Unlocking the full potential of your home bar relies not on amassing a vast selection of spirits — though that certainly helps — but stocking up on some choice liqueurs. No matter how many bottles of gin, bourbon, or tequila your collection boasts, you can say goodbye to most of the world’s most iconic cocktails without these relevant supporting actors.
Still, the range of different styles of liqueurs runs intimidatingly long. And, if we’re being honest, there is no occasion or cocktail that justifies a place for Peanut Butter Cream liqueur on your bar cart. On the other hand, pick up a bottle of, say, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and a list of iconic, historical cocktails awaits.
From an easygoing intro to amaro to monk-produced medicinal elixirs, the following 12 liqueurs deserve a place on your bar cart.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
Made in Friuli, in northeastern Italy, this grappa-based digestif offers a light and approachable intro to amari. You’ll get the most mileage out of Amaro Nonino via the Paper Plane, but there are other cocktails in which it shines — often alongside bourbon, as with the Paper Plane. For a simpler option, enjoy over ice with a fresh orange or lemon peel. Average price: $51.
Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur
Looking to spice up agave-based cocktails without using a flavored spirit or fresh ingredients? This smoky, spicy, slightly sweet ancho chile liqueur is the way to go. Once you’re done enjoying it in Margaritas and Palomas, add a splash to whiskey-based classics like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan for a complex new take. Average price: $37.
Aperol needs no introduction and, chances are, there may already be a bottle in your collection thanks to the popularity and crushability of the Aperol Spritz. Look beyond Prosecco and soda water, however, to discover this liqueur’s versatility. Start with the aforementioned Paper Plane, then graduate onto the Naked and Famous, where it sings in equal parts along with mezcal, lime juice, and yellow Chartreuse (more on this shortly). Average price: $27.
Aperol’s burly elder sibling in many respects, Campari also no doubt already owns a place on your bar cart. Similarly, there’s a strong chance you may not be getting the most out of the bittersweet red aperitivo, though. Switch the Negroni’s gin for bourbon and you’ll soon be sipping on a Boulevardier. Opt instead for rye and dry vermouth instead of sweet to acquaint yourself with the Old Pal. For lighter options that pack more of a punch than Aperol-based drinks, look to the Milano-Torino and Americano. Average price: $33.
Chartreuse (Green and Yellow)
Made for centuries by Carthusian monks in the Chartreuse Mountains in southeastern France, this medicinal elixir arrives in two forms: Green and Yellow. The former is bolder and higher-ABV, though both arrive with complex flavors that span sweet, savory, and herbaceous. Green Chartreuse appears most notably in the Last Word and Bijou (a Negroni riff that sees it take the place of Campari), while Yellow Chartreuse shines in the Martini-inspired Alaska Cocktail, as well as the earlier mentioned Naked and Famous. As the two can’t be used interchangeably, buy one 375-milliliter bottle of each. Average price: $61.
Beyond its close association with the standard Margarita, you’d be surprised by how many classic cocktail recipes Cointreau pops up in. From the Sidecar to the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and the Cosmopolitan, one bottle of Cointreau goes a long way. For a list of alternatives, explore VinePairs guide of the best orange liqueurs. Average price: $38.
It’s hard to say whether Fernet Branca remains a bonafide “bartender’s handshake,” given its surge into the relative American mainstream in recent years (in other countries, notably Argentina, Fernet Branca has been a staple for centuries). When you’re not knocking back shots of the bittersweet, medicinal-tasting amaro, consider the Toronto, a complex Canadian-whiskey-based spin on the Old Fashioned, or stirred with gin and sweet vermouth in the Hanky Panky. Average price: $34.
The Espresso Martini — need we say any more? Probably not, but here are a few extra reasons to reach for a bottle of Kahlúa the next time you’re at the liquor store: Among a new-ish wave of coffee and cold brew flavored liqueurs, Kahlúa remains, for us, the go-to. While the White Russian and Black Russian cocktails deserve an honorable mention when it comes to uses, don’t shy away from using this liqueur as a modifier. Start with a bar spoon in your next Negroni. Average price: $23.
Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
This Marasca-cherry-based Italian liqueur is instantly recognizable on back bars, and not just because of its awkward height and straw wrapping. And there’s a good reason any bar worth going to will have a bottle on hand: Without it, you can say goodbye to a long list of classics including the Martinez, Hemingway Daiquiri, Last Word, and Aviation. Average price: $39.
While the Green Fairy won’t make you hallucinate, rinsing a glass with a few splashes brings many iconic cocktails to life, including the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver No. 2. If you want the wormwood-flavored liqueur to take a more starring role, try in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. As for brands, it doesn’t get more classic than Pernod. Average price: $70.
Described as “bartenders’ ketchup,” this elderflower liqueur has the ability to improve countless drinks, especially those made with clear spirits. Of course, you have to try it also in its namesake cocktail, mixed with sparkling wine and soda water, and garnished with a lemon peel. Average price: $39.
The White Negroni stands among a handful of drinks that could be considered true “modern classics,” and the drink owes as much to Suze as the original does to Campari. Bracingly bitter, the French gentian liqueur has a vibrant yellow-gold hue and packs a mighty punch even when used in small quantities. Average price: $31.