The Bitterly Honest Guide to Building a Home Bar Over Time

The Bitterly Honest Guide to Building a Home Bar Over Time

If your home bar consists of a bottle of vodka, St. Germain you bought on a whim, and some rarely used simple syrup, this bar guide is for you.

Whether you’re making cocktails for yourself and a loved one — or hosting a future gathering  — having a stocked home bar is as essential as a well-equipped kitchen. We get that stocking a home bar can seem overwhelming though. As you follow this guide, don’t feel like you have to build your bar overnight. We’ll provide you with a few choices for a handful of spirits that you can pick up eventually as you visit liquor stores and shops every so often.

Liquor 

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. Do you need high-end, expensive spirits? We’ll be honest with you: absolutely not. Much like wine, there’s a certain price point where the price exceeds quality, and at that point, you’re just paying more to pay more. For example, there are a plethora of vodka choices available in the $25-$30 price range that are excellent for mixing cocktails. We’ll break it down by spirits category and offer some suggestions below.

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? Not for cocktails. While you probably know Tito’s Vodka well, we’d encourage you to broaden your neutral grain perspective. Here are some of the brands we’ve found to create a balanced cocktail within an approachable price point.

Vodka (Choose 1)

Consider these vodka selections based on your preferences and how you may use them:

  • Simple cocktails (vodka, soda, and bitters): Reyka - Well-known Icelandic vodka great for simple cocktails like vodka soda and bitters but can also hold up to complexity.
  • Subtle martini, or vodka with less burn: Haku Vodka by Suntory - At a nice price point of around $26-$30. Made from rice, this is a smooth and not-too-heavy vodka.
  • Complex cocktails: 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.
  • Occasional straight sipping: Chopin Vodka - True potato vodkas can be harder to find, but when your cocktail recipe calls for it we grab Chopin Vodka at the liquor store.

Not to downplay vodka’s importance to the home bar, but if you are looking to support local distilleries, finding a well-made, enjoyable vodka in your region is likely less difficult than a spirit like bourbon, which is a newer category in terms of craft distilling. In our neck of the woods, we recommend Headwind Vodka or Clear Creek Distillery Vodka.

Gin (Choose 1)

Consider these gin selections based on your preferences and how you may use them:

  • Classic martini: Plymouth Gin - Ask a selection of bartenders which gin is best for a martini and you will likely have overwhelmingly more votes for Plymouth Gin. Bartenders love it for its balance and a flavor profile that is both earthy and citrusy.
  • Simple gin cocktails: Beefeater London Dry Gin - It’s a big name in the liquor business but a staple that incorporates into nearly any recipe with ease.
  • Less juniper: Hendrick’s Gin - For those who appreciate less juniper, accompanied by pleasant flavors of cucumber and rose.
  • Complex gin cocktails: Ransom Old Tom Gin - When a recipe calls for Old Tom gin, try Ransom’s Old Tom for a  lovely pine-flower-citrus feel with a silky texture.

Whiskey

Stocking your home bar with whiskey can complicate things based on the use and characteristic of the whiskey. To keep things simple, we recommend starting with a bourbon and a rye. Bourbon will be best for mixability, and rye will give you a spicy and robust whiskey flavor in cocktails. For staple whiskey, try Old Forester 86, and Rye Rittenhouse. Don’t forget about your local distillery though. Although the American distilling industry is still quite young many in Portland are releasing solid whiskey. In Portland, we have New Deal Distillery making thoughtful rye whiskey, and Bull Run producing a host of aged spirits for sipping or mixing in cocktails.

Rum

As you build your home bar consider how many rum cocktails you will make. Rum is a “nice to have” but often goes unused for many people. If you do want to invest in a rum to round out your home bar though, look for dark rum like Plantation or Appleton Special Gold. These will be there for you in a pinch when the Mai Tai craving strikes.

Tequila 

If you know you’ll be making cocktails with tequila look for one made from 100% blue agave in the $25 range. One you may know is Espolon, but you might also check out what Casa Noble has to offer for crisp, spicy, and flavorful tequila. There are a few other tequilas that will fit the bill in terms of reposado: Mi Campo Reposado or Cimarron Reposado Tequila.

Other 

Depending on which cocktails you imagine making at home, the “other” category consists of liquor like sweet or dry vermouth, or orange liqueur like Grandeza (good for restaurant-style margs at home). There are more liqueurs out there like Drambuie and Benedictine, but in terms of needing these for your home bar, we recommend waiting on those until a recipe calls.

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 are affordable, and easy to use. These are the tools that will ensure home bartending is a repeat process, and those bottles don’t collect dust.

To mix or to stir? If you’re upping your home bartending repertoire, you’ll likely be both shaking and stirring. Investing in a nice mixing glass will make your cocktail prep much more enjoyable. For a mixing glass, we recommend Libbey Carats mixing classes ($20), and the Trident Cocktail Spoon with Fork ($6).

There are a few strainers you can choose from and when it comes down to finding the best strainer for your home set up we recommend trying out a few since most are relatively inexpensive. We recommend a Hawthorne strainer first, and a julep strainer if you want to get a bit fancy.

Hawthorne strainer - Recognizable by the perforated face and the spring that sifts out ice and other ingredients you don’t want in your drink.

Julep strainer - Curved disc of perforated steel with holes for straining.

You probably own a stainless steel jigger available nearly anywhere barware is sold for following recipes exactly, but if you don’t have one, now is the time to get one. Fancy, gold jiggers are available and look eye-catching on a home bar but for continued use go with stainless steel for easy cleaning.

Bitters, Syrups, Vinegars, etc. 

Bitters are the salt and pepper to a cocktail. When you’re first starting to make cocktails at home, we recommend starting with Aromatic Bitters. One brand of aromatic bitters you may know is Angostura. These bitters can be used to enhance an Old Fashioned, or used in cocktails like Sazerac, Manhattan, or a simple vodka, soda and bitters. Orange bitters are another staple bitters product you’ll want for your home bar. They’re considered the “soul of a dry martini,” but you’ll also use them in a Negroni, among other more complex cocktails.

We don’t recommend buying a ton of syrups as you can make most at home and in smaller quantities than available in most stores. But if you find there is something you use a lot of it's worth buying a high quality, pre-made version so you always have it on hand. We'd also recommend making a batch of demerara syrup to have on hand as the rich, caramel flavor levels up almost any cocktail that calls for simple syrup.

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 a few weeks, but you'll probably use it faster.

We hope you enjoy building your home bar — it is cocktails — after all!

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