How to Build an Intermediate Home Bar
You have the bar basics covered, but now you want to expand your cocktail-making abilities. Here's a guide to buying and stocking everything you need for the next level.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your home bar. The bar of your dreams starts with a few bottles and a few cocktails and grows with you. In my previous article, I showed you how to start your first home bar with a few bottles and little knowhow. This article shows you have to take that knowledge to the next level and expand your collection and cocktail repertoire. At the end of this article, you will know what to buy to make more advanced drinks and have a list of new cocktails to try. First, a few important terms to know.
Neat – Neat or straight means a spirit served straight out of the bottle at room temperature with no mixers.
Up – Up means chilled. Either a spirit or a cocktail is shaken or stirred with ice and then strained into a glass without ice.
On the Rocks – A spirit or cocktail served over ice is served on the rocks.
Muddled – When fruit, herbs, or sugar is crushed with a muddler in the drink during prep. This releases oils and other flavors into the liquid.
Fine Strain – The fine strain or double strain is a bartending method to filter small ice or muddled bits from the final drink. Hold a Hawthorne or Julep strainer over the mixing vessel with one hand and a mesh strainer in the other than pour through both strainers into the glass.
Forward – If something is "forward" the flavor is the most prominent in the drink. Drinks can be described as spirit-forward, fruit-forward, etc.
Shaken – Cocktails are shaken with ice in a shaker before being served. Typically, you shake drinks with citrus juice and egg white.
Stirred – Usually, spirit-forward drinks without citrus or egg white are stirred. Stirred drinks are stirred with larger cubes and with less force that results in less dilution than shaken drinks.
Rinse – “Rinsing” is rolling a small amount of spirit or liqueur along the inside walls of a glass. The remaining liquid is discarded. This changes the aroma of the drink without altering the taste. Rinsing is usually done with absinthe.
Bourbon cocktails are typically spirit forward. They showcase the bourbon's flavor, so it’s essential to have a few different bottles on the shelf. For cocktails like the Boulevardier or Mint Julep, it's important to have a more sweet and nuanced bourbon. I recommend Buffalo Trace and Four Roses Small Batch.
Buffalo Trace is one of the best bang-for-your-buck bourbons out there. It is an incredibly well-rounded whiskey with notes of caramel, honey, and vanilla. At around $30 a bottle, it won’t break the bank. Four Roses Small Batch is another excellent buy that layers notes of cherries and strawberries on top of caramel and spice. At $33 a bottle, this is a great bourbon for a slightly more fruit-forward experience.
Cocktails: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Boulevardier
Bourbon is a whiskey made with at least 51% corn leading to a sweet and full-bodied flavor. Rye is likewise whiskey made from at least 51% rye with a spicier and drier finish than bourbon. Rye was incredibly popular in the U.S. until the turn of the 20th century. Like many spirits, however, it almost died out during prohibition. As bourbon grew in popularity in the 1990s, so did rye, which led to a revival of pre-prohibition rye cocktails.
There's constant debate on whether bourbon or rye makes the best Old Fashioned or Manhattan, and almost every whiskey classic split the fence between using bourbon or rye. To decide for yourself, you need a bottle. I recommend Old Overholt or Rittenhouse if it’s your first-time buying rye. Both are incredibly affordable ($20-$28 a bottle) and work great for mixed drinks. If you decide you like rye enough to sip straight, you might want to trade up, but these are perfect for cocktails.
Cocktails: Sazerac, Vieux Carre, Old Fashioned
Single malt scotches hold a special place in my heart for their pure sipping deliciousness. When it comes to cocktails, however, having some blended scotch around is always a good idea. Distillers use multiple scotches from multiple distilleries to make a blended scotch. It has a unique flavor and a lower price point, both of which make it great for cocktails like the Penicillin, the Rob Roy, and the Rusty Nail.
Monkey Shoulder and Johnny Walker Black are around the same price ($33) and are great for different reasons. Monkey Shoulder is a mix of three Speyside malts with flavors of marmalade, vanilla, and spice. On the other hand, Johnny Walker Black is a mix of scotches that lead to hints of oak sherry and a rich smoky finish. Both are suited for different cocktail experiences and choosing which to get first boils down to your flavor preference.
Cocktails: Penicillin, Godfather
Single Malt Scotch
If you want to get in-depth about the different kinds of scotch and their flavors, check out my Scotch 101 article. Briefly, single malt scotch is scotch made from a single distillery and made from 100% malted barley. The flavor is unique to the region where it was distilled and the distillery that created it.
Some great cocktails use single malt scotch, but it’s mostly for sipping. You can’t beat that warm feeling of after a hard day, sitting on your favorite chair and slow sipping a good glass of scotch. Picking one single malt is difficult because the choice boils down to price and taste. I like keeping a bottle of Highland Park 12 around because it has a well-rounded flavor profile, a little smoke, a little brine, and enough honey and florals to balance it out. It’s great for all types of palettes. If you find yourself wanting something sweeter and fruitier, Glenmorangie 10 is a good starting point. Likewise, Laphroaig 10 is a great budget buy if you want something on the smoky side.
Aromatic (New Wave) Gin
London Dry gin is what most people think of when they think of gin. Although juniper is the predominant flavor in all gin, in a London Dry, you will get a lot of it. Juniper berries give that unmistakable Christmas-tree flavor that people love or hate. Still, there are other, less juniper heavy gins you should keep behind the bar.
Some new wave gins put less emphasis on juniper and more on aromatics like floral botanicals and citrus. There is no actual "category" for these new wave gins, but they add unique flavors you will not get from a London Dry. These gins are perfect for gin cocktails that are more summery or garden focused. I always keep a bottle of Hendrick’s at home because of its unique aromatics and flavors of cucumbers and rose water. It works great in cocktails like the Green Gin Giant or even a simple Gin and Tonic.
Cocktails: Martinez, Green Gin Giant
There’s a spot in your bar for both white and aged rum. White rum will get you started with cocktails like the Mojito, but for more advanced cocktails like the Mai Tai and Jungle Bird, aged rum is a necessity. All aged rum spends time in a barrel, but the time can vary from a few years to a few decades. Five years is a good mark for cocktails, and both Plantation and Rhum Barbancourt 5 are great options.
Cocktails: Jungle Bird, Pina Colada
Although it looks like whiskey, cognac is a type of brandy, a smooth grape-based spirit. Cognac is a brandy made specifically in the Cognac region of France, a bit north of Bordeaux. Younger cognacs will feature fruity or flowery notes while older cognacs will offer a hint of spice. Most cognac cocktails feature it alongside whiskey for a strong and delicate balance. The Sazerac and Vieux Carre are great examples. But cocktails like the Sidecar feature cognac prominently.
Two excellent cocktail cognacs are Martell VS and H by Hine. Both have a great entry price tag and a rich fruitiness that stands out in a good drink.
Cocktails: Sazerac, Vieux Carre, Sidecar
Mystique and legend surround the green fairy. Absinthe was introduced to France in the 1840s and is attributed to murder, societal corruption, and even Van Gogh’s psychosis. Although nothing in Absinthe justifies its reputation-no, wormwood will not make you trip-, lousy science and mysticism ensured it remained internationally banned for over 100 years. It turns out the only thing dangerous about Absinthe is its high alcohol content. Those legends? The product of pure imagination, alcoholism, and a little bit of copper poisoning from unlicensed stills.
Enough of history, what is Absinthe? Absinthe is a highly alcoholic, anise-flavored spirit with botanicals of wormwood, fennel, and other herbs. Because of its overpowering flavor and aroma, cocktails typically use Absinthe only in small quantities for a pleasant and unique smell without altering the taste. A barspoon or a rinse is usually all you need. Mephisto is a good value for the price. It’s affordable at around $30, and because you only need small quantities at a time, it will last a while.
Cocktails: Sazerac, La Louisiane, Corpse Reviver No. 2
In addition to a well-stocked liquor collection, you need a good assortment of liqueurs to make a variety of cocktails. With thousands to choose from, it is difficult to pick which to buy and which to pass on. Nothing’s worse than spending $40 or more for a bottle of something you never use.
I've established a good rule of thumb after spending way too much money on spirits I didn’t need. Wait until you find at least five cocktails you want to make that call for the same liqueur. This rule ensures that you enjoy and have a use for what you buy. However, there are a few essentials you should get right away.
Campari is a popular bitter Italian aperitif. This brilliant red spirit has a dominant bitter flavor that’s highlighted by the taste of orange. Campari is an essential liqueur for the Negroni, Boulevardier, and the Jungle Bird, among others. You will use it a lot, especially if you like bitter drinks.
You may be familiar with elderflower whether you realize it or not. Elderflower liqueur has a sweet and floral flavor with hints of pear and lychee, and a little bit livens up cocktails like a classic mule or a gin and tonic. By far, Saint Germain is the most popular elderflower liqueur on the market, but there are cheaper alternatives.
Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur doesn’t just look great behind the bar; it has an imitable flavor. Based on the name, you would be forgiven if you think this tastes like cherries, but you would be wrong. It’s a funky flavor with a little pine, lemon, almond, and floral notes. It’s a genuinely unique liqueur and irreplaceable for drinks like the Aviation and the Last Word.
I’m sure you have Kahlua behind the bar right now. While Kahlua is fine if you want to quickly alcoholize (I think that’s a word) your morning coffee, it's exceptionally sugary and very distant from coffee. Take this opportunity, my reader, to upgrade from Kahlua and get yourself a real coffee liqueur. There are dozens on the market to choose from, but Leopold Bros and Mr. Black are some of the most popular. Both have a robust and delicious espresso taste that will make you never want to go back to Kahlua.
You should have some basic cocktails fixings like vermouth, Angostura bitters, and maybe some cocktail olives. Now that you’re making more advanced cocktails, you’ll need to expand the collection. Here are a few that will come in handy
Orange bitters: Orange bitters are the perfect compliment to Angostura for a classic Old Fashioned.
Peychaud’s bitters: Popular in New Orleans classics like the Sazerac and Vieux Carre.
Flavored bitters: There are dozens of flavored bitters to choose from, and all change the taste of your cocktail. One of the first I bought for my bar was black walnut bitters.
Never, EVER, use those bright red cancer cherries in your cocktail. Instead, spring for Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. They’re natural and a delicious companion.
Demerara Sugar Cubes
It comes down to personal preference, but I tend to use Demerara sugar in my whiskey cocktails instead of regular sugar or simple syrup. It has a more full-bodied flavor that is delicious with whiskey. Demerara sugar cubes will give you the option to muddle the sugar or make a syrup out of it for your next Old Fashioned.
Champagne isn’t just for celebrations. In addition to Mimosas, there are a ton of cocktails that call for a bit of bubbly. Buy Prosecco instead if you want to save some money; no one will know the difference.
I still recommend following my liquor buying rule above; don’t buy something new unless you find five drinks you want to make with it. These ingredients are optional but worth picking up if you see them in drinks you wish to make.
This is the only liqueur in the world with natural green color from a proprietary, secret blend of 130 plants. It’s herbal in flavor and essential in drinks like the Last Word and Chartreuse Swizzle.
Mezcal is Tequila's smoky cousin. Mezcal has a notable smoky flavor that is a fun substitute for the primary spirit in dozens of classic cocktails.
Like Green Chartreuse, Benedictine is made with a secret, proprietary blend of herbs and spices giving it flavors of honey and licorice. If the Vieux Carre sounds tasty, get Benedictine.
Ginger liqueur is an easy way to spice up a Mule, Hot Toddy, or even a Mint Julep.
With more advanced cocktails comes more advanced bar gear. You don't need to spend a fortune, but you need tools that will serve you well and up your drink game.
Julep strainer: A julep strainer is the best way to strain from a mixing glass while ensuring no ice ends up in your drink. It’s a lifesaver when you’re serving drinks up or over a rocks cube.
Mixing glass: As a general rule, you only shake drinks with citrus or egg white. Everything else, for the most part, you want to stir. You need a heavy-duty mixing glass that can hold a large volume of liquid and ice.
Mesh strainer: To ensure no unwanted bits of ice or muddled ingredients end up in your drink, you should consider a fine strain or double strain. A mesh strainer and fine strain is an important step when serving a spirit-forward drink after shaking.
Boston shaker: If you’re still using a three-piece shaker, I recommend buying a two-piece or Boston shaker instead. Three-piece shakers tend to stick after they get cold, and if you don’t clean them thoroughly, the sugar from your drinks may keep you from ever opening the shaker again. A Boston shaker will save you this trouble.
Cocktail picks: Reusable metal cocktail picks will help you make the perfect garnish and save the environment while you’re at it.
Ice molds: If you don’t have ice molds by now, get them. Large cube ice molds are almost essential when making cocktails consistently at home. If the ice is too small, your drink will dilute too quickly and ruin the cocktail's flavor.
Now that you have all the ingredients and tools you need for intermediate cocktails, you still aren’t finished. Glassware is a particularly important part of cocktail making. Glasses don’t just make cocktails fancy; different glasses pair with different cocktails for a reason. Particular glasses can hold ice where others can’t, can be topped with soda, or help your drink stay cold longer. Don’t find yourself making the best Martini ever and only have a rocks glass to put it in.
Coupe glasses: Coupe glasses are the quintessential cocktail glass. You can use these stemmed glasses for almost any cocktail served up.
Collins glasses: Highball glasses or Collins glasses are designed for drinks served with small ice cubes and topped with tonic, soda, or another carbonated liquid.
Rocks glasses: Rocks glasses are for drinks served over a single large cube or whiskey drinks served up. They can also be used to sip spirits neat. Get a double rocks glass for enough room for a full drink and a large cube.
Martini Glasses: The Martini glass is excellent for keeping drinks served up colder longer. Because the stem is long and the glass is narrow at the bottom, your hand stays away from the liquid, which stops you from warming it up. Few drinks call for a Martini glass so they are optional. Coupe glasses are a fine replacement.
Nick & Nora Glasses: If you want a slightly fancier and less precarious glass to replace Martini glasses, get a Nick & Nora. Nick & Nora glasses are a hybrid between a wine glass and a Martini glass and will keep your drink cold and less likely to tip over.
Tiki Mugs: Not only are tiki mugs fun, but they serve an important purpose. Tiki drinks are usually served with crushed ice that melts too quickly if put in most glassware. No one wants a watered-down drink five minutes after ordering it. Tiki mugs are made with ceramic that keeps the drink chilled longer.
Building the perfect home bar is a lifelong journey that's equal parts collecting bottles, enhancing skills, and learning new drinks. You now have a starting point to take your drinks from basic to a little more advanced. In my next article, I will show you 10 drinks you can make with everything from this article.