You’ve rearranged the living room, re-potted the plants, and patched that pesky hole in the wall. Making your home entertainment-ready takes work, and you deserve a drink before the guests arrive, but there’s one more DIY project left on the list: It’s time to build your home bar.
A properly outfitted home bar separates the men from the frat boys. Whether you’re mixing drinks for a date or just enjoying a solo nightcap after a long workday, you deserve a bar that makes you feel good about what you’re sipping and look good while you’re doing it. It’s also the perfect way to balance the savings of drinking at home with the classiness of a fancy cocktail bar, and it doesn’t take a ton of effort to make you look like a pro. Read on for our expert list of the tools and booze you’ll need to start your career as a home mixologist.
Building your first home bar is all about the essentials. There’ll be plenty of time to get fancy after you’ve mastered the basics, but most cocktails recipes can be made with a few simple tools and a handful of bottles. There are cheaper and more expensive versions of all of these tools, so feel free to get as spendy as you like, but everything on this list is well-made, good looking, and built to survive your most rigorous cocktail party needs.
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Barfly Cocktail Shaker
Sure, you can slosh together a passable martini in your Tupperware, but a good quality cocktail shaker will last you a lifetime and instantly elevate your home bar to the realm of professional imbibing. Our preference is the Boston Shaker, an 18- and 24- ounce set of weighted stainless steel tins that fit together and form a tight vacuum seal. It’s simple, classic, and indestructible. You can opt for the retro Martini shaker if you prefer, but know that the cute little cap tends to get frozen stuck and lost in the dishwasher.
A Bar Above Double-Sided Bell Jigger
When you’re mixing for yourself feel free to eyeball it, but when you’re taking orders from guests you should always measure your drinks. In a pinch, your kitchen measuring cups will work fine, but the pros use a jigger. Jiggers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, so feel free to shop around and find one that suits your aesthetic, just make sure you find one (or a set) that includes measurements from 2 ounces all the way down to 1/4 ounce. That little bit can make all the difference.
Mixologists Cocktail Mixing Glass
This is another matter of style-over-substance, and you could drop hundreds of dollars on a Japanese crystal mixing glass if you wanted to. You could also hit your local antique shop and find a cool old beaker to stir your Manhattans in (just make sure the glass isn’t leaded). Whether you decide to go cheap or expensive, though, you’ll want something heavy-bottomed with a pour-spout, so it won’t tip while you’re stirring and you won’t spill while you’re pouring. This minimalist option looks great with any décor.
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Hiware Mixing Bar Spoon
Yeah, yeah, it’s just a long spoon, but so much of bartending is about style, and you’re going to look so much cooler stirring your date’s martini with a snazzy spoon than with a takeout chopstick. Pro tip: the back of the bar spoon should always remain in contact with the side of the mixing glass. Once you’ve built the drink and added ice, slide the spoon down the side of the glass and swirl it around the outside (not through the middle) for about 20 seconds.
A Bar Above Cocktail Strainer Set
There are two main types of strainers: Hawthorne and Julep. The Julep strainer is used to hold back ice while straining a stirred drink, while a Hawthorne’s wire coil is meant to retain smaller particles like bits of mint and small ice chips from shaken drinks (if you really want to strain like a pro, pair your Hawthorne with a tea strainer to get every last bit of ice). If you’re going to choose just one, go Hawthorne, but a Julep strainer and matching bar spoon in a mixing glass is the three-piece suit of mixology, so omit it at your own risk. This set includes all three, but feel free to grab them individually.
Zulay Kitchen Cocktail Muddler
Muddling ingredients is a great way to infuse flavor into a drink without adding extra dilution, and quite a few classic cocktails call for muddled herbs and citrus. It’s a simple tool, and you can improvise with basically anything that will crush mint in the bottom of your mixing tin, but if you have to have the real thing, consider a plastic option — they’re easier to clean, and less likely to warp, crack, or absorb weird flavors after a few hundred mojitos.
Aicook 3.1-Inch Juicer
Good cocktails require fresh ingredients, and nowhere is that distinction more evident than in your juice game. There are some high-octane juicers out there, and if you’re planning on hosting big events or juicing things like watermelon and cucumber then you might want to spring for something like Aicook’s juicer. But if you’re just shaking classics one or two at a time, save your money for better booze and pick up a hand juicer like Zulay’s Manual Citrus Press Juicer.
HiCoup Premium Waiter’s Corkscrew
Some nights you’re going to want to skip the hard stuff and uncork a bottle of wine instead. Feel free to explore the weird and wonderful world of wine gadgets on your own time, but all you’ll actually need is a sturdy corkscrew. A professional wine key is cheap and easy to master, and that little knife on the end will help you cut the pesky seals off the tops of all your liquor bottles, too.
Now that you’re outfitted with your bartending kit, it’s time to stock your shelves. This is a matter of taste, so feel free to omit anything you don’t like, but we’re building a bar that can handle any basic cocktail order. If you only drink vodka, you probably don’t need our help. But if you want to turn your apartment into a crowd-pleasing speakeasy without breaking your budget, we’ve picked out the essentials.
Behind nearly every bar in the country is a liquor well that contains the following spirits (and usually in the following order): Vodka, Gin, Rum, Tequila, Whiskey. With these five spirits, you can take on the world.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka
Vodka is a spirit distilled to be colorless, odorless, and flavorless. This means that unless you have a specific brand loyalty, just go with something decent and cheap like Tito’s.
Gin comes in a variety of styles, all of which are worth exploring. But when it comes to classic cocktails, all you need is the bracing, juniper-forward bite of London Dry. There are plenty of examples on the market, from big names to artisan distillers, but few things in life beat a properly-made Plymouth martini.
Plantations Three Stars Rum
You could spend years exploring the Caribbean one bottle at a time (and we’re not here to stop you), but when it comes to first-round pics for your home bar, stick with a dry, well-made white rum that will play well with others, like Plantation Three Stars.
Cazadores Tequila Blanco
Good tequila is like good wine — it tastes like where it was made, and it’s worth spending a little more for the stuff that won’t give you a headache. Whether you’re sipping it straight or shaking up tequila cocktails, Cazadores is the right choice for your palate and your wallet.
Good whiskey is grand, and you should always keep a bottle of your favorite on hand for cold winter nights and friends who just had babies, but say it with me: “I’m making cocktails with this.” When you’re mixing whiskey with other ingredients, you need something that’ll stand up to the sweet and sour of classic cocktails, which means lots of flavor and a little extra booze. Rittenhouse Rye is a bartender’s best friend for all of these reasons–the spicy rye won’t get lost in your Manhattan, and at 100 proof it’ll bring flavor to everything from whiskey smashes to mint juleps. This is a high-quality, inexpensive whiskey, and every bar should stock it.
Now that we’ve taken care of the hard stuff, it’s time to sweeten things up. There’s practically a liqueur for every flavor, but if you’re just after the essentials there are a couple of bottles you shouldn’t skip. A good orange liqueur is a must for Margaritas and Side Cars, and it pays to spend a couple of extra bucks for the good stuff since a little goes a long way. Another essential we recommend is Campari, which is the heart of the Negroni, the Americano, and a slew of bittersweet aperitifs.
Dolin Dry Vermouth
Vermouth is wine fortified with neutral spirits, herbs, and spices. There are a multitude of vermouths on the market, and you should experiment to find what you like, but to keep things simple you’ll want to look for dry and sweet vermouth. Dry, or French, vermouth is an essential ingredient in a properly-made Dry Martini (which uses gin, sorry, vodka fans).
Sweet vermouth, like the Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, is a key component in Negronis and Manhattans, and it also makes a delicious low-ABV treat on the rocks or with soda with a little citrus peel as a garnish. Pro tip: keep your vermouth in the fridge!
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Bitters are the spice-rack of the cocktail world, and these days you can find one for practically any flavor you desire. There are spicy bitters and celery bitters, and you can even make your own bitters. But for classic cocktails, you’ll want to start with Angostura Aromatic Bitters. A few dashes of Angostura lends a baking-spice and clove note to the Old Fashioned and Manhattan (a little goes a long way here). If you want to round out your bitters selection, Orange bitters are the unsung hero of a well-made gin martini, and Peychaud’s add a kick of anise to the Sazerac.
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