Ask a Bartender: What's One Bottle That Will Up Your Cocktail Game?

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Paul Sauter of Mercadito Chicago

No home bar will ever be as well-stocked as a professional one. But there are some bottles that can let you make dozens of drinks, instantly upping your cocktail game. We asked bartenders across the country: What's one bottle that will expand your cocktail horizons? Here's what they had to say.

"A base spirit that can instantly change your arsenal is Bombay Sapphire East. You can swap it out in any of your gin cocktails and instantly have a new cocktail with a little more depth. It's essentially the same thing as Bombay Sapphire with the addition of two botanicals: Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorns." — Leo Holtzman (The Cocktail Collection at Tobacco Road)

"I always have to have some crazy form of bitters. I love weird different flavors like Mexican Mole or Memphis BBQ. Changes the cocktail like you wouldn't believe. " — Paul Sauter (Mercadito Chicago)

"A really nice orange curaçao goes a long way. I would recommend Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao for making great Mai Tais, Corpse Revivers, or even more obscure drinks like a curaçao punch (fresh lemon, cognac, Jamaican rum, orange curaçao and soda water)." — Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks)

"I always keep a bottle of Green Chartreuse on hand. I like to use it in place of the absinthe rinse for a Sazerac or in place of vermouth in a Manhattan. It's full of bold botanical flavors that pair well with most spirits. My favorite drink, created right here in Detroit, is the Last Word—equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur." — Shane McGrath (The Oakland Art Novelty Co.)

"A nice bottle of Fino sherry. There are a bunch of classic cocktails that are just sherry and vermouth and bitters, like the Adonis; the Sherry Cobbler is a fun classic that's a great introduction to both sherry and cocktailing; and if you're into tinkering, sherry's great for adding a tart element and some body to stirred cocktails in place of citrus." — Kyle Storm (French Louie)

"Lillet Blanc. I like to think of it as the new St. Germain, except nowhere near as sweet." — Derrick Bass (Willie Jane)

"Vermouths and other wine-based aperitifs are fantastic ways to expand your home cocktail bar. Manhattans are great drinks to be able to play around with, and the number of variations you can make are pretty much endless. Vermouths need to be refrigerated and have a shelf life, which may sound like a negative, but in reality can inspire you to be creative or try new things." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)

Jamie Buckman of Bookstore Bar & Café in Seattle.

"When in doubt, pass me the Aperol. This Italian aperitif offers notes of bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona. Its bright red hue makes for fantastic springtime cocktails —everything from the Aperol Spritz (Aperol, Prosecco, soda) to a Paper Plane (Bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon)." — Jamie Buckman (Bookstore Bar & Café)

"Smith and Cross, a sturdy and smoky Jamaican dark rum. It can play so well with fruit and spice, I find myself relying on it as the panacea to all my otherwise boring cocktails." — Dan Bronson (Crescent & Vine)

"St. Germain is definitely one of the most versatile and approachable additions to anyone's bar. The classic St. Germain cocktail is 50/50 Prosecco and soda water with a splash of St. Germain. We currently use it as a substitute for simple syrup when making a gin and amaro sour. During the summer I like to drink gin and tonics with some muddled grapefruit and a splash of St. Germain." — Jason Lakow (Amali)

"You can significantly upgrade your sweet vermouth by spending the extra bucks on Carpano Antica. This sweet vermouth is awesome and will bring your Manhattans and Old Fashioneds to another level." — George Donahue (The Treemont)

"A good old fashioned bottle of Angostura bitters. You can add it to practically anything and it will add dimension and spice. A gin and tonic, a mojito, or even just a couple dashes on top of a whiskey on the rocks." — Ben Anderson (The Corner Office)

Dan Andruss of 312 Chicago.

"Luxardo Maraschino. A foundation for classics: Aviation, Last Word, Martinez..." — Dan Andruss (312 Chicago)

"A bottle of absinthe is a great addition. A little bit goes a long way. Drinks like the Corpse Reviver #2 and Sazerac use just a few drops at a time. Plus, you don't even have to mix it into a cocktail, just add some sugar and water and you're good to go." — Josh Berner (Poste Moderne Brasserie)

"Campari is a good one: You can do basic stuff like Campari & Soda, Campari and OJ, Americanos, and interesting things like Negronis, Negronis Sbagliato, Old Pals, Boulevardiers, Jasmines, and a host of other things. It's got a nice bitter orange flavor that blends with lots of things." — Jon Harris (Firefly)

"Bitters are very important. They're like adding salt & pepper to food." — Michael Lay (Faith & Flower)

"I'm personally a huge fan of Cynar right now; it's bittersweet with a dry finish. It's versatile and adds character to many drinks. Drink it by itself or try making a Bensonhurst with it." — Don Galvano (Pub and Kitchen)

"Campari, or my favorite alternative, Cappelletti. Every home bar should have a bottle like this. I love using it in a Negroni, Boulevardier, or Jungle Bird." — Serena Herrick (Allumette)

Trent Simpson of La Urbana in SF.

"Have a smoky mezcal on hand to add body to a cocktail. Mezcal mixes very well in a variety of classic cocktails; it can be a tasty substitute for gin, whiskey or tequila cocktails or add a nice element of smoke to a more striaght-forward cocktail." — Trent Simpson (La Urbana)

"Buy a bottle of Ancho Reyes chile liqueur and start playing with it. The spicy note that it can add to a cocktail can help make a good drink great. Add a little mezcal to your hot chocolate and use this to flavor your whipped cream. Delicious!" — Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"Green Chartreuse. It can be enjoyed in a variety of different ways: neat, on the rocks, with club soda or tonic water, even with a slice of lime. Where this liqueur really shines is in the many classics such as the Last Word, Bijou, Alaska Cocktail No. 2, Diamondback, and 60/40. For summer recipes, I have found that Green Chartreuse in equal parts with fresh pineapple juice accompanied by a few sprigs of mint is also amazingly delicious." — Jon Feuersanger (Second Home Kitchen + Bar)

"Benedictine. A little goes along way and it's very versatile. I use it as a modifier and sweetener. It's used in classics such as a Singapore Sling, Bobby Burns, De La Louisiane, and Vieux Carre." — Rodger Gillespie (LAVO Las Vegas)

"You can add Aperol to just about any cocktail to add depth and create a nice citrus component that isn't overly sweet—like, say, a margarita. So instead of using Cointreau or triple sec, use aperol as the modifier in just about any cocktail that uses the orange liquors, giving a slightly different citrus flavor-profile with a bitter quality, especially with summer coming up." — Jessica Stafford (Flour & Barley)