So you’ve graduated beyond just having one dusty bottle of booze on a shelf that you mix with soda or tonic. Maybe you’ve got a new pad and you think a nice little bar set up will be the finishing touch. Or maybe you’re just having a party and you realize you want to make your guests feel like you’ve got your shit together and you’re all “grown-up and stuff”.
Either way, I commend you for taking the step to invest in setting up your own home bar.
Stocking your own home bar is a great decision for a number of reasons:
1. As I alluded to above, unlike some of the negative aspects of growing older, like wrinkles and increased responsibility, it’s one of the positive side effects of getting more mature and generally getting more awesome with age. It says, “Now that I’m an adult and I’m starting to have less Ikea furniture, I think I need to be able to offer my guests something more than just gin in a plastic bottle with flat tonic.”
2. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and eats for a lifetime, etc, etc. There’s a certain comforting self-sufficiency in being able to make a fancy cocktail for yourself at home. For one thing, economically it’s a great move, since you’re no longer beholden to paying $10 for a drink at a bar–you can make your own, and save mad cash. And best of all you can enjoy that fancy homemade cocktail while you’re sitting on your couch in your underwear on a random Wednesday night (check with your roommates on this first, though).
3. It allows you to explore a whole new world of adventurous mixology possibilities on your own terms. Consuming cocktails suddenly becomes more about the journey than the destination. And the journey is awesome. When you’re just ordering your tried-and-true drink at a bar or even when you “branch out” to try something else, you don’t have much room to experiment. When you have your home bar, you can explore and tinker–the control is in your hands.
As with anything, barware is an area where if you wanted to, you could spend tons of dough. And you could continue to spend money acquiring unique or rare items–like a shaker made of antique tortoise shell or something. That’s all fine if you have the money, but before we get fancy let’s get you set up with the essentials.
The jigger helps you measure in 1-ounce or 1-½ ounce increments. I know you’re thinking, “but in most bars, bartenders don’t measure when they pour in the booze–and it looks so damn cool…” That’s ok if you’re making something simple like a gin and tonic. But if you’re making anything more interesting–with more than 2 ingredients–you might want to do some measuring. When you make a manhattan, adding any more than that “just right” amount of sweet vermouth can ruin the delicate balance. That’s exactly why I never order a manhattan at most regular bars.
A shaker helps you combine ice with booze and other drink ingredients. For drinks like the manhattan
and martini (which generally should be stirred not shaken, by the way–Bond was an oddball) shakers allow you to mix and chill the ingredients while imparting an ever so slight amount of water from the ice to help smooth out the drink. For drinks that combine citrus and other disparate ingredients, some experts say that shaking vigorously helps create a chemical reaction that can help bind the ingredients together for a smoother mouthfeel.
When you’re buying a shaker, you don’t have to go crazy expensive. Key to this is getting a shaker that (1) keeps the liquid in the shaker when you’re shaking it, and (2) helps you strain the ingredients when you’re pouring into the glass. You can go bar-style with a pint glass and stainless steel tumbler with a strainer. But it’s probably easier just to grab a garden-variety shaker with a built-in strainer (also known as a “cobbler”).
The bar spoon is essentially just a long-ass spoon for mixing drinks. The length allows you to stir ingredients in various size glasses, from shallow tumblers to tall high-ball glasses. It also makes it easier to grab a garnish like an olive or a cherry out of a jar. These often have twirled metal handles that supposedly assist in mixing.
A muddler is a long stick with a flat bottom used to mash fruit and other ingredients in the bottom of drinks. It is essential for drinks like the mojito and the mint julep and is often used to muddle together sugar cubes and bitters for drinks like the old fashioned. Traditionally they’re made out of wood and look like little baseball bats, but newer designs can be made from plastic or stainless steel and have a toothed or textured surface on one end. My grandfather’s muddler (pictured left) was one of the few things I inherited from him and something I continue to treasure. I’m ashamed to say, I think it took me like 3 months to figure out that it was actually a muddler and not just a miniature baseball bat.
The handheld citrus squeezer is perfect for juicing limes for cocktails like the margarita or lemons for something like a whiskey sour or gimlet. You may think that fresh citrus is more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” But the truth is that fresh citrus is one of the cornerstones of many good cocktails. Once your palate has gotten used to the beauty of fresh lime in your margarita and fresh lemon in your whiskey sours, there is no going back to margarita mix or sweet and sour mix. Bartending guru Shawn Refoua of SF Mixology even goes so far as to say that the quality and freshness of the citrus in a drink is actually even more important than the booze you use.
Again, don’t go crazy here–you have plenty of time to accumulate fancy specialty glassware–and believe me, you will. For now if you’re just starting out, just get the basics. As one of my favorite cocktail books DIY Cocktails says, “The 2 most important questions to ask when choosing a glass for your cocktail are: 1. How big will my drink be? 2. Will my glass have ice cubes in it?”
For now, here are the essential glasses to start with:
Old fashioned glasses
4-8 ounce glasses, sometimes called “rocks glasses” since they typically used for serving drinks on the rocks
Highball glasses or collins glasses
Both are tall and narrow. Technically the highball glass is about 8-10 ounces and the collins glass is about 10-14 ounces. But you can probably get by with one type of glass that holds about 10-12 ounces.
Martini glasses or cocktail glasses
The classic cone-shaped glass on a stem used for chilled, strained drinks like martinis and manhattans. Technically martini glasses are usually a little bigger whereas cocktail glasses are a little smaller. But either should work fine.
Optional glassware upgrades
So, what about the actual bar ingredients?
Of course, there’s no end to the number of different mixers and types of liquor you can buy. There’s everything from artichoke liqueur to other odd-ball stuff like marshmallow flavored vodka. What’s important is that you have good base of liquor to start with. Here are the essentials:
Dark or spiced rum
With all of the type of alcohol above, what should be obvious is that the quality of the liquor matters more if you plan on drinking it with fewer ingredients–or on its own. I do believe that using great liquor does improve a cocktail, but it’s not essential to use top-shelf stuff if you’re going to be mixing it with other ingredients. On the other hand, if you plan to enjoy scotch on the rocks or “neat”, you may want to invest in single-malt that doesn’t taste like turpentine.
Of course, if you or one of your close friends has a particular knack for one type of liquor you may want to skew your list accordingly. For instance, I like whiskey quite a bit, so I generally have a disproportionate amount of brown liquor–bourbon, rye, scotch, Canadian whiskey, etc–on hand. But I would still encourage you to make sure you have the basics above.
Mixers to always have on hand
Cointreau or Triple Sec
Garnishes to always have on hand
Good Maraschino cherries
Simple syrup (make your own–just 1 part water, 1 part sugar and shake in a tightly closed jar. Keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks)
Perishable mixers and garnishes
These mixers are great to have on hand, but since they should ideally be somewhat fresh, you should buy or prepare them right before you have a party.
Fresh mint and basil
Once you’ve acquired the essential items above, congratulations, you’ve got a basic home bar! There’s always going to be something you’re missing (“do you have any like…um…Vanilla Stoli?”). But don’t worry, in your heart take comfort knowing that your bar is now equipped to handle many standard cocktails and should make your guests feel more than welcome.
Best of all, this is just the beginning of your mixology adventures. Having a home bar is very much like having a basic tool set. You have a solid foundation once you have the basic array of tools. But as you begin to branch out and try different things, it gives you an excuse to acquire new and exotic tools and ingredients. I would caution you not to do this too quickly–but I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that I also get giddy like a schoolboy when I realize I “need” to go out and buy a Julep strainer or some random liqueur like Drambuie.
Now go forth and have a cocktail!
P.S. Did I miss any other “essential” items? Let me know if there’s something you’ve found to be absolutely critical to your home bar. Feel free to leave a comment below.
FOR MORE COCKTAIL EDUCATION…
Now that you have the gear, you might be looking for some cocktail recipes. I highly recommend Dale DeGroff’s amazing book, The Craft of the Cocktail. You can also sign up for my Gentlemen: Look Good, Live Well COCKTAIL MODULE, a high-quality video course that walks you through how to make great drinks step-by-step. It also includes 15 classic recipes, videos on making garnishes, expert interviews, and a private community where you can connect with other members. Learn more here.