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Learn how to stock a bar cart that is perfectly tailored to your personal taste and the cocktails you love to make. Staying in just got a lot more fun!
Whether in a cupboard, cabinet, or a bar cart, a good home bar is usually a sign of peak adulthood. All of a sudden, we aren’t as interested in night clubs and hotspots as we are in our porches, patios, and fireplaces.
Consider this a good introduction to building a bar that fits your needs and budget. Start with the basics and over time, you’ll have an enviable collection of spirits for any cocktail you want to try.
Table of Contents
Six liquors to start
Clear and crisp. Flavored vodkas are also plentiful, but unless you adore a specific kind, choose an unflavored one.
Herbaceous, lively, and commonly flavored with juniper berries. If you love a Gin & Tonic or a dirty Martini, buy a London dry gin.
Blanco (silver) tequila is the most versatile. Resposado (gold) is aged under 1 year, and anejo (amber) is aged 1 to 3 years.
There are 4 kinds of rum: light, gold, dark, and spiced. If you love Daiquiris, and Mojitos, buy light rum. For tropical drinks, add a dark rum to the liquor cabinet. Captain Morgan is a popular spiced rum.
A catch-all term for Irish Whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, rye whiskey, blended, or single malt. A good rye whiskey or American bourbon makes an excellent mixed drink like a Whiskey Sour, while Canadian whiskey is smooth for sipping on its own.
Brandy shows up in classic cocktail recipes when you least expect it, and you’ll also see it on the side of your next fish fry.
Beyond the basics
- Dry and sweet vermouth: Dry vermouth makes a fabulous martini, while sweet vermouth is a crucial ingredient in a Negroni and a Manhattan.
- Campari or Aperol: These bright-red, bitter-sweet aperitifs are syrupy, so they’re often combined with soda water, Prosecco, or blended with another alcohol. An Aperol Spritz needs a splash of white wine, for example, while a Negroni uses Campari blended with gin and sweet vermouth.
- Orange liqueur: From a basic triple sec to Cointreau or Grand Marnier, it all depends on your budget. You can’t make a great Margarita or a Sidecar without it.
- Amaretto: An almond-flavored liqueur made from apricot kernels. In addition to being the star of an Amaretto Sour, It can also be used in baking to add a sweet, cherry-almond flavor.
Specialty liqueurs for special drinks
- A single malt Scotch: Perfect for sipping or celebrations.
- Mezcal: Distilled from wild agave, Mexico’s popular export is a fun addition if you’re a tequila lover.
- St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur: A gorgeous liqueur made from French elderflowers; very popular in modern cocktails.
- Kahlùa Coffee Liqueur: Delicious on the rocks or with vodka and a splash of cream for a White Russian.
- Chambord: A French black raspberry liqueur that is juicy and sweet. A splash of Chambord is a great alternative to cranberry juice in a Cosmo.
- Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur: Made from cherry pits, it’s an important ingredient in the Hemingway Daiquiri. Or, use it in your Dirty Shirley.
- Creme de Menthe: Try a Grasshopper Cocktail or a Stinger made with Scotch.
Mixers and garnishes
- Ice: Almost every drink you will ever make will need ice, and lots of it. Plain ice is nice, but so are the bigger cubes that are easy to make with silicone molds.
- Club soda: Or seltzer or sparkling water. Club soda contains minerals in addition to the fizz; seltzer and sparkling water contain only water and carbon dioxide.
- Simple syrup: To make your own, combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved (do not boil). Remove from heat and cool completely. To make sour mix, stir 1 cup fresh lemon juice and ½ cup fresh lime juice in to the simple syrup (you’ll have about 2 ½ cups sour mix).
- Soda: Coca-cola, Sprite, grapefruit soda, or ginger beer depending on what cocktails you’re making. Diet or zero sugar sodas are helpful options too.
- Juice: Orange juice, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, Clamato, or Bloody Mary Mix.
- Milk: Creamy drinks like a White Russian or a Grasshopper call for a splash of milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream. Or, substitute vanilla ice cream.
- Bitters: A concentrated liquid with big flavors designed to be added to cocktails in small amounts. Angostura (aromatic or orange) bitters are the most popular, although there are hundreds of different types and flavors.
- Hot sauce: Keep a bottle of Cholula, Tabasco, or your favorite hot sauce around for Bloody Marys and Micheladas.
- Fruit: Keep a bowl of fresh lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges handy for juicing, or cutting into wedges, wheels, and twists. And, keep a jar of maraschino cherries on hand if you love sweet drinks.
- Vegetables and herbs: Celery ribs, cocktail onions, pickles, olives, and fresh herb leaves like mint, basil, or thyme.
- Sweet and salty rims : Homemade Margarita salt, coarse salt, sugar, or even shaved chocolate for glass rims.
Tips for stocking your cart
- Drink what you like: If you plan on entertaining, start with the basics so you’re prepared to make a little bit of everything. If not, it’s okay to build your bar around what you like to drink.
- Start small: No need to go all-out immediately. A home bar can be a considerable investment, so treat it like a collection, buying a bottle or two at a time.
- Pay attention to drink menus: Next time you’re out for a happy hour, take note of that amazing drink you ordered and buy the ingredients for your bar. Ask the bartender; chances are they’ll be more than happy to tell you.
- Quality and quantity: You don’t have to buy the biggest bottle available. I usually aim for 750 ml bottles (aka “a fifth”) unless it’s a specialty liqueur or something with a shorter shelf-life, like vermouth (then I size-down).
- Cooking: Cognac, brandy, vermouth, sherry, and bourbon are often used in recipes, an extra incentive to stay stocked.
- Bar tools and equipment: Find a comprehensive list of all the gadgets you might ever want to make your favorite drinks.
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How to Stock a Bar Cart
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.