Do you have a small collection of dusty bottles of liquor you don’t know what to do with or wish you could mix up a tasty drink for you and a friend without having to run to the store first? If you like cocktails, having a well curated home bar feels like a real adult thing and honestly it’s a level up that is really worth exploring.
I get that stocking a home bar can seem overwhelming and expensive. So, here’s a guide that will not only walk you through the basics, but show you how to grow it over time, leaving you with a bar you keep using.
The first place to start when building your home bar over time is with the spirits. As the base of a cocktail, your spirits collection is the backbone of your bar. You definitely don’t need high-end, expensive spirits. Much like wine, there’s a certain price point where the price often exceeds quality, and at that point, you’re mostly paying for brand and prestige. There are a plethora of spirits choices available in the $25-$40 price range that are excellent for mixing cocktails and not bad for sipping either. I also heartily encourage you to look to local distillers, not only will you find a range of high quality craft spirits, you’ll most likely find some little known liqueurs that will captivate you.
How Many Spirits Do You Need?
Before I dive into recommendations for each spirit, I want to answer the most crucial question: How many do you start with? I suggest starting with two spirits that you know you like and enjoy drinking. There is no need to buy something you think you should have on your and then pressure yourself to find recipes that sound good to you. Start with what you like. Don’t build a bar to impress others, build a bar you’ll use otherwise you’re just wasting money on bottles that will gather dust. Pick two spirits you gravitate towards most frequently and get comfortable with the basics first. So let me repeat that, if you’re stocking a home bar for the first time start with two spirits you know you like. We’ll talk about mixers and liqueurs further on that will allow you make a variety of drinks.
No category of liquor is quite like vodka when it comes to smoke and mirrors. Yes, filtration and water are important, but do you really need a vodka that has been distilled 20 times? No.
There are varying levels of smoothness, but if you’re mixing cocktails you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between most vodkas. So find one in your price point with a good reputation or look local and support a small distillery in your area.
- Ketel One Vodka - Of all of the “staple” vodkas out there this wheat vodka is clean and crisp and mixes well in pretty much any cocktail. It’s a standard for a reason.
- Monopolowa - An old school potato vodka that won’t disappoint or break the bank. It’s smooth enough to sip straight and chilled, but also makes a great martini.
There is definitely more nuance to choosing a gin, but it’s more a matter of your personal taste not whether it’s good or bad. Juniper is what gives gin that “piney” flavor, but the amount of juniper varies widely and the mix of supporting spices is also unique to each gin. I thought I hated gin until I tried Hendrik's for the first time and realized that there were different expressions.
Here’s a few top choices:
- Aria Portland Dry Gin - I might be biased because this gin is from my hometown, but bartenders across the country agree Aria is an extremely well-made gin that works great in cocktails, but is also extremely sippable. It’s a traditional style dry gin (meaning juniper forward) that is superbly balanced.
- Hendrick’s Gin - For those who appreciate less juniper, accompanied by pleasant flavors of cucumber and rose. This is also on the higher end of the price spectrum, but worth it if you love a more modern style gin.
- Plymouth Gin - A classic that sits in the middle of the road, not overpowering with juniper and balanced with both earthy and citrusy notes.
If you’re going to stock whiskey on your bar think how you’re most likely to use it. Do you tend toward neat or on the rocks, do you love simple cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, or do you prefer more complicated drinks like a sour or a smash? If you’re a fan of whiskey you’ll undoubtable end up with a few bottles sitting on your bar, but that’s the fun of it.
Bourbon or American Whiskey is great for mixability and is relatively versatile. Rye has a more distinct spicy flavor and will give you a more robust flavor in cocktails, great for Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. Single malts are meant for sipping, but can also bring smokey distinction to classic cocktails.
Here are my top picks to get started with:
- Evan Williams - This entry level bourbon is almost always on my bar. It’s not too complicated, but a solid bourbon and you can’t really beat the price. It’s great for mixing and a pleasant enough sipper.
- Sazerac Rye - If you like the extra spice of rye, this is a reasonably priced classic. You’ll get baking spices, apple, and a touch of citrus. It also has a pleasant lingering peppery finish. Not super demanding, but will add a kick to any cocktail.
- McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt - The pioneer of American Single Malts this is an approachable peaty whiskey that doesn’t overwhelm and has a lovely clean, malty finish. It’s great for the Single Malt newbie and its relatively affordable price makes it an easy entry point.
For mixing you’ll find that most recipes call for a blanco or silver tequila because the bright citrus and pepper notes stand up to mixing. Reposado tequilas have a few months to a year of aging so they give you a bit richer more caramel flavor. They can work great for mixing, but the age will make for a distinct flavor. Anejo tequila is aged for at least a year and up to 3. It’s meant to be sipped and savored alone. If you’re a real tequila fan it’s worth having one of each, but a solid blanco will go far for making drinks. Try Tapatio Blanco or Olmeca Altos for good quality tequilas that mix well, but are still interesting enough to sip. If you want to try an Anejo, Olmeca Altos is again a solid place to start.
Rum is a “nice to have” but often goes unused for many people. This is generally what you add after you’ve established a solid base and are ready for some experimenting. If you are a fan of tropical or Tiki drinks try a dark or aged rum from Plantation or Appleton Special Gold. And if you’re more in the Mojito or Daiquiri camp try Plantation’s 3 Star White Rum or Havana Club’s Anjeo Blanco.
Depending on which cocktails you imagine making at home, the “other” category consists of liqueurs or fortified wines that will compliment your base spirits. If you are a classic cocktail fan I recommend investing in a sweet or dry vermouth or both for Martinis, Manhattans, and whole host of other cocktails. Orange liqueur like Combier is a must have if you’re a Margarita fan. But depending on your taste there are endless liqueurs out there to play with like Drambuie and Benedictine, St. Germain and Pamplemousse but in terms of needing these for your home bar, it all depends on what you see yourself drinking. I recommend starting with two recipes that you want to try and get what you need for those. Then look up other recipes that use those same liqueurs. As you get more comfortable you’ll begin to know what you always want to have on hand and what you’d like to try next.
Tools of the Trade
Once you have all of the drinkable products for your home bar, it’s time to think about the tools and barware. The trick is to find tools that you will actually use. My husband loves the look of mixing glasses and thought we needed one for years, now we have two and they almost never get used. He generally makes his cocktails in the glass and the truth is, you probably will too.
However, a bar spoon and a jigger get used almost every day and are the first tools that I recommend anyone pick up. If you’re able to go to a store and hold them even better, both of these tools are really about how they feel in your hand. I prefer a bell jigger, it’s hefty in the hand and the wide shape makes the lines easy to see, but any jigger with a few marked measurements will prove infinitely useful. And a long, thin bar spoon is perfect for stirring in the glass or in a mixing glass filled with ice.
To mix or to stir? That is really question if you find yourself eyeing either a mixing glass or a shaker or both. If your a fan of Manhattans, Martinis, and Old Fashioneds you’ll want a mixing glass. However, if you lean toward Margaritas and sours you’ll get more use out of a shaker. You can always add the other later if you want to be prepared for anything.
Unless you get a shaker with a built-in strainer then you’ll want one of those too and you’ll also want a strainer with a mixing glass. Strainers make pouring your finished drinks into the glass a breeze. They both hold back the ice and catch any bits of muddled fruit and herbs you don’t want stuck in your teeth. Hawthorne strainers are the easiest to use and really versatile. Julep strainers look great, but they take a bit more coordination to use and they don’t work as well with your classic boston shaker. But again, you do you and pick what feels best and makes you happy.
There's also muddlers, pairing knives, smokers, and so many more gadgets. Buy only what you know you'll use. I guarantee once folks find out you make cocktails at home you'll get all sorts of gadgets as gifts, some more useful than others.
Bitters are your spice rack when making a cocktail. They add depth and interest while also bringing together all the ingredients. Before you go buying every flavor of bitters that sounds tasty, start with the basics. Aromatic and Orange. Aromatic bitters is a general name for bitters similar in flavor to Angostura and are the go to for cocktails like an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Champagne Cocktail. Orange bitters are another staple bitters and have been called the “soul of a dry martini,” but you’ll also use them in a Negroni, Astoria, or even for a brighter take on an Old Fashioned. From there start adding one bitters flavor at a time that really interests you and pairs well with the spirits you find yourself going to most often.
Syrups, Shrubs, and Mixers
Whether to have these or not depends totally on what sort of cocktails you make most often. Flavored syrups aren’t extremely versatile unless you’re mixing them with soda water or want to make a large batch of cocktails that call for sugar or ginger syrup or the like. Similar with shrubs, you won’t find yourself reaching for them often unless you make one cocktail over and over again that calls for a specific shrub. That said they do make for easy non-alc options. And I’m a fan of mixing both Margaritas and Bloody Marys from scratch, but I also rarely drink them. So, ask yourself how often you’d make either and you may find it’s worth it to stock a bottle of your favorite mixer.
If you do keep anything on hand that you may not be familiar with just yet, I recommend it be a demerara syrup. It’s easy to make yourself, will keep for months, and can be used in any cocktail that calls for sugar or simple, but levels it up with a bit of extra richness. Demerara is a raw sugar that has a lovely caramel flavor.
To Make Demerara Syrup:
Simply heat 2 parts demerara or raw sugar with 1 part water over medium-high heat until the sugar is fully dissolved. Keep the syrup in the refrigerator and it should last at least a month, but you'll probably use it faster.
There is no magic formula to having the perfect home bar. Start with what you know you like, get comfortable making drinks at home, and then add new items as you go. It’s not a race to have the largest selection. Instead think intentionally about what will inspire you to make drinks you’ll love. And…don’t buy anything unless you have a plan for it, I guarantee it will just collect dust and take up room.
We hope you enjoy building your home bar, it is just cocktails after all!