When I first became interested in cocktails, it was a bit overwhelming to look through recipes, not recognizing most of the ingredients. Where should I start? What bottles should I buy first? What barware do I really need?
The best place to start is with your objectives:
Why are you building a home bar?
Is it a hangout for you to unwind in?
Do you plan to entertain people?
What do you want to serve (or sip yourself)?
Are you interested in creating a whiskey collection, a gin collection, or a fully-stocked cocktail bar?
A cocktail bar has a few considerations of its own:
What kind of cocktails do you want to make?
Or would you rather budget your money and space on just the most important ingredients?Some people maintain a philosophy of squeezing the most value possible out of the fewest ingredients. This is the 12-bottle-bar philosophy. It’s an effective way of getting bang for your buck, but it’s not really enough for me. I’m a geek, and that means until I add Action Comics #4 to my collection (or a bottle of Ancho Reyes), I’m not satisfied.
So the following is a basic cocktail bar. It’s by no means a truly fully-stocked setup. When prioritizing, keep in mind your answers to the questions above.
Vodka * Gin * Rum * Tequila * Whiskey * Brandy
Vodka– The lack of flavor in vodka makes it incredibly versatile. It’s a great first bottle for the bartender on a budget. Get some juices and sodas, and let your creativity flourish! Look for a vodka whose palate you like. Most people like a vodka with very little bite or burn. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spring for the top shelf: only under about $12/fifth can you be completely assured of picking up rotgut. Consider picking up a few flavored vodkas, if you’re into the mid-century or party cocktail styles. Citrus (or citron) is the most-used flavor.
Gin– Vodka with juniper, coriander, and other botanical flavors. The flavor is added in various ways, and the balance of botanicals is very different, one gin to the next. For most recipes, a basic London Dry style is perfectly good. If you want to branch out, pick up an Old Tom and a Genever.
Rum– Distilled from sugar, rum is kind of wishy-washy with the whole “categories” thing. Most tropical drinks use a white rum, but it’s good to also have an amber aged rum (or “gold” rum, but be careful, some are exactly the same as white rum, with food coloring), a black-strap rum (which is VERY strongly flavored. Use just a dash in any recipes), and sometimes a spiced rum. Spiced rums are often scoffed by rum enthusiasts, who say the only good spiced rum is one you spice yourself. And it’s true that it can be hard to find it in any recipes. If you like rum, it’s good to pick up a nice, aged sipping rum as well. Good rum gets as complex as good whiskies.
Tequila– Distilled from Blue Agave in specific regions of Mexico. Always buy 100% Agave. For cocktails, it’s best to start with a blanco (unaged white) tequila. Reposado work almost as well in a mix, and even better than blanco sipped neat. Añejos don’t work in most tequila recipes, because their age tempers their flavor. They’re great for sipping, and can be substituted in brandy or whiskey cocktails.
Whiskey– Aged grain spirits.
Bourbon– Made in the United States (mostly in Kentucky) with a “mash bill” (the proportion of grains used to distill the spirit) of at least 51% corn, aged in unused, charred American White Oak barrels. It has a mellow, slightly sweet taste which is a necessity in tons of great cocktails.
Rye– Most of the best rye is essentially the same as bourbon, but with rye taking the majority share of the mash bill instead of corn. It has a livelier, spicier flavor. It can be an acquired taste for some, but it’s a must for really great Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans.
Scotch– Made, as the name suggests, in Scotland, Scotch whisky is largely characterized by barley. Single malt whiskies are made of 100% barley, and most blended scotches are blended to showcase the best of the barley. Many scotches have a strong flavor of peat smoke, but many others are more honey-and-heather, bringing to mind brown sugar and highland grass. There are pitifully few popular scotch recipes, mostly because there’s a persistent sacred cow in neat, unmixed scotch. Neat scotch is truly fantastic, but I think it’s silly to point at any particular spirit and say “that’s something you should never mix.” There are several scotch drinks that are truly wondrous to taste.
Irish Whiskey– This is just making a comeback, as the cheetahs, from a very small population on the brink of extinction. There are currently 9 distilleries in Ireland, and only 3 date back further than 2007. If you have Jameson’s, Bushmill’s, or Tullamore Dew, you have plenty of Irish Whiskey for the purposes of mixing. I don’t keep one, because I haven’t yet had need of it.
Brandy– Usually distilled from grapes, brandies can be made from any fruit. Almost all brandies are aged. Cognacs, made in the cognac region of France, are made with one or more of three specific grape varietals, and aged at least 2 – 2.5 years (depending on who you ask) in Limousine oak. Some cognacs are truly remarkable, though I haven’t tried any, because they’re particularly expensive.
At the mixing price level, it’s usually better to buy an older brandy at a lower price than to get a younger cognac at great expense. Save the good cognac for special occasions. Stick to VSOP (minimum age 4 years) or older for all purposes; it has a deeper, more mellow flavor than VS.
There are also other brandies, like grappa (unaged grape brandy from Italy), Eu-de-vie (often unaged “potential cognac”), Calvados (apple brandy), and Pisco (grape brandy from Peru or Chile, rested in clay), among others. These are great for branching out, but they’re not really fundamental to a well-stocked bar.
The Rest of the Bar
Sweet Vermouth– A requirement for manhattans. Again, smaller bottles are better, so you don’t end up dumping too much when it goes bad.
Cordials, Schnapps, Liqueur– All mean a sweetened, flavored alcoholic spirit. Most are vodka-based, but whiskey-based liqueurs are gaining popularity. A créme is a thick, syrupy type of cordial.
Orange Liqueur– Orange flavored liqueurs are used in a wide variety of cocktails, both classic and modern, including everything between. Want to make a margarita? Sidecar? Pegu Club? Kamikaze? Lynchburg Lemonade? Long Island Iced Tea? You’ll need an orange liqueur. Triple sec is cheap, but I recommend springing for the good stuff here. There is a huge difference.
Irish Cream– a cream liqueur made with Irish whiskey. This one is in a lot of dessert drinks and layered shooters, and it’s also very good on the rocks (especially around the holidays). Refrigerate.
Amaretto– An almond-flavored liqueur, actually often made with apricot pits. Sweet and nutty, classic uses: Amaretto Sour, Godfather, Bocce Ball, French Connection
Coffee Liqueur– Often used interchangeably with the brand name Kahlua, much like Kleenex or Xerox.
Maraschino– This is the classic liqueur used to flavor the original candied cherries (not the artificial kind). It’s used in a ton of great classic and new era drinks.
Campari– a potable bitters used in the Negroni and the Americano. You can put this one lower on the list. I don’t even own a bottle. But Negronis are wonderful.
Hazelnut liqueur– very good for after-dinner drinks.
Cinnamon Schnapps– Very popular of late as Fireball “Cinnamon Whisky” has become a wild success.
Other schnapps to consider:
Galliano– a herbal vanilla liqueur
Fruits, Garnish, and Mixers
Lemons– For garnish and squeezing lemon juice out of.
Limes– For garnish and squeezing lime juice out of.
Oranges– For garnish and squeezing orange juice out of. (I also recommend buying non-concentrate orange juice. Orange juice is usually used in larger quantity than lemon or lime juice, and it’s quite a pain and somewhat expensive to squeeze your own)
Cranberry juice– I have to admit I buy a light “cranberry juice cocktail,” because I enjoy the taste and because it floats on orange juice.
Pineapple juice– Just try making a piña colada without this! (Actually don’t. A piña colada is terrible without this.)
Grapefruit Juice– Used less frequently than the other juices, and also something of an acquired taste.
Club Soda/ Seltzer– Both carbonated water. The difference is that club soda contains baking soda, which maintains the fizz for longer, and gives it a more bitter edge. I prefer club soda, myself.
Tonic water– A seltzer flavored with a syrup made with quinine, a bitter extract once used to treat malaria. Tonic is a great way to start appreciating bitterness. Bitter doesn’t mean bad. It’s a flavor just like sweet or salty. There are some fine craft tonics and tonic syrups available, but if you’re too lazy or broke to get a tonic outside the grocery store, at least get the diet tonic instead of the overly-sweetened kind. It tastes just a little less wrong.
Lemon-lime soda– This was in about 60% (number I made up) of mid-century drinks. My local liquor store runs a “recipe of the day” promotion to sell minis: almost every recipe contains lemon-lime soda. It’s rare in nouveau craft drinks and non-existent in classics, but it’s good to keep on hand.
Ginger beer– Find one that has the right level of burn for you. I like a mild one. Some people like it really hot. Pick your favorite and mix a Moscow Mule.
Coke– Again, the popularity of this one seems to center on the mid-century “dark ages.” You’ll need this to make a Long Island Iced Tea or a Cuba Libre.
Grenadine– a syrup, usually cherry flavored, that’s mainly used for color. You can make your own with the more traditional pomegranate flavor. This is a cornerstone of the classic “Shirley Temple” mocktail.
Cream– buy cream or half-and-half as needed. It doesn’t have a long enough shelf-life to just keep it stocked. Milk works as a substitute in a pinch.
Cherries– Brandy your own fresh cherries, or buy the expensive ones. Or, like me, cheap out and buy the cheap, fake ones, and promise yourself you’ll save up for a jar of Luxardo cherries later.
Olives– Grab the pimiento-stuffed ones. They sell some that are steeped in vermouth!
Bitters– High-alcohol concentrated aromatic flavors, used in dashes like spices in cooking. Because they’re used in dashes, the alcohol is negligible, so they can be used in mocktails.
Absolutely own Angostura Aromatic Bitters. This is not optional. It’s easy to find and it lasts practically a lifetime. Also get an orange bitters (Angostura or Regan’s), and a creole bitters (like the classic Peychaud’s). Branch out from there as recipes demand.
Ice– Be able to make it. Get some ice molds, and make yourself an ice bucket. Ice is indispensable.
This will mostly be saved for later articles. The most important things to get are a jigger (always measure your drinks; it’s the responsible thing to do) and a shaker/strainer. You can substitute regular kitchen items for almost everything else as you build out your collection of bar tools. We’ll talk about the rest some other time.
Other things to think about
When you’re planning a home bar, think about who will have access. Is anyone at risk for alcohol abuse? If so, consider a locking liquor cabinet. Is it you? Don’t start a home bar.
Your mileage may vary– always remember there’s no need to worry about getting dozens of bottles right away. Taste safely, little by little, and you’ll only need enough to make a drink here and a drink there. You’ll have a ton of variety before you know it!
Question for you