A guide to successfully building the home bar you have always wanted.
Maybe you’ve decided to have a cocktail party for the first time. Maybe you’ve decided that ordering drinks at bars is too expensive. Or maybe you’ve just decided to stock something different than beer, wine, and that random bottle of Jack or regret filled Fireball in your freezer. No matter who you are or what your reason is, you too can have a fully stocked bar at home without dipping into your savings. This guide will give you everything you need to start your bar and make amazing cocktails at home.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: The Five Bottle Bar
My home bar started modestly. A bottle of bourbon, a bottle of gin, and some bar supplies I received as gifts. Over time, I found new cocktail recipes that required different ingredients and a few bottles quickly became a few dozen. While this is fine for your seasoned home mixologist, it’s a bit overkill for your cocktail newcomer. Five bottles of quality liquor are all you need to get started on your mixing journey.
I chose to include bottles that are widely available, well-balanced for many cocktails, and provide exceptional quality for the price. There is a time and place for bottom-shelf liquor, but it’s not at home, and it’s not in a cocktail. Trust me, as soon as you take your first sip; you’ll be happy you traded up to the next shelf.
Whiskey can quickly become the single most expensive thing on your bar cart. There are many different kinds (bourbon, rye, scotch, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey) and flavor can vary dramatically from distillery to distillery and place to place. I encourage you to stock a bottle of each for different drinks eventually. However, If you’re just starting out, a good bottle of bourbon will get you through most beginner whiskey cocktails. I could have chosen a dozen different bourbons for this guide but ultimately decided on Bulleit Straight Bourbon ($23-$30) because of its diverse flavor profile and widespread availability.
Tequila is not just for taking shots at a party; a good tequila can go a long way towards making the best Margarita or Paloma you’ve ever had. Just be sure to buy a quality 100% blue agave tequila. Mixto tequilas like Jose Cuervo are only required to be 51% agave. The rest is usually fermented sugar water and may be responsible for that hangover that made you swear off tequila forever. I still use Espolon Anejo or Reposado ($24-$28) in most of my tequila cocktails, and it delivers amazing quality for its price.
Distilled from either potatoes or grains, vodka is a requirement for any home bar. Luckily, choosing the right one isn’t difficult, just remember, a quality vodka will have minimal taste and smell and is smooth on the palate. I'm partial to Tito’s Handmade Vodka ($18-$23), and because it's made from corn, you can rest easy if you're gluten-free.
Although this bar staple is never far from a bottle of tonic, there is so much more to gin than just half of a G&T. Gin classics like the Negroni, Gimlet, and even the Martini (the right way) are need-to-know drinks for any aspiring mixologist. Gin is known for the taste and smell of juniper, but different distilleries use different proportions and some focus on botanicals. It’s worth experimenting with different gin as you learn new cocktails, but Beefeater London Dry ($18-$22) is a great starting point.
Why is the rum always gone? Probably because it’s in everyone’s tiki drinks. Although rum is almost synonymous with drinking from a coconut on a beach in the Caribbean, a new wave of appreciation has seen rum highballs and riffs spring up in fine cocktail bars all over the place. A complete home bar should have quality bottles of both white and dark rum but, if you’re trying to keep costs down, a bottle of white rum will get you started. El Dorado 3 Year White ($16-$18) is an excellent rum if you can find it, but Bacardi Superior White Rum also delivers good taste for the price.
Step 2: Mixing it up
Whiskey on the rocks or a vodka soda are okay in a pinch, but some nights you want more. Cocktails require multiple ingredients. Sometimes that’s just citrus juice or sugar, and sometimes it’s a delicious liqueur. A good home bar will always have a few mixers and liqueurs laying around. You can expand this collection over time, and even though some liqueurs can be expensive, you will rarely use more than an ounce in a drink, so they’ll last awhile. Here are a few essential basics that will help you make more than a handful of drinks.
Vermouth (Dry and Sweet)
A fortified wine necessary for cocktails like the Negroni, Martini, and the Manhattan.
Recommended: Martini and Rossi ($8-$11)
You can’t make a Margarita without triple sec or orange liqueur and you’ll find a use for it in many other drinks like the Cosmopolitan, Sidecar, and a White Lady. As one of the more common liqueurs you’ll use, it’s worth stocking a bottle from the beginning. Cointreau is the most popular triple sec brand and is a quality addition behind any bar. If you’re strapped for cash; however, a bottle of DeKuyper Triple Sec will hold you over.
Recommended: Cointreau ($25), budget option DeKuyper Triple Sec ($13)
Think of bitters like salt in your kitchen. They go in a ton of cocktails, and a few dashes are all you need to make a big difference. There are dozens of different bitters on the market, but a bottle of Angostura aromatic bitters should be a permanent fixture of your home bar.
Outside of liquors and liqueurs, you’ll need a few non-alcoholic additions.
Simple syrup (a requirement for hundreds of cocktails)
Fruit juices (cranberry, grapefruit, orange juice, etc.)
Lemon and lime juice (freshly squeezed is preferable but store bought 100% bottles will do in a pinch)
Lemons, limes, and oranges
Ginger beer (stronger ginger flavor and less carbonated than ginger ale)
Step 3: Tools of the Trade
Now you have all the liquid ingredients you need to start making outstanding cocktails. You just need a few tools to turn these ingredients into picture worthy creations.
Boston Cocktail Shaker – A Boston style shaker doubles as a mixing glass and provides a better seal than a 3-piece shaker.
Jigger – A double-sided jigger will help keep your measurements precise.
Long-Handled Bar Spoon – Unless you want to end up stirring your drink with your finger, a long bar spoon is a necessary purchase and the spiral design helps you stir better.
Muddler – Some cocktails like the Mojito are muddled. This means crushing herbs and fruits to extract their juices and oils into the drink. A muddler makes this job easy.
Large Ice Cube Mold – I know what you’re saying, “I have an ice machine, why do I need ice molds?” If your ice is too small, it can quickly dilute your drink. Large ice cubes melt slower and keep your drink tasty longer.
You can also get a full cocktail set like this one from VINOBRAVO if you don't want to worry about buying everything individually.
Step 4: What’s in a Glass
If you’ve ordered drinks at a cocktail bar, then you’ve noticed that each drink seems to come in a different glass. Although it’s not an exact science, different glasses mingle flavors and mouthfeel of cocktails in different ways meaning most drinks have an “ideal” glass type.
Eventually, you will want a variety of glass choices and a nice coupe glass is great for most cocktails and brings a professional flair to your home bar. However, if you’re just starting out and want to keep costs to a minimum, a few lowball (rocks) and highball glasses will get the job done.
Lowball or rocks glasses like these are great for more spirit-forward cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Margarita or just slowly sipping your favorite whiskey. Highball glasses like these, on the other hand, are great for lighter drinks or ones you top off with carbonated beverages like a Tom Collins or a Dark and Stormy.
Step 5: Making your First Cocktails
Now you have everything you need to make amazing cocktails at home. With a little practice, you can even start hosting fancy cocktail parties with friends. There’s a certain level of pride and sophistication in mixing your own drinks that you don’t get from pouring a bottle of wine or beer. Before you start searching through thousands of cocktail recipes on the internet, here are a few drinks you can make now with the ingredients in this guide. The next article will give you step-by-step instructions on how to make them all. Cheers!
Next Article: 10 Easy Cocktails You Should Know How to Make