5 Home bar #musthave spirits (& alternatives)
Recently, Campari Canada reached out to me with their “home bar guide”. It’s a guide with five spirits that you should always have on hand. “Just by having these five spirits for your at home bar, you can create some iconic cocktails as well as dozens of other creative libations,” the Campari materials read. “You can also show off your mixology talents and create your own signature cocktails.”
Here are the five spirits that should be in your bar. I’ve also researched alternatives, just in case you can’t find these or perhaps prefer to try something different.
This classic Italian bitter aperitif is known for its vibrant orange hue. The brandy base is distilled with orange, gentian, rhubarb, cinchona and other herbs. At 11 percent ABV, it’s lower on the alcohol and bitter scales than, say, Campari. Flavour-wise, rhubarb, bitter herbs and burnt orange dominate the palate, and it’s sweeter and more approachable than most bitters on the market. This all makes it a lovely spirit for brunch or early-evening cocktails, or even to sip on the rocks. Aperol is typically served as an Aperol Spritz, although in recent years, bartenders have been getting creative with it.
The replacement spirit you use will depend on the flavour profile of your cocktail. If, for example, Aperol is the only bitter in your cocktail, you’ll want a replacement that is at least as bitter as Aperol. If there is another bitter component to your cocktail, then pick a replacement that has the floral, sweet fruit notes of Aperol to ensure balance.
- Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano
- Contratto Aperitivo
- Don Ciccio & Figli Ambrosia
- Lillet – doesn’t reach Aperol’s bitter or sweet heights
- Luxardo Aperitivo
- Select Aperitivo
- Non-alcoholic substitute: Sanbitter
Another Italian bitter, this liqueur is made from an infusion of herbs and fruit in alcohol and water. Its distinctive dark crimson red colour comes from a natural dye that, until 2006, was famously sourced from cochineal insects. They’ve since switched to artificial colour to create the mesmerizing colour. At 24 percent ABV, it’s stronger than Aperol in both alcohol and flavour; its bittersweet flavour profile packs a punch with cherry, cascarilla, clove, rhubarb, cinnamon and orange peel. This bitter liqueur is by far best in cocktails where it can support and lift the other ingredients. It’s a signature ingredient in Negroni, Boulevardier, Americano, Bitter Spritz and Jungle Bird. And, if you want to do as the Italians do, sip it with soda and a twist of lemon.
As with Aperol (and really all the spirits on this list) keep your cocktail’s flavour profile in mind when selecting a replacement spirit. Campari is most often the only bitter in a cocktail recipe, so you’ll want a strong bitter component with lots of ripe red fruits. Here are few suggestions.
- Contratto Bitter
- Leopold Bros Aperitivo
- Don Ciccio & Figli Luna Amara
- Luxardo Bitter Rosso
- Meletti 1870 Bitter
- Tempus Fugit Gran Classico
- Ibisco Bitter Liqueur
- Less alcoholic: a few drops of bitters and pomegranate juice
Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
Cognac meets orange liqueur in this classic bottle. If you don’t have it in your bar already, you really should. French through and through, Grand Marnier’s Cordon Rouge – usually called simply “Grand Marnier” – is a blend of cognac, distilled essence of bitter orange, and sugar. Its 40 percent ABV and smooth citrus flavours make it a brilliant cocktail ingredient, though it can be sipped on its own. It pours amber in the glass. Vanilla, oak and toffee add complexity to the dominant orange profile. Grand Marnier is most often sipped after dinner, in cocktails or even in dinner recipes. It adds depth of flavour to a variety of dishes – flambe mandarin oranges, add to creme brulee, whip up a souffle.
I won’t list any specific alternatives because a) Grand Marnier is wildly available; b) it’s well worth the investment; and c) the less expensive brands are just not up to snuff.
That being said, you can substitute Cointreau, Curacao, or Triple Sec. It’s very important that you choose your substitute with care to your cocktail’s flavour profile, as each has different orange intensities.
Campari specifically suggests Appleton Estate Rum, Reserve Blend, 8-year Old. It has aromas of dried fruit, toasted nuts, caramel, vanilla, cocoa and baking spices; the rich, warm, silky-smooth, intense palate has polished wood, leather, sultana, dark chocolate and nutmeg, all of which trail off into a long, slightly peppery finish.
I believe any rum will suffice, especially if it’s Jamacian and has a similar flavour profile. Check out Tod Stewart’s Jamacian rum piece for some ideas. You can also pick up a bottle of Cayman Reef Barbados Rum aged 5 years. Or think outside the box, especially if you’re making piña coladas, with Koloa Kaua’i Coconut Rum.
Campari suggests Forty Creek Barrel Select, which is oak aged and smooth. It has honey, vanilla and apricot aromas fused with toasted oak, black walnut and spice. The robust, complex, and rich palate is full of bold vanilla, honey and cocoa flavours, supported by a toasted earthiness.
As with the rum, you can truly go with your whisky of choice here. We’ve got a lot of whisky reviews on the Quench website; here are just a few to check out:
- Hell Cat Maggie Irish Whiskey (American)
- Dillons Rye Whisky (Canadian)
- Wayne Gretzky No 99 Red Cask (Canadian)
- Collingwood Toasted Maplewood Finished Blended Whisky (Canadian)
- Tomatin Highland Whisky (Scottish)
- Johnnie Walker Whisky (Scottish)
- Singleton Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Scottish)
- Highland Park Odin (Scottish)
I do find it interesting that gin and vodka don’t make the list, as I’ve always believed those to be staples in any bar. Honestly, a bar needs variety as much as anything else… That’s why I’ve gone back through our archives to find some tasting notes and suggestions for gins, vodkas and more.