One of the most common questions I get is, “What do I need in my home bar?” I’ve been getting a lot more of these questions lately since I started hosting my nightly virtual happy hour on Instagram. In the interest of taking some of the guesswork out of the art of building a well-curated home bar, I offer you this comprehensive post outlining everything you need.
There are two key components to building your own alcoholic Shangri-La: the rights tools and the right ingredients. Both are essential in consistently delivering well-crafted cocktails.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through some of the links in this post, you won’t pay a penny more, but we’ll get a small commission, which helps keep the bar stocked.
THE RIGHT TOOLS
With a good kit, you can ensure precision in your measurements (no more eyeballing it), manage dilution, achieve silky or frothy textures, get the right ice for each drink, and present your finished creation in gallery-worthy glassware.
Here are the elements I consider essential in a well-equipped home bar, in order of importance:
- Double-sided jigger – this is one of the most important tools in any bartender’s kit. A jigger allows for precise measurement of each of your ingredients. By being accurate in your quantities, you can ensure a balanced cocktail that achieves the exact flavour profile you’re going for.
- Cocktail shaker – why yes, you can hack a cocktail shaker by repurposing a lidded mason jar, a protein shaker, or travel mug but it may not look too classy if you’re hosting guests and it’s far from a purpose-built instrument. A shaker is the perfect tool to break up viscous ingredients and ensure they are fully incorporated into the drink – like egg white or fruit juices and create texture. There are a variety of styles of cocktails shakers, for home bartenders I would recommend either a cobbler shaker or a Parisian shaker – they are a little less intimidating than a Boston shaker or 18/28 set (18 oz volume in one tin, 28 oz volume in the other).
- Mixing glass with strainer – when you’re not serving it shaken, it’s probably stirred (excluding drinks that are built in glass). A chilled mixing glass, with a wide, heavy base, and straight sides, makes stirring easier. The etched sides of a Yarai mixing glass make it easier to grip – and also make it beautiful. The goal of stirring a drink, as opposed to shaking, is to create a silky mouthfeel, dilute, and chill your cocktail.
- Bar Spoon – you can’t do much with a mixing glass if you don’t have the right instrument to do the mixing with. A bar spoon is specifically fashioned to turn easily around the outside perimeter of the glass, one end features the spoon part which is called the “bowl” and the opposite end varies from style to style. Some feature a trident that is used for skewering garnishes to place on the glass, a tongue to ease large ice cubes into the finished drink without splashing, or a flat base to muddle sugar cubes (as in an old fashioned).
- Citrus Juicer – the lion’s share of cocktails entail some form of citrus, whether it’s in the form of freshly squeezed juice or a citrus peel garnish.
- Y-Peeler – further to the last item, if you want those pretty citrus twists, swaths, or fans, a good Y-Peeler is non-negotiable.
- Muddler – fairly essential if you’re going to be making mojitos or any other cocktail that involves muddled fruit, vegetables or herbs – like my Strawberry Balsamic Shandy, for instance. I have a monogrammed unvarnished wood muddler (thanks to a very thoughtful gift from my friend Erin) but would recommend a stainless muddler with hard plastic bottom for durability and functionality. The risk with unvarnished wood muddlers is that they soak up the colour and content of whatever you’re muddling, running the risk of bacteria, and require regular cleaning and oiling. Varnished wood runs the risk of having the varnish chip off into your drink and nobody wants that.
- Lewis bag and mallet – is this necessary? Absolutely not. But it’s the most fun you can have making ice. This is a cloth bag, and a big fucking mallet that you use to smash the shit out of ice to make crushed ice for juleps, Tiki drinks, and swizzles. It is the best stress reliever money can buy and a hell of a lot cheaper than therapy – way more satisfying than getting crushed ice out of your fridge door.
THE RIGHT GLASSWARE
Different cocktails call for different glassware. In the same way that glassware is specifically designed for different types of wine and beer, cocktail glasses are designed around the consideration of whether or not your drink involves ice, if it’s a short drink or a long drink, and if it involves sparkling wine or not.
Here are the essentials:
A NOTE ON ICE
We live in a time that celebrates crystal clear ice cubes and the showmanship of watching bartenders carve huge blocks of ice into diamonds or other fantastic shapes. These sorts of things can be hard to achieve at home, but not impossible.
If you want to achieve that enviable clear ice, often served at most cocktail bars, boil the water first to release any dissolved gases in your tap water and place the boiled water into ice molds inside the freezer while still hot.
Over time, your ice will absorb the flavours from any other food in your freezer so consider wrapping your ice trays in plastic wrap if you don’t burn through ice as quickly as I do. Aside from looking good, clear ice is denser and more structurally sound than cloudy ice, and it will break apart less quickly when shaken.
Here are some recommended ice trays for all your cocktail needs:
- Standard format ice but make it mid-century
- Block ice – what you need for any drinks served over a single large cube – like an old fashioned or negroni, for instance.
- Spheres – same as above but round.
- Collins cubes – I like these cubes shaped to fit most highball glasses because they look nicer than a jumble of ice floating to the surface of your drink.
- Crushed ice – get out the Lewis bag and mallet.
THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
People often ask me, “What bottles should I have in my home bar?” The answer to that question will vary from person to person. Part of it depends on what you like to drink and what you like to serve. If you want to be prepared to serve most of the classics, on demand, I consider there to be 10 or 11 essential bottles.
- London Dry Gin – there are variety of styles of gin, Old Tom, Plymouth, Genever, New Style, and London dry. I’m recommending, if you only have one gin, make it a London dry gin. This is a high-proof, aggressive gin with prominent juniper and citrus notes. This is the benchmark for all other gin. I like Sipsmith but other options include Beefeater and Tanqueray.
- Jamaican-Style Rum – as with gin, there are a number of kinds of rum: Spanish-Style, Enlgish-Style, Rhum Agricole, and Jamaican-Style. I like Jamaican-style because it has a fruity funkiness that makes it well-suited to Tiki drinks and punches. I like Appleton Estate V/X Rum.
- Tequila – many cocktails call on the unaged, blanco style tequila that enables the most authentic expression of the agave plant its distilled from. The aging process present in reposado, añejo, or extra añejo styles transforms the agave spirit to a similar flavour profile to that of other oak-aged spirits, like whiskey, and make them great for sipping on their own. Best blanco – splurge: Don Julio, budget-friendly: Espolon.
- Bourbon – one of my favourite spirits, this whiskey is made from at least 51 percent corn, must come from the United States, and must be aged in charred new-oak barrels for two years if it’s called “straight” bourbon. It has a rich, sweet taste and round mouthfeel. I recommend Buffalo Trace or Blanton’s (if you’re feeling flush).
- Rye – a must-have on your shelf if you’re planning to make any Manhattans. Rye is made from 51 percent rye grain, it has a crisper, spicier taste and sharper mouthfeel than bourbon. I love Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey but it can be hard to get your hands on, Crown Royal Northern Harvest is another good and reliable option.
- Brandy – this is a broad category of spirits, defined as any spirit distilled from fermented fruit juice. This catchall category encompasses cognac, armagnac, grappa, Pisco, apple brandy, and more. Brandy is a key ingredient in classics like the Sidecar. I like to keep a bottle of cognac on hand for a variety of timeless cocktails, it always seems to disappear rather quickly over the holiday season. Recommended options: Hine H VSOP Cognac or Gautier VS Cognac.
- Sweet Vermouth – both sweet and dry vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with herbs, spices, and barks. In most cases, a relatively natural white wine serves as the base and a small amount of neutral spirit is added. This is an old technique used to preserve wine as the higher alcohol content prevents microbial spoilage. The specific blend of herbs, spices and barks is unique to each producer but often includes: clove, cinnamon, quinine, citrus peel, cardamom, marjoram, chamomile, coriander. juniper, and ginger. Recommended bottles: Dolin Rouge or Dillon’s.
- Dry Vermouth – a required component in the classic martini, dry vermouth is a must-have. I like Dolin Dry Vermouth. Fun fact: you should keep your vermouth in the fridge after opening. It will last for about 3 months in the fridge after opening: 1 month in good shape, 2 months in passable condition.
- Amari – an amaro is a bittersweet Italian liqueur often served after dinner as a digestif. In cocktails. an amaro creates depth and complexity. Each kind of amaro has a unique flavour, while sharing the foundations of bitter and sweet. There are plenty of delightful amari on the market but I couldn’t live without Campari (necessary for the classic Negroni) and Aperol (because we all love a good Aperol Spritz).
- Orange liqueur – there are a variety of orange liqueurs on the market. Triple sec is actually a category or orange liqueur and Cointreau would be my favourite from the triple sec family. Cointreau has a great balance of sweetness, body, and true orange flavour – it is brightness in unmistakable in classics like the Margarita and the Sidecar.
- Vodka – while I wouldn’t consider vodka a *critical* component of a home bar, as it isn’t used as widely in the canon of classic cocktails, it is good to have on hand if you want to make a Bloody Caesar, Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule, White Russian, or Espresso Martini. Two craft distillers I like include Vodkow and Top Shelf Distillers.
- Cassis – blackcurrant liqueur, used in a Kir Royale
- Calvados Apple Brandy
- St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur – absolutely delicious, pairs beautiful with gin and cucumber – widely celebrated in my Elderflower Rosé Sangria
- Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur – this French ginger liqueur tastes like nectar of the gods and I’ve put it to work in a number of recipes including the Cranberry Constellation.
- Sparkling wine – I always like to keep a bottle of sparkling wine on hand in case I want to make a welcome cocktail or other sparkling cocktail to mark an occasion, or just because.
OTHER BAR ESSENTIALS
- Bitters – consider bitters the spice rack of your home bar. If you’ve made a drink and feel like it’s missing something, you probably need to add a dash or two of bitters. There are two kinds of bitters: lifting and binding. Lifting bitters enhance or brighten similar flavours in a drink. Binding bitters act like a facilitator to pull together other disparate ingredients and create harmony. The must-have lifting bitters: orange bitters, the must-have binding bitters: Angostura. You can find Angostura in the pop aisle of most grocery stores, beside the non-alcoholic beer/wine.
- Syrups – I always keep a batch of simple syrup (one part sugar, one part water simmered in a small saucepan over medium heat) in the fridge and also like to keep a brown sugar syrup (which works well in whiskey or rum-based cocktails). Sweeteners like this work to take down the burn of alcohol by rounding off the rough edges and they add body to the drink.
- Citrus – fresh citrus juice is used in A LOT of cocktails and I always keep a healthy stock of limes, lemons, and oranges on hand. I also like to keep a grapefruit at hand if I want to make a Paloma or Brown Derby. Citrus is also the most common kind of garnish.
- Garnish – aside from citrus, I like to keep a supply of maraschino cherries in my bar, along with olives. Other regular garnishes include: apples, cucumber, berries, mint, and other fresh herbs – but generally only get these when I know I’m making a drink that will call for them.
Looking to beef up on your cocktail knowledge further? Here are some of my favourite resources for beefing up my booze know-how and discovering new recipes I want to try:
- Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails
- Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki
- The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique
- SIP: 100 Gin Cocktails with Just 3 Ingredients
- The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks
- Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist