How to Stock Your Bar At Home

Does the idea of hosting your friends and loved ones sound wonderful, but you don’t know where to begin? Have you been staring at your lovely bar cart at home, and you’re wondering how to fill it? Allow Cocktails from Home to guide you through stocking your at-home bar space. We are passionate about creating meaningful memories around delicious beverages. We’ve created a guide so you know exactly what you’ll need (and why) to host the perfect cocktail party.

In order of importance:  Liquor.  Tools.  Liquor.  Ice.  Fresh citrus.  Juices and mixers.  Bitters.  Syrups.  Glassware.  Obviously the liquor will be the most important investment in your home bar.  Unless you’re a non-drinker, and then you can still build a pretty impressive and functional non-alcoholic home bar.  But for the purpose of this blog, let’s stick with the idea that you’re someone who likes a good cocktail, and wants to start learning at home. 

Perhaps you like to go to the fancy bar or restaurant in town and sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with your bartender.  Asking about all the interesting ingredients he or she is adding to their shaker and why they’re so carefully measuring each one.  We can teach you all we know, as well as answer any burning questions you have about how all this mixology stuff works!  I’ll let the secret out of the bag.  It’s not as complicated as it looks.  With a few lessons, and principles you can start mixing up bar quality craft cocktails at home, and even start coming up with your own new recipes.  

Let’s start with liquor and liquor.  No, it’s not a typo, I meant to write that twice.  The reason is that there’s two categories of liquor that I’m referring to.  Your 5 main spirits are the first thing you should stock your place with.  Vodka, Gin, Whiskey, Tequila, Rum.  If you only want to start with 1 or 2, I would suggest a nice vodka and your favorite style of whiskey.  Vodka is versatile, mild in flavor, and can be used in many different drinks.  There are many different kinds of whiskey.  I would suggest starting with a bourbon.  It’s a little sweeter than some of the other whiskeys, and it lends itself well to cocktail mixing, as well as sipping all on it’s own.

Strictly speaking about cocktail mixing here, you don’t want to go too high a dollar.  In my opinion, anything over $50 for a 750ml should be sipped by itself or with an ice cube.  Maybe you can get away with making an old fashioned with a pricey spirit, but I would steer clear of adding any single barrel small batch award winning bourbons to your whiskey sour.  You’re just going to lose all those subtle flavors that won that whiskey it’s award in the first place.  

Once you’ve taken some time to pick out one of each of those five liquors, it’s time to move on to your hardware.  What would a chef be without a great knife, or a sauté pan? Luckily with our virtual mixology events, we send you the best quality bartending tools that professional bartenders approve of. 

We start with a Boston Shaker.  This is a two piece shaker.  Meant for shaking 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 cocktails at a time.  There are some new redesigned cocktail shakers out there on the market, but those remind me of the chef knives from late night infomercials where they claim the knife will cut through soda cans, but when you get it home it lasts for a week and then goes in the trash.  I recommend sticking with the tried and true version that actually gets used behind almost every bar.  It’s chosen for a reason, and that reason isn’t because it’s got a sleek new design with a kung fu grip.  It’s versatile, it’s a multi tasker. You can stir in it, you can shake with it, you can roll it, and it’s interchangeable with other tools. It doesn’t get frozen together like a 3-piece shaker, and it’s easy to separate if it is a little bit stuck.  All you have to do is give it a solid smack on the side and it will separate with a satisfying pop sound.  Since this is a two piece shaker without a built in strainer, we add a Hawthorne Strainer.  When making a cocktail you can “shake and strain” or “shake and dump.”  The latter being when you take all the contents of the shaker and dump it right into your glass without straining.  This is one of the reasons why we prefer to have a strainer that’s not built into the shaker.  As well as, you get to use your strainer on other pieces of equipment.  Want to break out that fancy mixing glass to stir up a negroni or old fashioned?  Well you’re still going to need to strain out all that ice.  Thank you Hawthorne Strainer.  (A collins strainer works nicely for the mixing glass too.)

What about measuring all these ingredients out?  Let me introduce you to a bartender’s most trusted device, the Japanese Jigger.  The japanese style jigger has a slimmer taper which means not just a sleeker look, but a smaller surface area on the top.  That means you can handle it easier and spill less.  Jiggers come in all shapes and measurements, but having the larger side at 1.5 oz means that you’re always ready to measure out a shot of alcohol.  The smaller side can range from 0.25 oz to 1 oz.  This gives you more of a range for different measurements that you’ll use in different drinks.  

Sometimes a hawthorne strainer isn’t enough to strain out all that pulp, or those tiny ice chips that come from shaking cocktails.  It’s nice to have a perfectly chilled martini style cocktail without all that mess floating on top.  This is where the double straining technique comes in. We strain our cocktail out of our shaker with the hawthorne strainer just as we would, but we pour everything through a fine mesh strainer on it’s way down to the glass.  This will filter out any lemon seeds that made their way in, or any little particulates that we’re not trying to drink.  

All of these shaking, straining, and measuring techniques are easy once you get a little practice, but the thing that makes the biggest difference for your bartending skills are pour spouts.  Also called speed pours.  These little spouts that fit onto almost every liquor bottle streamline and direct the liquid leaving the bottle.  This means accurate pours, and less spilling.  You can even get really fancy with the lonnnnnnnng pour.  

So now we’ve got our 5 main spirits and all the tools we need, now let’s get more booze!  Secondary spirits or liqueurs add a unique background flavor to any cocktail.  Want to make a lemondrop martini?  Try adding a splash of Maraschino Cherry Liqueur.  Thinking about an Old Fashioned?  How about you really change up the flavor profile with an ounce of an Amaro?  When I’m buying secondary spirits I always think of old world recipes.  If they’re made in Europe, and have been made there for decades, ideally the same recipe and family has been making them, then don’t hesitate, just buy a bottle.  Some of my favorites are Campari, Aperol, Green Chartreuse, any kind of Amaro (my favorite is Amaro Montenegro), Aquavit from Norway, and Absinthe (for sazeracs, not it’s reported psychedelic properties).

Well look at you go… you’ve got quite the home bar coming along!  Next few things will really bring everything together and at that point your options are endless.  You’ll be able to make almost everything.  

If you have enough room in your fridge, I suggest keeping a dozen lemons and limes in there at all times.  Sure, they’re delicious in an ice cold glass of water, but also it’s a key ingredient in so many cocktails.  There’s a reason every mixology kit we ship out has the freshest citrus available.  There’s no substitute for fresh lemon and lime juice in a cocktail.  Having a couple oranges on hand is a good idea too.  

Juices, mixers, and syrups.  When buying juices, try to find the smallest cans/bottles possible.  No use opening a gallon of cranberry juice just to make one cosmo, and then watch it slowly go bad in the back of the fridge for the next year.  When you can buy a six pack of small cans, they’ll stay good for a much longer time, and you only have to open one or two at a time.  Same thing goes for mixers.  Buy the small bottles and cans of soda.  You’ll waste less this way and it’s really not much more expensive.  

Syrups and bitters.  Going back and looking at my list, I’m thinking these maybe should have been ranked higher.  I’ll have to write a dedicated blog just about syrups and bitters.  Some kind of syrup is in almost every drink.  Most of the time it’s simple syrup.  That’s a non-flavored sweetener.  But you can also get pretty creative and start using flavored syrup, or even better yet making your own!  Bitters is almost like the seasoning of the drink.  When a chef adds a pinch of salt at the last minute.  Using bitters in very small quantities, just a few dashes can really add dimension, both flavor and aroma to an otherwise standard drink.  (A dedicated blog post about simple syrup and bitters is coming soon).

Ice and Glassware is up to you.  You can get just the same results with a scoop of ice from your freezer and a red solo cup, or you can really elevate things with crystal clear ice makers, and elegant glassware.  This is all really depending on the occasion.  What is important is that you have enough ice!  Never skimp on ice in your cocktail, or when mixing your drink.  It sounds backwards, but the more ice in your drink the slower it’ll melt and dilute the drink.  Trust me we’ve experimented with this!  

There are some things that I’ve purposely omitted from my list.  I think smoked cocktails are just a trend, albeit a very popular one at the moment.  If you invest in a cocktail smoker it will most likely eventually just gather dust in your garage.  There’s a reason why you never heard of a smoked old fashioned five years ago, and not because some genius bartender hadn’t had their eureka moment yet.  But because it’s a bit of a waste of time.  The smoke really doesn’t add much to your drink.  If anything, it can be rather overpowering.  And what kind of carcinogens are you actually adding to your drink this way?  Just because something looks cool on social media doesn’t mean that it actually has a purpose behind the bar. 

Same goes for all-in-one syrups.  If you went to a bar and paid top dollar for a cocktail and all the bartender did was mix liquor with one other ingredient, are you really confident that you’re getting the best possible concoction?  There’s a very good reason why top bartenders sometimes use up to six or seven precisely measured ingredients in each cocktail, and not a do-it-all shelf stable syrup that claims to craft the perfect cocktail for you.  I think of it this way… those syrups I’m referring to are the hamburger helper of the cocktail world.  

However you choose to stock your bar, remember: it’s yours! Think about drinks that bring you the most joy, or go for the drinks that you’ve always wanted to create yourself. Bartending is a skill so there will always be trial and error. Like any other hobby, it takes time to perfect. In the meantime, we suggest honing in on those skills with a Cocktails from Home event, where you’ll be sure to learn a few new bartending tricks.

Written by Chris Norkus, founder

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