Great cocktails, like great meals, are easy to make at home with a little know-how and the right ingredients. Here’s what you need to set up a home bar.
You don’t need our help to put your favorite beer in the fridge. But if you’re not a bartender or amateur mixologist, you could probably use a hand with the basics of setting up a home cocktail bar.
Cocktails don’t have to be hard to make, expensive, or pink. Almost everyone has at least one cocktail they love, even if it’s just a Cuba libre. Don’t worry about making whatever’s hip or cool, just focus on the drinks you love.
Below, you’ll find recommendations for people who are just getting started, looking to shake things up, or going for a full service set up. We suggest you read them all, but focus on the section that best aligns with how much money and energy you want to invest.
The base spirits do most of the heavy lifting in cocktails: gin, rum, vodka, tequila, and whiskey (bourbon and scotch).
Here’s what we recommend for the following scenarios:
- Just starting out: When first stocking your home bar, the best thing to do is pick one or two base spirits you love. If you don’t like margaritas, there’s no need to have a bottle of tequila gathering dust on a shelf. We recommend gin and whiskey, as they form the base of many classic cocktails, but some rum would also likely come in handy.
- Shaking it up: Once you’ve got the hang of one or two base spirits, the next step is to add all the others to your collection. A lot of classic cocktails are just variations on the same thing, with a different spirit. For example, a daiquiri and whiskey sour are the same drink (spirit, sugar, and lime juice). Likewise, a Moscow Mule is just a Dark ‘N Stormy with vodka instead of rum.
- Full service: If you’re ready to go all out, you’ll likely want all the base spirits on hand, along with all the variations: gin, white rum, dark rum, tequila, bourbon, scotch, rye, and vodka. You can make a Dark ‘N Stormy with white rum, but it really should be dark, and the opposite is true with a daiquiri. You might also want to add less common cocktail bases, like brandy and mescal.
Apéritifs, Liqueurs, and Bitters
It’s not a cocktail unless you incorporate at least one other ingredient with your spirit. Quite often, this will be an apéritif, liqueur, or bitters. What you have on hand will determine which cocktails you can make. For example, both a martini and manhattan call for vermouth, but a margarita or cosmopolitan requires Cointreau (or another type of triple sec).
Here’s what we recommend:
- Just starting out: Research the extras you need to make your favorite cocktails and just buy those. Generally, a bottle of vermouth, Cointreau, and Angostura bitters should do the trick. With these, you’ll be able to make a huge range of classic, crowd-pleasing cocktails.
- Shaking it up: Again, choose whatever you need to make the cocktails you like. For example, we stock absinthe, Irish cream, a few flavored liqueurs, some schnapps (especially coffee), and anything else fun or weird.
- Full service: You’ll never be able to stock a complete inventory of all the possible apéritifs, liqueurs, and bitters—there are just too many. However, what you can’t cover in breadth, you can make up for in depth. We recommend you stick with your favorites, but then include the major variations. For example, you might want to stock both sweet and dry vermouth, a few different strengths of absinthes, and both Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters.
Mixers and Garnishes
Nonalcoholic mixers and garnishes round out most cocktails. These include things like the Coke and lime in a Cuba libre, or the sugar syrup and lime juice in a daiquiri. Many cocktails call for the same mixers and garnishes, so you don’t have to stock a million options. Just make sure you always have some ice on hand.
We recommend the following:
- Just starting out: Get the mixers (like Coke, ginger ale, tonic or soda water, orange or tomato juice, and so on) you need to make your favorite cocktails. Get a bottle of sugar syrup, too, but just buy the fresh lemons and limes as you need them.
- Shaking it up: Add any major mixers you don’t already have to your collection. You should also look at incorporating some other fruits, like oranges for manhattans. Niche items for popular cocktails (like some Tabasco sauce for Bloody Mary’s) are worth getting, too.
- Full service: Your home bar should fill up with mixers pretty quickly. However, it’s unnecessary to have three variations of cola or different oranges. Stick to the high-quality basics, and you’ll be able to whip up pretty much anything. If you want to get fancy, try playing around with ice molds.
Shakers and Glasses
Once you have all the necessary ingredients, all you need is the equipment to combine and serve them. We’re talking, of course, about cocktails shakers and glasses. From highballs and tumblers, to martini and collins glasses, there are a lot of options. However, you don’t need everything right away.
Here’s what we recommend:
- Just starting out: You really don’t need a lot to start making your own cocktails. A cheap shaker set (or just a shaker) is enough. Sure, there are traditional cocktail glasses, but a martini will taste just as good no matter what you’re drinking it out of.
- Shaking it up: Most professional mixologists prefer a Boston shaker. You’ll also need a strainer and a small sieve to properly filter some drinks. A muddler is for anything you have to stir. If you prefer, you can get it all at once in a kit. Now is also a good time to start investing in glassware. Get two each of the traditional glasses for your favorite cocktails.
- Full service. You probably don’t need anything else to make most cocktails, but you could probably invest in how you serve them. Round out your collection of glassware. Make sure you have enough of each type of glass to serve a full round of cocktails to your guests whenever you’re entertaining.
It really doesn’t take much to get a home bar up and running. For less than $100, you can buy a shaker, and all the ingredients you need to make four or five different cocktails. Just keep topping up those bottles (or buying new ones), as needed.