Building a decent selection of base spirits lays a solid foundation for any home bar. But it’s the careful addition of modifiers and liqueurs that unlocks your bar’s true potential. It’s impossible to mix a Negroni, for example, without sweet vermouth and the Italian bitter liqueur Campari. And good luck shaking up an Espresso Martini without a coffee-based liqueur such as Kahlúa.
While liqueurs like Campari and Kahlúa may seem linked to specific cocktails, don’t write them off as one-trick ponies. Neither should you reach for Aperol only during aperitivo hour or open the orange liqueur when it’s time to mix Margs. With a little insider knowledge, there’s a world of opportunities to explore, from forgotten gems to lesser-known “modern classics.”
To find out how to get more miles out of the liqueurs on your bar cart, we tapped a small pool of bartenders with a wealth of experience.
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Among them was Brian Miller, a self-styled “tropicalogist” whose resume is littered with New York cocktail institutions such as Pouring Ribbons, Pegu Club, and Death & Co. Also weighing in with sage advice from the Empire State was Lucinda Sterling, who came up at Milk & Honey under the late Sasha Petraske, and now works as a bartender and co-owner of Middle Branch and Seaborne. Completing the trio was Los Angeles-based Tyson Buhler, national beverage director at Death & Co.
Likely the liqueur that’s most famously handcuffed to one specific drink, the Aperol Spritz, this is a perfect example of a criminally underutilized bottle. Instead of adding Prosecco and soda, try it in the Mexican-inspired Oaxaca Sol. An original creation from Phillip Childers of Sterling’s Middle Branch, this shaken cocktail combines 1 ½ ounces tequila, ½ ounce Aperol, ½ ounce agave syrup, and ¾ ounce lemon juice. Strain over ice and garnish with an orange slice and mezcal float.
For a better-known modern classic, Sterling suggests the Intro to Aperol, created by Audrey Saunders at New York’s Pegu Club. Bittersweet, with a citrus twang, this summery shaken cocktail blends 2 ounces of Aperol with 1 ounce gin, ¾ ounce of lemon juice, and a dash of Angostura bitters. Alternatively, there’s the Paper Plane, a Sam Ross creation from his time at Milk & Honey. Requiring an added, esoteric Italian ingredient, this well-balanced, equal-parts cocktail shakes ¾ ounce each Aperol, bourbon, lemon juice, and Amaro Nonino. (It’s worth picking up a bottle of Amaro Nonino for this drink alone.)
Newly minted home bartenders might turn their noses up at Baileys, but two of our bartenders revealed a soft spot for the velvet- smooth liqueur. Miller enjoys a splash in hot coffee in lieu of cream and says, “I’ve never had a bad Baileys before. The shelf life is probably the same as a Twinkie.” For those who feel the urge to pull out the shaker, all roads lead to the Mudslide. The grownup milkshake sees 1 ounce each of vodka, coffee liqueur (more on this soon), and Baileys, shaken with 1½ ounces heavy cream.
Another (in)famous preparation is the Blow Job shot, a regrettably named ‘90s creation that floats ⅕ ounce of the Irish cream on top of a ½ ounce shot of Amaretto. A healthy topping of whipped cream is added as garnish for good measure. The Baby Guinness, a more enjoyable preparation, ditches the cream and switches in coffee liqueur for the Amaretto. It’s a picture-perfect pairing alongside a pint of the real thing. And before we leave the Emerald Isle, Sterling offers one last Baileys tip: Mix equal parts with Irish whiskey and lots of ice. “You definitely want to water it down and make it last that little longer,” she says.
Once you’ve conquered the Negroni, Buhler says the drink’s “siblings” are the next logical step for exploring Campari cocktails. A few simple tweaks to the equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth recipe offer a range of options.
Remove the gin to enjoy a bittersweet Milano-Torino. Add a splash of soda to that drink and it becomes the Americano. “As long as you’ve got a couple bottles of vermouth in the fridge, the Boulevardier and Old Pal are also really easy spins,” Buhler says. The former subs in bourbon for Negroni’s gin, while the latter replaces it with rye and switches out the sweet vermouth for dry.
For a departure from Negroni’s well-worn flavor profile, Buhler recommends more recent creations. “There’s a really great drink that came out of Milk & Honey years ago from Mickey McIlroy called the Rome With a View,” he says. A citrusy riff on the Americano, this cocktail shakes 1 ounce each Campari, dry vermouth, and fresh lime juice, with ¾ ounce simple syrup. Finish with a splash of soda water and an orange wheel.
“There’s another one that I love from the ‘90s called the Jasmine,” Buhler says. Created by Paul Harrington at the Townhouse Bar & Grill in Emeryville, Calif., this drink could be mistaken for a Cosmopolitan with its powdery pink appearance. Instead, it’s a more nuanced riff on the bracing Gin Sour, with ¼ ounce each Cointreau and Campari replacing simple syrup and adding complexity.
Where there’s an open bottle of Cointreau, there’s likely a recently finished Margarita nearby. But the orange liqueur is an incredibly adaptable ingredient, capable of delivering more than refreshing Margs. “The Margarita is just an extension of a Sidecar, which I think most people have heard of but probably don’t make very much at home,” Buhler says. Where the Sidecar’s Cognac replaces Margarita’s tequila, opting for gin as the base spirit yields a White Lady, which can be shaken with or without an egg white. For a more obscure classic, Buhler puts forward the Lucien Gaudin. A stirred, spirit-forward cocktail, this drink combines 2 parts gin with 1 part each Campari, Cointreau, and dry vermouth.
Coffee Liqueur (such as Kahlúa)
Coffee liqueur is an essential ingredient in the Espresso Martini, a drink famously concocted for an unnamed supermodel looking for something to “wake her up and f*ck her up.” Other uses for the liqueur are similarly crude. Best known among them is the White Russian, which shot to fame following its supporting role in the Big Lebowski. For the lighter Black Russian alternative, simply stir 2 parts vodka with 1 part Kahlúa. And don’t be afraid to switch up the base spirit or play with proportions, Miller says: “Try equal parts rum and Kahlúa, with a cream float on top.” Alternatively, experiment with Kahlúa as a cocktail modifier. “Campari and coffee are neighbors,” he says. “So add a teaspoon or half a teaspoon to your Negroni. A little bit goes a long way.”
A summertime staple, aromatized wine Lillet Blanc begs for little more than ice, fruit, and an optional topping of soda to be enjoyed. But it also finds a home in some great classic cocktails. There’s the Corpse Reviver #2 and its lesser known sibling, the 20th Century Cocktail, which subs in crème de cacao for orange liqueur and omits the absinthe rinse.
More debatable in reputation is James Bond’s Vesper Martini, which attempts to settle the gin-versus-vodka debate once and for all by including them both. While the merits of this drink remain a point of contention, Buhler says you’re on the right path if you’re including Lillet Blanc in Martini variations. “It rounds out the edges a little and helps make the boozy, dry cocktail a little bit more approachable,” he says.
For a more refreshing, batchable drink, a healthy pour of Lillet Blanc is the perfect way to jazz up a White Sangria, Sterling says.
There’s much to love about this approachable floral liqueur. “When I was at Death & Co., we used to call it bartenders’ ketchup,” says Miller. “You can put it in almost anything and it tastes great.”
While it most famously appears with Champagne and club soda in the Elderflower Spritz (also known as the St-Germain cocktail), the floral “condiment” has worked its way into a number of innovative Death & Co. creations over the years.
An Old Fashioned reboot, Phil Ward’s Elder Fashioned stirs 2 ounces Plymouth gin with ½ ounce St-Germain and a dash of orange bitters. Miller’s original creations from his time at the bar include the Carré Reprise, a reimagining of the Vieux Carré that replaces Benedictine with ½ ounce of the elderflower liqueur. His Little Sparrow follows a similar spirit-forward formula, but riffs on the relationship between apples and elderflowers. Calvados provides the base spirit while a dash of 100-proof Laird’s apple brandy ups the ABV.
For simpler solutions, Miller suggests using St-Germain as a sweetener. For recipes that usually call for 1 ounce of simple syrup, replace half with ½ ounce of St-Germain. Whether it’s a Daiquiri or Gin Collins, the elderflower liqueur works as a “floral enhancer” he says.