Having just a few liquors, mixers and garnishes on hand provides endless home entertaining opportunities. (Photo: Jez Timms, StockSnap)

Whether you love to entertain, insist on the occasional nightcap or want to impress your significant other with a perfectly mixed cocktail at home, choosing which liquors you must keep on hand can be challenging. It isn't practical for the budget or for space to have more than a handful of bottles in the house, so for most of us, it's essential to boil it down to the most ubiquitous and practical choices.

Here's my advice on the top five must-have liquors in your home bar, plus my picks for favorite brands.

Keep on hand what you like—that's the most important—but these five liquors are also sure to please the majority of folks in any crowd you may have in your home. 

Vodka
Time and time again, vodka and vodka drinks are the most requested at any event. Why? Well, it's one of the most versatile liquors, for one thing—you can make everything from a bloody mary to a martini to a screwdriver—so it appeases a wide variety of palates. It's popular among men and women alike, and it's easily blendable because of its neutrality.

My picks: Tito's for mixing and Grey Goose for sipping

Bourbon/whiskey
Especially in the South, bourbon/whiskey is a popular request. (FYI, bourbon is a type of whiskey—so all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.) Bourbon tends to be a little softer than a sour mash whiskey, so they're more popular for sipping. Whiskey, however, has exploded lately, and some brands are even becoming difficult to get your hands on, so this popularity is a great clue that no home bar should go without it.

My picks: Maker's Mark or Jack Daniel's for mixing and Buffalo Trace for sipping

Gin
You either love it or you hate it, but for those who love it, they expect your home bar to be able to serve them up a gin and tonic, Negroni or gin martini. Gin has made quite the comeback in recent years, and the different flavors and styles available now provide more nuance to your home bar than gin of the past could have done.

My picks: Bombay or a London dry for mixing and Hendrick's—which has a unique cucumber flavor—for sipping

Rum
Rum, like vodka, is an easily mixable liquor that goes in everything from soda to fruity frozen drinks that pair great with a tiny umbrella. There are light and dark options, and aged rums are even tasty neat because they are flavorful and not usually mixed.

My picks: Captain Morgan or Bacardi for mixing and Papa's Pilar or Diplomatico for sipping

Blended scotch
Single malt scotches are known for being a little on the pricey side, but for your home bar, a blended scotch is a perfectly acceptable offering—and a lot more reasonable for your budget. Scotch drinkers can be particular about their favorite single malts, so stocking a blended scotch on a basic bar is a great way to avoid having 30 varieties on hand to try to please every single malt scotch palate.

My picks: Dewar's for the budget and Laphroaig or Macallan for a splurge


If you want to go a little bit more over the top with your home bar, I recommend adding tequila, flavored liqueurs, Grand Marnier and/or Bailey's. Remember to keep in mind shelf lives of these products—a basic liquor is good for a couple of years after the seal is broken, but something like Bailey's, which has a dairy content, needs to be consumed more quickly.

You also have to have mixers and garnishes on hand—Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, tonic, club soda, ginger ale, and lemons and limes are essential.

Most of all, have fun with your home bar. Don't feel obligated to stock something you hate, but keep in mind that entertaining is about pleasing a variety of palates.

Emily Pinner is a Chattanooga native with restaurant and retail management background. After managing Riverside Wine & Spirits for seven years, she created an event planning department that has connected her with lots of other local vendors. Her mission is to take the stress and guessing out of beverage planning for events.

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