Whether you’re an aspiring bartender or just a novice looking to get their home collection up to snuff, we’ve got your guide to the must-have building blocks for any bar worth its salt. We asked members of the Minneapolis–St. Paul chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild to curate a list encompassing the three tiers of the ultimate home bar: rail bottles, premium spirits, and mixers.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list—there’s no brandy or aquavit—it’s a fine start that can be considered your base arsenal.
Everyday mixers, perfect for highballs and as a base spirit for complex cocktails
“The first time I ever tasted Luksusowa was during a blind tasting of 10 different vodkas,” says seasoned bartender Chris Myers. “I was delighted by how light and crisp it was on the palate and picked it as one of my top choices. Was even more delighted when I saw the price tag.”
Gordon’s London Dry Gin
With a recipe created almost 250 years ago by Scotsman Alexander Gordon, Gordon’s classic London Dry Gin has distinctively crisp notes of juniper and citrus that make for a classic gin and tonic—or, as this writer last experienced it, drinking neat among a sea of raucous Brits along Camden High Street. Nothing if not versatile.
Plantation 3 Stars Rum
It feels strange to put this one on the “rail,” but the 3 Stars is the most cost-effective, versatile, and delicious white rum out there. “After I was introduced to Plantation 3 Stars Rum, it immediately became the go-to light rum for me,” says Sean Cooke of Happy Gnome. “It’s a perfect blend of Jamaican, Trinidad, and Barbados rums with subtle tropical fruit notes and a slightly-sweet almond and vanilla finish. I proudly reach for this bottle in a variety of cocktails.”
Lunazul Blanco Tequila
When drunk neat, Lunazul’s boozy nose and clean, nondescript character probably won’t cause you to order another, but this blanco really shines in a cocktail. Lunazul’s mildly fruity nature lends itself particularly well to margaritas and palomas.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon
Here’s a fun fact for your next cocktail party: Old Grand-Dad Bonded has the exact same mash bill as the more refined Basil Hayden’s, making it an excellent budget bourbon. The spirit’s rich vanilla and caramel flavor are sturdy enough at 100-proof to stand up to even the most sugary Old Fashioned.
Old Overholt Bonded Rye
An industry standard since long, long before there were such things as industry standards, Old Overholt is a mild and genial crowd-pleaser whose lack of complexity gives it a chameleon-like ability to blend seamlessly into just about any cocktail.
Dewar’s Blended Scotch
When your grandparents mixed themselves a Rusty Nail or a Scotch and soda, odds are pretty good that they were reaching for a bottle with this iconic white label. Light and approachable, Dewar’s doesn’t overpower its mixing companions as a single malt would, and the honey-kissed finish dissipates quickly, encouraging several more sips.
The Back Bar
Premium spirits for sipping neat or for those simple, spirit-forward cocktails in which a quality liquor can shine
J. Carver Premium Vodka
Made from 100% Minnesota-grown winter wheat, with an unmatched richness to the palate. We can’t imagine a more ideal martini vodka.
Letherbee Seasonal Gin
Vernal in the spring, Autumnal in the fall—it’s always changing and always delicious. Inspired by Japanese genmaicha, Letherbee’s 2019 Autumnal Gin uses roasted rice to fill out its classic botanical gin with a warm nutty flavor and satisfying starchiness. On the other hand, the 2019 Vernal Gin uses green chiles to provide a bright, vegetal finish with pared-down botanicals of lemon peel, coriander, and juniper.
Plantation Stiggins Fancy Pineapple Rum
Perhaps the finest flavored rum in the world, bartenders can’t get enough of this. A must-have for the tiki-drinker.
Ron Zacapa 23 Centenario Rum
Crafted in the highlands of Guatemala, Ron Zacapa’s production facility is tucked in a place magically referred to as the “House Above the Clouds.” The 23 Centenario Rum is made from raw sugarcane honey and aged using sistema solera, resulting in sweet notes of butterscotch and dark chocolate, followed by lighter notes of raisin and apricot. It’s a pleasurable dark rum that can support a cocktail or stand alone.
Cazadores Reposado Tequila
Sourced from 100-percent agave in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, Cazadores Reposado Tequila is aged from two months to a year in small, virgin oak barrels. Floral aromas lead to complex flavors of black pepper and warm baking spice, finishing with notes of vanilla and lingering pepper. Smooth, spicy, and satisfying.
Banhez Joven Mezcal
Mild, floral, and fruity, this is the ideal gateway mezcal for beginners, as well as a great subtle add for cocktails. Made by the Banhez Cooperative in the central valley of Oaxaca, the cooperative’s 36 families make their award-winning mezcal using the same methods as generations before them.
Bourbon nerds will of course have their favorites, but if you’re not a brown spirit drinker and you just want a nice one that’ll please the majority, Blanton’s is a great choice from the middle of the road.
These vermouths, liqueurs, and bitters are the workaday companions that will make your primary spirits sing
Dolin Dry Vermouth
Elegant yet restrained, Dolin Dry Vermouth has enough complex flavor to hold its own in a martini, yet is subtle and versatile enough to complement a classic cocktail.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
A sweet, full-flavored vermouth with the presence to play against the rye heat in a Manhattan. It strikes a perfect balance between sweet and bitter, leaving a clean, refreshing finish with no lingering harshness.
The most classic of all bitter liqueurs—you can make a Negroni with other spirits, but why try?
Of all the amari, this is the place to start. Rich and smooth, drink it over ice or mix it into any cocktail that calls for amaro. “I fell in love with Amaro Montenegro because it is extraordinarily versatile and brings an approachable Mediterranean floral spin to any cocktail,” says bartender and Growler columnist Zachary Sapato.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Simply the most classic of all cocktail ingredients. No bar should be without it.
Dashfire Vintage Orange Bitters
Orange bitters are a staple, but so many use artificial-tasting orange. These are locally made and the finest orange bitters you’re likely to come across.