To set up a home bar doesn’t have to take much space or money. Yet, it can go a long way toward better cocktails, whether for guests or yourself.
Although there’s no shortage of eye-catching bar carts that showcase a prized collection of bottles, a shelf or even a patch of kitchen counter space can do the trick. The point is to know at a glance which spirits you have available to mix, and to keep the bottles and tools within easy reach.
Start with three: Bourbon (or rye), gin (or vodka) and an amaro, preferably a red bitter like Campari. Why these three? Because they can be used to build a wide range of cocktails. If your budget permits, add vermouth, which you should stash in the refrigerator once opened, and orange liqueur.
From there, make additions based on what you enjoy. If you throw margarita parties, Tequila should be part of your arsenal. If Scotch is your after-work unwinder, add a good single malt.
Bubbly mixers, citrus, sweeteners and bitters all help make interesting drinks, including nonalcoholic varieties. While you certainly don’t need to keep all of the following on hand, options might include:
Bubbly mixers: Soda, tonic, ginger ale or ginger beer. Added to any of the above spirits, these mixers will help you prepare highballs like a whiskey & ginger, gin & tonic, vodka soda or a Moscow Mule.
Citrus: Lemons and limes are a must, while grapefruit or oranges are nice to have. In addition to the juice, use peel or wedges as garnish.
Sweeteners: Mix sugar with an equal amount of hot water for DIY simple syrup. Other sweeteners include honey, agave nectar, liqueurs, jams and jellies, fruit juices or sugar substitutes.
Bitters: If you can only have one, Angostura adds bitterness and aromatic spice. Used in tiny dashes, a bottle will last for years. Others to consider: Peychaud’s or orange bitters.
You don’t need many tools. It all amounts to this: a tool to measure liquids, a container to chill drinks in by stirring or sharking, and a spoon.
A jigger will ensure accurate measurements of liquid ingredients. The most versatile jigger is one that measures 1 ounce on one side and 2 ounces on the other, with markings inside for smaller amounts. A ½-ounce jigger is nice to have, too.
A cocktail shaker is used to incorporate fruit juice into shaken drinks like a daiquiri and margarita. Choose either a two-piece Boston shaker, which most bartenders use, or a three-piece cobbler shaker, which has a built-in strainer. A mixing glass is used for stirred drinks that contain no juice, like martinis. The pint glass that comes with a two-piece shaker can do the trick, or you can invest in a decorative mixing glass.
Other accoutrements include a long-handled barspoon for stirring, and a strainer to hold back ice. Choose either a rounded julep strainer or a Hawthorne strainer. The latter is flat and equipped with a spring coil that fits snugly into a mixing glass to stop ice from falling into a drink.
Nice to have: A citrus press to juice lemons and limes quickly. Of course, those always can be squeezed by hand. A muddler is used to press fresh herbs or gently crush sugar cubes, but this can also be accomplished with the handle of a wooden spoon. A vegetable peeler or Y-shaped peeler is useful to cut swaths of citrus peel for garnishes. And while there’s nothing wrong with basic ice cubes, a silicone ice tray to freeze extra-large cubes or spheres can showcase a special spirit pour or cocktail.
Decorative glassware can transform a cocktail from good-looking to glamorous. In terms of function, three basic glass shapes can pinch-hit for almost all drinks.
Stemmed glasses, like V-shaped martini glasses, shallow bowl-shaped coupes or elegant Nick & Nora glasses help keep drinks cold longer. These glasses are held by the stem, not cupped in warm hands.
Lowball glasses, like rocks glasses and Old-Fashioned glasses, are also useful for neat spirits as well as those on the rocks, particularly those with large cubes of ice.
Highball glasses, like a Collins glass, are tall and suitable for “long” drinks topped with mixers and served over plenty of ice. Frozen drinks can be served in highballs, though the hourglass-shaped hurricane glass is also a popular choice.
Nice to have: Specialty drink vessels like julep cups for cobblers or juleps; copper mugs for a Moscow Mule; tiki mugs; and glasses with handles for toddies, Irish coffees or other hot drinks.