Home bars are a favorite topic of mine — I started building my home bar about 10 years ago.

In this post, I’ll focus primarily on spirits. In my next post, I’ll go into a bit more detail on great tools and extras you can add to elevate your offering.

You want to keep a variety of everyday spirits on hand, and they don’t need to be expensive. They don’t even need to be names that you recognize, necessarily – you just need to find a comfortable price point for you. If you can have a $40 vodka be your everyday vodka, and you can afford that, then by all means, do that! If all you can afford is a $20 vodka for your everyday, that’s what you need to stock.

Keeping a variety of spirits on hand means that hopefully anytime anyone comes over, or anytime you find a cocktail that strikes your fancy, you have everything you need. You won’t have to make a special trip to the store to make it. For me, that variety does begin with vodka – you definitely need vodka on hand. Some people can get away without a gin, but I always like having it – I like gin, and I think it can do a lot in a cocktail. You want a whiskey – and I say whiskey, not bourbon. It’s completely up to you if you want a scotch, if you want a bourbon, if you want a rye whiskey. Rye and bourbon are very interchangeable with cocktails. You’ll want to keep standard bitters – orange bitters, angostura – those are pretty much the basics.  (I like throwing in weird ones, like the chocolate bitters and the hellfire bitters, because I like spicy drinks, and that’s an easy way to get a spicy drink.)

Next, make sure you have an orange liqueur or a triple sec – that’s what goes into a margarita. So, if you have that, you have tequila, and you have one fresh lime, you’ve got a margarita. You don’t need anything else. Then, vermouth. You should probably have a dry and a sweet vermouth, because they do have different uses. A dry vermouth is mainly for martinis, so that’s what you want that for. A sweet vermouth gets used in Manhattans most. You want to use those and simple mixers. A cranberry juice is always good, and any kind of juice that you like would work. Always go for the juice, not the fruit cocktails, because you don’t want the added sugars – you always want to be able to control the sugar level yourself. And to that end, I prefer sugar cubes over loose sugar. So, if you make an old fashioned, a lot of times that comes with a sugar cube, which allows you to meddle the cube with the orange slice, with the bitters, and really meld those flavors together. Loose sugar is harder to measure as well. A sugar cube, you just chuck one in and you’re done. If you’re using a regular spoon to get loose sugar out, how much do you put in? And please don’t ever use sugar packets! Sugar cubes are cheap. Buy them!

If you want to elevate your game, I recommend keeping fresh herbs. Most people don’t go that route with cocktails, even though a lot of the cocktails they drink have some sort of savory characteristic to them. I just don’t think people naturally go that route. If you can keep fresh herbs, because they will keep for quite some time, you can easily throw that in there. I’ve made cocktails using cilantro before, rosemary, thyme – you can really have fun with those, and they’re super easy. Chuck a couple leaves in and you’re done. Fresh jalapeno goes a long way. Choose your fruit seasonally. If a peach is in season, instead of making an Old Fashioned with an orange, just make it with a peach. I did peach-jalapeno for an old fashioned. (Just be sure to remove the seeds!)

Check back in October, when I’ll have part two of this series, focusing on tools and extras to elevate your home bar game!