Here’s how to stock a fun and interesting home bar that’s perfectly tailored for you and yours. When you can make all your favorite cocktails right at home, staying in might not be such a bad idea, after all.
Whether in a cupboard, cabinet, or 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.
But if you’re not sure where to begin, don’t worry. Your house certainly doesn’t have to be as well-stocked as Harry’s Bar and Tables to make sure everyone has their favorite drink.
Consider this a good introduction to building a bar that fits your needs and budget. Start with the basics, pick up a bottle or two here or there, and over time, you’ll have an enviable collection of spirits for any cocktail you care to sip.
The bare-bones basics:
Most bartenders recommend six standard base liquors which make most of the popular drinks out there.
- Vodka: Clear and crisp. If you love a Bloody Mary, a Seabreeze, or a Moscow Mule, this liquor is for you. Flavored vodkas are also plentiful, but unless you adore a specific kind, (looking at you, vanilla vodka) choose a good-quality unflavored vodka.
- Gin: Herbaceous and lively. When it comes to gin, the choices can be overwhelming. If you love a Gin & Tonic, Tom Collins, Gimlet, or a dirty Martini, buy one good London dry gin. If you want to get even more botanical, there are dozens of delicious and very interesting gins out there.
- Tequila: Margaritas, Palomas, and Tequila Sunrises are just a few great tequila cocktails. Good tequila is made from 100% agave and is sometimes aged in oak barrels for a deeper flavor. Blanco (silver) tequila is the most versatile. Delicious reposado is aged under one year, and Anejo is aged 1 to 3 years.
- Rum: There’s such a huge difference between light and dark rum, you may want to get a bottle of each. If you love Pirate Punch, Daiquiris, and Mojitos, buy a good light rum. But if you love tropical drinks or a well-made Dark and Stormy, add a dark rum to the liquor cabinet. Spiced rum is a different thing altogether; stock up on a bottle only if it’s something you know and love.
- Whiskey: This complicated category is a catch-all term for Irish Whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, rye whiskey, blended, or single malt. Whiskey is made all over the world, from Scotland to Japan, and sold at wildly different price points. 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: Brandy feels essential in the Midwest, and it shows up in classic cocktail recipes when you least expect it (for example, the Sidecar). It makes a killer Hot Toddy, and it’s in one of my favorite traditional Wisconsin cocktails, the Brandy Old Fashioned and Mulled Cider. Plus, it’s great for cooking.
- Dry and sweet vermouth: A good bottle of each is handy to have. Dry vermouth makes a Bond-worthy martini, but sweet vermouth is a crucial ingredient in a Negroni and a Manhattan.
- Campari or Aperol: These bright-red, bitter-sweet aperitifs belong in the amaro family (Italian for “bitter”) They’re a bit 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.
- Mezcal: Distilled from wild agave, Mexico’s popular export is worth searching out, especially if you love tequila.
- Pisco: A South American spirit made from sugar cane. Make a Pisco Sour, and become instantly converted.
- Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur: Made from cherry pits, and an important ingredient in the Hemingway Daiquiri.
- Orange Liqueur: From a basic Triple Sec to Cointreau to Grand Marnier, a French orange-flavored cognac, it all depends on your budget. You can’t make a great Margarita or a Sidecar without it.
Above and beyond:
- A single malt Scotch: Perfect for having the boss over to dinner or celebrating a promotion.
- Amaro: Bitter Italian liqueurs are made with botanical ingredients like rhubarb, artichoke, or citrus peel come in a range of flavors and strengths.
- St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur: A gorgeous liqueur made from French elderflowers; very popular in modern cocktails.
- Creme de Menthe: A little bottle wouldn’t hurt…try a Grasshopper Cocktail or a Stinger, made with Scotch.
- Kahlùa Coffee Liqueur: Delicious on the rocks or with vodka and a splash of cream for a White Russian.
- Frangelico: A hazelnut liqueur made in Italy.
- Green Chartreuse: A botanical powerhouse made by Carthusian Monks, the recipe is a closely-guarded secret. Buy the smallest bottle you can; a little goes a long way.
- Chambord: A luscious French raspberry liqueur that is juicy and sweet. A splash of Chambord is a great alternative to cranberry juice in a Cosmo.
- Amaretto: Made with almond and apricot kernels, Amaretto and homemade sour mix makes a delicious Amaretto Sour.
Important tips and things to consider:
- Drink what you like: If you plan on entertaining, start with the basics so you’re prepared to make a little bit of everything. Otherwise, if it’s just you and a partner, it’s okay to build your bar around what you like to drink. You can definitely go bourbon-heavy if that’s what you’re into. Or focus on sweeter after-dinner drinks to sip by a roaring fire. Or build up an impressive collection of tequila and mezcal. This is your bar, so there aren’t really any rules.
- 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.
- Shop wisely: No one knows booze like the salespeople at a well-stocked liquor and wine store, so don’t be afraid to ask! Not only can they offer fantastic advice for every bottle in your price range, but they can introduce you to smaller, lesser-known labels, too. Pro-tip: during the holiday season in December, a lot of brands go on sale and offer promotions and gift packages that include glassware.
- Quality and quantity: Unless you simply can’t resist a sale, you don’t have to buy the biggest bottle available. I usually aim for 750 ml bottles (aka “a fifth”) for most liquors, 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; a good incentive to stay stocked.
Rounding out the home bar:
After a dizzying array of spirits, what’s next? Mixers, modifiers, and ice, of course! What you choose from the list will depend on what you like to drink and what cocktails you’re interested in mixing up. You’ll also need a few essential bar tools.
- 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.
- Basic mixers: Soda water, tonic water, champagne, or soft drinks for specific cocktails— like grapefruit soda (Paloma) or ginger beer (Moscow Mule). When at all possible, buy small bottles or cans, which hold their fizz longer.
- Sour mix: Homemade sour mix is easy to make with lemon and lime juice, and it makes one delicious Whiskey Sour.
- Other juices: Orange juice, cranberry juice, Bloody Mary mix, or Clamato.
- Soft drinks: Basic sodas (Coke, Diet Coke) are very handy. But look around for craft small-batch sodas which make fabulous drinks when mixed with some booze. If you or someone you know drinks rum and coke, for example, then keep a few mini cans tucked away just for them.
- Simple syrup: A basic simple syrup is so easy to make, and dissolves into drinks like a dream. You can also infuse sugar syrups with fruit, flowers, herbs, or spices to up the flavor ante.
- Bitters: At the very least, you should own a bottle of Angostura bitters, which is a must-have ingredient in Old-Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails. A slightly more floral bitters, Peychaud’s, is the preferred brand in a Sazerac. Today, small bottles of bitters come in lots of different delicious flavors: celery, chocolate, grapefruit (a dash or two is amazing in a Paloma!) and rhubarb all add depth to a crafted cocktail.
- Hot sauce: Keep a bottle of Cholula, Tabasco, or your favorite hot sauce around for Bloody Marys and Micheladas.
- Dairy: Half-and-half, milk, or egg whites for altering the consistency and texture of the cocktail.
Great drinks need great garnishes:
Many cocktails need a finishing touch; but what it will be depends on the drink.
- Citrus: Keep a bowl of fresh lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges handy for juicing, or cutting into wedges, wheels, and twists.
- Maraschino cherries: Keep a bottle of these on hand.
- Pickled stuff: Olives, celery ribs, cocktail onions, pickles, pepperoncini peppers, caper berries.
- Sweet garnishes: Whipped cream, ground cinnamon or nutmeg, crystallized ginger, chocolate syrup.
- Herbs: Extra mint leaves, a sprig or two of thyme, or fresh basil.
- Salty: Homemade Margarita salt, coarse salt (or sugar) for glass rims.
Don’t forget the glassware:
Step away from the red Solo cups. Make your home bar sparkle with just the right glassware for the drink. Again, what you select here should match your budget and hosting style. It’s perfectly acceptable to mix and match a few different styles and patterns of glassware. Here are some good glasses to look for:
- Old Fashioned (rocks) glass: Perfect for whiskey drinkers and anything on the rocks: Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, or a Negroni with ice.
- Collins glass: Tall and thin, this glass is perfect for Tom Collins, Seabreeze, or a Hurricane.
- Highball glass: Sometimes a highball is used interchangeably with the Collins glass, but technically it’s shorter and holds more.
- Coupe: This popular glass is also known as a Champagne coupe, the shorter, shallower way to drink bubbly. It’s also useful for any number of shaken, up-style cocktails: Gimlet, Hemingway Daiquiri, or the Sidecar.
- Martini glass: From Cosmopolitans to Vespers, this iconic glass is easy to identify.
- Pint glass: For beer, or anything that a guest asks for “tall,” which means twice the mixer, making a weaker drink.
- Wine glass: There are many choices, depending on your style. Stemless wine glasses are easy, versatile, and can be used for other drinks, in a pinch.
- Brandy snifter: The shape of this glass allows for an expanded surface area of the liquid while your hand warms the drink. That means you can experience every sip with all your senses. Great for cognac, whiskey, or other high-end spirits.