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Bartender Basics: The Most Important Bottles to Have That Aren’t Liquor

Animation by Eric DeFreitas

When it comes to stocking your home bar, liquor is the easy part. A bottle each of staple spirit—whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, rum, maybe brandy—usually does the trick. If you’re aiming for a versatile bar that can make a wide variety of cocktails without taking up too much space, however, deciding which other bottles to stock is where things often get tricky.

Here’s a loose guide to the most important mixers, liqueurs and other ingredients to stock at home. We’ve prioritized those that can be used in the widest array of drinks, but this may change depending on personal preference. If your favorite way to unwind at the end of the day is with a homemade Mai Tai, orgeat may have a higher place on your list than others.

Must Haves

Vermouth: We’ve covered why this fortified wine is such an integral ingredient in so many cocktails. Aromatic, adaptable and useful in an array of situations, vermouth is to many cocktails what sauces are to cooking.

Take the time to taste through vermouths on their own to home in on one you enjoy. When you’ve found a few vermouths you like, try to always keep at least one bottle of sweet and dry on hand, along with a blanc/bianco if you’ve got room. Just don’t keep them opened too long—these aromatized wines do have a limited shelf life.

Bitters: If vermouth is to cocktails what a sauce is to cooking, then bitters are your salt and pepper. A single bottle is small, usually only a 4–10 ounces, and since only a few dashes are used at a time they should last for a long time. While there are a wide range of delicious craft bitters on the market today (and some prefer to make their own), Angostura has been the standard bearer since its creation almost 200 years ago. If you’re looking to expand, Angostura, Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange Bitters constitute the “holy trinity” of bitters at most bars.

Red Apertivo: It’s hard to celebrate Negroni season without a bottle of bitter red apertivo on hand. Most popularly seen in Campari or Aperol, countless brands now line shelves. It’s worth tasting around to find one you like, as flavor profiles can vary. Campari tends to be more bitter and heavy than Aperol, making the latter better for a spritz and the former weighty enough for Boulevardiers, but most can be interchanged in recipe on personal taste. Meletti 1870 is another widely available take on this style, as is Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter.

Triple Sec: While there are countless fruit-based liqueurs, triple sec is a component of so many cocktails—the Sidecar, Margarita, Corpse Reviver #2 and , yes, the Cosmo—that it remains a must-have in most homes. It may be tempting to pick up a bottom-shelf $8 triple sec from your local liquor store, but for how often it’s utilized you’re better off finding quality options.