13 Essential Top-shelf Spirits Every Bar Cart Needs, According to the Experts
Curating the ideal bar cart is no small undertaking — selecting just a few great bottles of many to represent each spirit category can require a fair amount of research and thought, not unlike the process used by the world's best pro bartenders. "My approach to selecting spirits for a bar cart would be no different than how I select spirits for my bars, or for my cocktails," said award-winning bar expert, author, and entrepreneur Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a household name in the drinks world. When it comes to the top shelf, he said, a bottle's price tag doesn't carry as much weight as one might think, and most of the bartending elite would agree.
"For me, 'top shelf' means best quality — not most expensive," added longtime bartender and educator Lynn House, who recently worked alongside Morgenthaler to help raise awareness and funds for the Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation through Elijah Craig's second annual Old Fashioned Week. "You don't need to have every single 'popular' label to create a fabulous bar cart. What you have on your cart should be what you want to enjoy at the end of the night, not what is in the highest demand," she shared. For both House and Morgenthaler, this — in addition to informed buying — is what truly defines a great bar cart.
If you're starting yours from scratch, you'll want to lay a solid foundation, covering all of the basic spirit categories and modifiers, bearing our experts' advice in mind. For House, the top-shelf liquor basics include a good bourbon, rye, tequila, gin, vodka, Scotch whisky, an amaro, and bitters (both potable and aromatic), along with small bottles of sweet and dry vermouth, which she recommended keeping in the refrigerator. Lastly, House said, don't be afraid to think outside the box in the process, and again, be sure to invest in what you actually like.
"I have personally discovered so many fun and unique brands that I can show off when people come to my home, simply through tasting and experimentation," she said. Being able to talk about your bar cart on this level, she added, is what really makes it personal. Here, House and Morgenthaler — along with fellow bar legend Meaghan Dorman of New York City's Raines Law Room and Dear Irving bars — team up to help us select our top bottle picks for curating the ultimate premium bar cart.
Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon
"I've been saying for years that there's no better bourbon for an old fashioned than Elijah Craig, and among the Elijah Craig line there's really no better option than the Toasted Barrel. It takes your old fashioned to the next level, and is, of course, simply incredible on its own or over a large ice cube," advised Morgenthaler. If you're a whiskey drinker, consider picking up more than one bottle of this twice-barreled expression, as you'll likely go through it more quickly than you might expect (plus, its deep, rich color looks absolutely stunning in a decanter if you've got one).
To buy: caskers.com, $140
Ford's Officers' Reserve Navy Strength Gin
Morgenthaler's first pick when it comes to building a savvy top-shelf liquor collection? Ford's Officers' Reserve Navy Strength Gin, an overproof gin rested in amontillado sherry casks before being bottled at 54.5 percent alcohol. "It's got the classic London Dry flavor profile that's perfect for a Martini, with a higher proof that comes in handy after a long day at work." After all, he added, it wouldn't be much of a bar cart without the means to make a proper gin martini.
To buy: totalwine.com, $35
Cinzano 1757 Extra Dry Vermouth
Speaking of martinis, you're going to need to have some quality dry vermouth on hand, even if you're not the biggest fan. Dorman elaborated: "When I advise people on building a bar cart, I emphasize choosing products that have several uses, which is both beneficial for smooth hosting and home bar real estate. For example, a dry vermouth would primarily be used for a martini, but also in a spritz-style drink or highball — it's important to pay as much attention to the supporting mixers that have to shine alongside bold spirits in cocktails, and Cinzano 1757 Extra Dry is one I can recommend." According to Dorman, this Italian vermouth offers the citrusy, earthy notes needed for a great martini along with the acidity and florality that allows it to play well in more refreshing-style drinks.
To buy: drizly.com, $33
Never underestimate the power of a good vodka — while it might not be the most dynamic spirit category, it certainly has a time and a place. For example, if you like your martini on the wet (vermouth-heavy) side but you don't want its delicate aromas and flavor notes to compete with your gin's botanicals, a vodka martini is a great solution. Plus, you never know when you or one of your guests might be in the mood for a vodka soda or cosmopolitan. Made from 100 percent Japanese white rice and filtered through bamboo charcoal, Haku's soft, rounded floral notes and deep complexity will make you look at the category in a completely different light.
To buy: totalwine.com, $27
High West Rendezvous Rye
This award-winning rye whiskey by High West Distillery in Park City is full of candied fruit, honey, baking spice, molasses, and subtle herbaceous notes and is excellent both sipped on its own and mixed into classic rye cocktails like the old pal and sazerac. If you're going to stock just one rye on your cart, starting here is a pro move as High West is beloved by bartenders and whiskey nerds across the world.
To buy: drizly.com, $65
Glenfiddich 26 Year Grande Couronne Scotch Whisky
Rare Scotch lovers, this one's for you: Glenfiddich recently unveiled its Grande Couronne expression, which is aged in both European and American oak before being finished in ex-Cognac casks. This whisky features notes of baking spices, deep brown sugar, fennel, vanilla, coffee, and toasted oak on the palate leading into a long, dynamic finish. This is an incredibly special bottling with stunning, gilded presentation — a great conversation starter — and to sip it is almost ethereal.
To buy: sipwhiskey.com, $600
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Sweet vermouth gets a bad rap at times, but if you're serious about your cocktails, it's an essential ingredient for stirred classics like the Manhattan and negroni — and great sweet vermouth actually isn't hard to come by. Internationally, many bartenders favor Carpano Antica Formula, a delicious and complex Italian sweet vermouth that delivers all of the expected elements of a good sweet vermouth but is slightly punched up in intensity and richness. At times, this can be a bit much for the general palate, which is where Cocchi Vermouth di Torino comes in. Dialed up in herbaceousness with a touch of balancing bitterness, this Italian vermouth is less vanilla-forward than Carpano and brings a bit more depth to the mix. Try it neat before mixing it into your next boulevardier.
To buy: astorwines.com, $19
Inspired by the story of abolitionist and writer Olaudah Equiano, Equiano Rum is the world's first and only Afro-Caribbean rum and was co-founded by industry icon Ian Burrell. The brand's award-winning original expression is a combination of 10-year rum from Mauritius and an eight-year Barbadian rum — it's rich and complex with harmonic notes of banana, toffee, toasted vanilla, and dried fruits. If you're looking for a great sipping rum with some age on it, this is a great pick, but if you plan on making rum cocktails (e.g. a classic daiquiri), then go for Equiano's latest release, a lighter blend of barrel-aged Bajan rum and fresh cane juice rum from Africa.
To buy: caskers.com, $54
Lunazul Extra Añejo Tequila
Unless you plan on shaking up Margaritas from your bar cart, Morgenthaler recommended going for something a bit more worthy of slow sipping. "Silver Tequila won't cut it here," he said. "You've got to have something with some age on it — the Lunazul Extra Añejo won't break the bank, and it's aged for 46 months in used bourbon barrels."
To buy: totalwine.com, $38
El Silencio Ensamble Mezcal
While there are many incredible and highly sustainable mezcal producers worth supporting, El Silencio is particularly alluring in its story and identity. Its newly unveiled distillery in Xaaga, Mexico is also a stunning boutique hotel and lifestyle concept, where you can see the spirit come to life in its own world using sustainable and mindful methods honoring the historic surroundings. El Silencio's Ensamble is a joven mezcal made up of Mexicano, Tobasiche, and Espadin magueys with striking notes of jasmine, cracked white pepper, and sweet smoke and a long, enduring finish. This mezcal is perfect for sipping neat or on the rocks, and it also shines in cocktails (both shaken and stirred).
To buy: klwines.com, $70
Pierre Ferrand Double Cask Réserve Cognac
It'd be a shame for any bar cart not to have at least one solid bottle of Cognac, especially for fans of classics like the sidecar or sazerac, along with those who enjoy experimenting in the kitchen with sauces and flambés. For all of the above, try Pierre Ferrand's exquisite Double Cask Réserve.
To buy: totalwine.com, $53
Top-shelf Liqueurs, Various
Liqueurs come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, so we'd recommend identifying a few specific notes and cocktails you love in order to narrow things down to two or three bottles in this department. For example, if you love a good Kir Royale, a good bottle of crème de cassis is a default option (try boutique brand Current Cassis), or if you like to get experimental, make like a modern bartender and source a bottle of Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto ($45), a deliciously unique Italian bergamot liqueur for all kinds of spritzes, sours, martinis, and more.
Having a bottle of Angostura bitters on your bar is a non-negotiable, as it makes an appearance in tons of cocktails. Angostura bitters are a must, but you can stock a few more niche bottles depending on your tastes (Bittermens Burlesque, Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, Fee Brothers Black Walnut, and El Guapo's Fuego bitters, are industry favorites if you're looking to experiment). "For me, you can never have enough bitters," said House. "I can flip a cocktail depending on the bitters."
To buy: amazon.com, $15
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