruit and a viscous, lasting mouthfeel. Created with cocktail recipes from the 1800s in mind, it’s necessary for Sazeracs and French 75s, and takes a striking turn in a mint julep.
$50 | Ilegal Mezcal Joven
This smokier cousin to tequila’s a guaranteed conversation-starter. Back in 2004, when few artisianal mezcals were certified for export from Mexico, John Rexer had to smuggle some from Oaxaca over the border to serve it in his Guatemala bar. Today, he’s gone legit and his “Ilegal” mezcal is stocked in more than 200 cocktail bars in New York City alone. Rich with smoke, red pepper and light fruit, this single-village spirit is a testament to the beauty of agave and the power of a smoldering essence in cocktails.
$54 | Tequila Ocho Reposado
Tequila has a reputation as a college drink you slam in shots. In truth, the refined, higher-end brands are meant to be enjoyed like a fine bourbon or Scotch. This reposado spends precisely eight weeks and eight days aging in whiskey barrels, resulting in pepper and cooked agave notes one normally expects in a blanco, plus beautiful hints of wood and cinnamon. Each bottle bears the year it was released, making Tequila Ocho an excellent gift, too.
$70 | Bowmore 15-Year-Old Darkest Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
If you’re going to stock a Scotch—and you should—don’t go cheap. Bowmore is the oldest distillery on Islay, and inside its cool, dark cellars, this whiskey rests for 15 years in North American bourbon and Oloroso Sherry casks. The result is dark chocolate and fruit in the nose; toffee, raisins and light smoke on the sip; and delectable hints of sherry in the finish. It’s less peaty than some of the others from this part of Scotland, so it’ll please a wider range of palates.