So you’ve started branching out from beer & wine and maybe have found a few favorite cocktails you’d like to make at home. Perhaps mixing drinks became a pandemic hobby for you, and now you’d like to grab some bar staples so you can make better drinks in the comfort of your house.
Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member
Once you’ve been bitten by the cocktail bug and want to start creating your own craft cocktails at home, there are some essential home bar tools that you need– whether for serving drinks at cocktail parties or so that you can enjoy your own fancy drinks in peace after a long day.
But where do you start? Going from zero to cocktail can seem like a massive (and expensive) project. Fortunately, with the help of Leah Hall from the awesome site Gastronom Blog (you can also find them on Instagram), we’re here to walk you through the basics of building your own personal cocktail bar.
- No, you won’t be able to make every single cocktail in the universe with the setup described below. For that, you will need a lot of money (and fridge space). But this will give you a good start that should open the door to quite a few delicious drinks.
- Especially in the tools section, I’m going to mainly recommend our own bar tools that we make and sell over in our shop. That’s because we custom-designed the barware we really believe is the best, based on years of personal experience and research.
So you’ll have to forgive us for tooting our own horn here, but these tools are pretty darn awesome, if I do say so myself.
Let’s dig in and get you on your way to being an expert bartender at home!
Copyright A Bar Above
THE BAR ESSENTIALS YOU NEED FOR YOUR BAR AT HOME
I know you were expecting me to start with the booze, but I’m going to make you wait just a few minutes while I start with the tools instead. (I’ll make it quick! Or quick-ish.) A well-stocked bar isn’t just about the liquor, after all. It’s also about how you make your drinks!
THE ESSENTIAL HOME BAR TOOLS YOU DEFINITELY NEED
If you’re just beginning to stock your bar at home, you’ll need these simple tools to get started. From here, you can add more to your collection as your cocktail-making endeavors become more advanced.
Stainless steel weighted/unweighted Boston shaker, copyright A Bar Above
You know what’s really annoying? When you’re shaking a cocktail and it leaks everywhere (like down your arm) and possibly sprays all over your bar. Trust me, it’s worth investing in a quality shaker that seals tightly and won’t break open until you choose to open it.
The Cobbler Shaker (the other kind) is a 3-piece cocktail shaker often marketed to cocktail novices, but they have a bad habit of dripping, leaking from the built-in strainers, and/or getting frozen stuck shut so that you can’t get your cocktail out. Super frustrating.
Our Boston shaker even comes with a handy set of instructions to help you get the hang of it.
Gold Hawthorne strainer, copyright A Bar Above
The quintessential cocktail strainer, the Hawthorne Strainer, is pretty much a requirement for making cocktails. Use it after shaking your cocktail to strain the drink out of the shaker tin, leaving behind big chunks of ice chips, fresh juice pulp, fruit, mint, etc.
We actually custom designed this one and chose a finely-wound spring so you can usually get away without a fine strainer (see the “additional tools” section below.) You don’t need a more expensive strainer that is poorly made; this one’s a comfy, affordable, all-around strainer that won’t let you down.
Copper Japanese jigger, copyright A Bar Above 2021
A really good jigger will give you every line you need for pouring. Fortunately, we have two options for you: our Japanese jigger and a rounded bell jigger, both of which have lines ranging from a bar spoon to 2 oz for all your pouring needs.
Whether you choose the Japanese-style jigger or the bell is really up to you, as they are both standard, strongly-welded jiggers that will help you make your favorite drinks.
Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash
Obviously, you need a glass (or four) to hold everything from your vodka martinis to an Irish whiskey, neat. But where to start? Rocks glass, pint glass, Collins glass…?
If you have no idea what the heck I’m even talking about, I recommend reading this comprehensive article on glassware to get started. And if you subscribe to Gastronom Blog, Leah and her husband, Jay will send you their very own guide as well.
With glassware, you can buy new or hunt for interesting pieces at thrift stores. It just depends on your style and which types of glassware you decide to start with.
The type of glass you choose depends on the drinks you want to make. Tropical cocktails, sours, and martinis are all traditionally served in specific glasses, but our glassware article will break it all down for you and help you maximize your space– and budget. (Hint: You can skip the martini glasses.)
Here are Leah’s must-have starter glasses:
Copyright A Bar Above
ADDITIONAL TOOLS TO TAKE YOUR HOME BAR TO THE NEXT LEVEL
The above barware are essential tools and home bar requirements for making basic cocktails. Below are a handful of bar products you can probably live without (for now) but that will help you make drinks beyond a few standard cocktails.
Go ahead and put them on your wish list for holidays because they really will take your alcoholic beverages (and non-alcoholic beverages, for that matter) to the next level. Professional bartenders and cocktail drinkers alike will definitely want these pieces in their collection at some point.
Double-straining with our gold fine strainer, copyright A Bar Above
Ideally, shaken cocktails made with citrus, mint, or other muddled ingredients should be double-strained. This is where you strain your drink out of the shaker with a Hawthorne strainer and then again through a fine mesh strainer to catch any tiny pieces that snuck through the first round.
When you’re ready to add an additional tool, our fine strainer has a sturdy, strongly-welded handle, which is exactly what you want. Flimsy handles break off all the time, and it’s extremely frustrating (and common). Luckily, we’ve got you covered! Ours has a double-welded handle to avoid breaking.
Sirred set in copper, featuring a mixing glass, copyright A Bar Above 2021
While you don’t need a mixing glass per se, it really is the ideal vessel for stirring spirit-focused drinks. Characteristics I’d look for include sturdy construction, “seamless” (less likely to break), and a design that you like. We actually have three options in our shop for you to choose from!
And while you’re at it, check out our julep strainers, which you’ll want to pair with your mixing glass. Although our Hawthorne is designed to also fit our mixing glass, the julep strainer is designed specifically for a mixing glass.
Stainless steel spiral spoon, copyright A Bar Above
Required? Nope. You can use any spoon to stir a cocktail – Heck, you can even use your finger if you want. (Hmmm… Just don’t stir someone else’s drink that way.) However, if you’re working with a mixing glass or other tall glass, you’ll be dipping inside of it to get to that drink.
For how much easier a “real” bar spoon makes it, I’d recommend grabbing a couple. Believe me: It’s worth it. We make three lengths so you’re good to go, no matter which vessel you’re mixing in.
Hardwood muddler, copyright A Bar Above
Now here’s something I’m a bit picky about. There are a lot of muddlers out there that share some serious shortcomings: They are either too short (so you bang your knuckles on the side of the glass/tin), or they have huge spikes on the end (obliterating your herbs and turning your drink bitter).
Our muddler is designed to avoid these glaring problems, so you’ll get the perfect flavor profiles from your muddled ingredients (no bitter mint here, thank you very much). And you’ll save your poor knuckles from a beating, too.
Now that you’re on your way to becoming a pro bartender at home, how else are you going to squeeze your fresh lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice…? (I could go on, but you get the idea.)
Being able to add fresh fruit juice to your cocktails is going to elevate your mixed drinks tremendously, so I recommend grabbing a handheld juicer sooner rather than later.
Gold cocktail pick, copyright A Bar Above
When you’re ready to get super swanky with your citrus garnishes, Leah recommends adding a channel knife (also known as a zesting knife) to your kitchen gadget drawer. It will really up your cocktail presentation!
Photo by Li Zhang via Unsplash
Quality cocktails love quality ice. If you’ve ever ordered an old fashioned, you’ve probably noticed that big piece of square or round ice it typically comes with. You can get your own ice molds to make a beautiful, round ice cube, too– It’s an affordable, easy way to beautify your beverages.
Leah has her heart set on an ice ball press, which is a fancier (and much more expensive) way to create round ice. The cool thing about the world of craft cocktails is that there are a million gadgets to play with at a variety of price points.
If you want to get really fancy– and don’t already have an ice machine in your fridge– you can splurge on a pebble ice machine. Children of the 80s all just made a collective gasp, right? Pebble ice is a must-have for tropical drinks, but it’s also just fun in your water or iced tea.
The ultimate in ice would be a Clinebell machine, which is really made for bars and restaurants– but hey, if you have the room and budget, go for it. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big!
Extra Bonus Points: Refrigeration
At a certain point, you may find you need more refrigeration— booze and mixers can take over your kitchen quickly! A mini-fridge in your kitchen or on your patio may be enough, or you might want to add a second fridge to your garage.
The plus side is that you can store other things in a second full-size fridge, and you’ll have extra freezer room, too.
Photo by Andreas M. via Unsplash
I promised you wouldn’t have to wait too, too long for the good stuff. Now, you could very easily spend a fortune stocking your bar with a variety of liquor. But today I’m going to try to make a few suggestions to give you somewhere to start – something you can build slowly without breaking the bank.
Note: If you’re just dipping your toe into the world of cocktails and aren’t sure what you like yet, try some airplane-sized bottles of different brands of basic spirits before you go investing in an expensive bottle of something you’ll end up hating. It’s such a bummer to collect a bunch of dusty bottles of booze you won’t drink!
Photo by John Hernandez via Unsplash
“I usually advise people to stick with 5-8 bottles of things they know they like, and that way, they can build from there and add a bottle or two every so often if they want to try a new drink.” –Leah Hall
THE BASICS FOR MAKING CLASSIC COCKTAILS
I just couldn’t make this list of alcohol as short as I wanted to. Between our personal opinions at A Bar Above and Leah’s suggestions, I’d recommend starting with these essential liquors and eliminating any base spirit you know you don’t care for, for the time being.
(Example: Hate gin? Wait on gin. Can’t stand vodka? Skip it for now. You can always add them later when you’re feeling more adventurous.)
Here’s a list of some must-have base spirits and liqueurs:
- Vodka: You don’t have to buy the most expensive vodka on the shelf, but grab a high-quality bottle of non-flavored vodka to get you started.
- Gin: Even if you think you don’t like gin, grab a bottle that isn’t juniper-heavy, like Hendrick’s.
- White Rum: An unflavored, white rum will help you make a lot of popular cocktails so that you can decide if rum is your thing.
- Whiskey: OK, this might require some taste-testing since there are many different styles: bourbon, rye, Canadian, Irish, scotch (if you like smoky flavors), single malt… If you have zero clue where to start, Maker’s Mark bourbon and Jameson Irish whiskey are generally safe, popular bets.
- Blanco Tequila: A versatile white tequila, this will get you started if you’re not a tequila connoisseur… yet.
- Triple Sec: Keep this orange liqueur on hand; you’ll find useful for margaritas and a classic cocktail like the Sidecar. (I personally recommend Cointreau vs the commercial brand of Triple Sec.)
- Sweet Vermouth*
- Dry Vermouth* (Only if you’re a big martini drinker– Otherwise, this can wait.)
*Note: I recommend buying Vermouth in 375ml bottles until you know you’ll get through the bigger ones. You’ll want to finish a bottle of vermouth in a month or two max – They lose their luster quickly.
You’ll notice I’ve chosen more “white” spirits than aged. That’s just because I’m looking for the most versatility possible with this initial list. Blanco tequila is just more versatile than reposado, for example. Love the aged stuff? Swap ‘em out! It’s your bar.
Photo by Li Zhang via Unsplash
BUY THESE COCKTAIL INGREDIENTS NEXT
Got the baseline above? The next time your booze allowance comes in, I’d add these:
ADD THESE ADDITIONAL COCKTAIL INGREDIENTS TO YOUR BAR AS NEEDED
Once you have the baseline above, you’ll have a LOT of options for cocktails. I’d recommend slowly adding to it over time, as you come across cocktail recipes that strike your fancy. A few examples:
- Adding Luxardo Maraschino lets you make the Martinez.
- Adding Chartreuse means you can make the Last Word.
- Campari opens the door to the Negroni, Boulevardier, and (of course) the Campari Soda.
Note on Campari: Don’t let that beautiful candy color fool you. Campari is bitter and can be an acquired taste. If it’s too strong/bitter for you, start with Aperol, which is similar but slightly toned down. Don’t be afraid to work within your flavor preferences!
Copyright A Bar Above, 2021
ADD BITTERS, MIXERS, AND JUICE TO YOUR COCKTAILS
To elevate your cocktails, you need to add more to your bar than base spirits– otherwise you’ll just be drinking straight liquor! Here is what we suggest adding right away so you can make a number of popular cocktails.
Once upon a time, the word “cocktail” meant a drink with spirits, sugar, and bitters. Now we use the word to describe pretty much any tasty mixed drink – but that doesn’t mean a bottle of bitters isn’t important! Without this key ingredient, your cocktail creations will be seriously limited. The good news: You don’t need much!
“Bitters are scary for people, but they’re much-needed. I call them our salt and pepper of the cocktail world. […] It can completely change the flavor of a cocktail. It can completely add flavor.”– Leah Hall
- Start with Angostura bitters. It’s the most commonly used bitters, and you can get away with just this.
- Next, add orange bitters. You’ll use this often, too, for drinks like Manhattans. (Heck, you can even spruce up a vodka martini with it in lieu of cocktail olives.)
- Tough choice for number three, but we decided that Peychaud’s is probably the third most versatile of the cocktail bitters we see behind the bar. (Plus, it’s a required ingredient in the Sazerac, which is just plain delicious– and one of Chris’ favorite cocktails.)
Once you hone in on what you like, you can add other bitters to your collection. My personal favorite is Fee Brother’s rhubarb bitters, which I will shamelessly add to just about anything, but especially a whiskey highball.
Photo via Unsplash
MIXERS & JUICES
I’d argue the most important thing you can do to make your cocktails taste great is to use fresh citrus juice. And of course, you can’t go wrong with slices of citrus fruits in your drink. To that end, here’s your shopping list for the produce section:
- Oranges (Often just for the peel, but worth it! And your channel knife will come in handy here.)
Now stop by the soda aisle for these:
- Sparkling water
- (Bonus points) Ginger beer
Oh, and pick up some white granulated sugar while you’re at the store – You’ll need it to make simple syrup.**
With these five items plus your base liquor, you can make some serious mixed drinks. If you’re a gin & tonic lover, obviously add tonic to the list. Beyond the above, I’d say you can add as you go. Got a hankering for a Paloma? Grab a grapefruit. You get the idea.
Once you’re ready to get more creative with your cocktails, your grocery list will also depend on seasonality. Summer cocktails? Hot winter drinks? Pick up what’s in season (like cranberries in the winter and coconut for tropical cocktails in the hotter months) and start mixing.
**Thou Shalt Not Buy Simple Syrup. Seriously. 1 cup water + 1 cup sugar. Heat. Stir. Bam. Simple Syrup.
Photo by Chinh le Duc via Unsplash
NOW THE BEST PART: WHAT POPULAR COCKTAILS CAN YOU MAKE AT HOME?
You didn’t think I would leave you without a list of cocktails to make, did you? If all you get is the “bar basics” above, you can dig in to all of the following recipes:
- Margarita (Use simple syrup instead of agave)
- Martini (especially if you picked up the dry vermouth)
- Moscow Mule
- Tom Collins
- Mojito (You’ll need a bit of fresh mint)
- Old Fashioned
- Whiskey Sour
(I’m sure I am missing some good ones – Add them in the comments below!)
Once you get the hang of this cocktail thing, you can expand your collection of spirits and liqueurs, opening up a whole new world of creative, experimental drinks. Heck, you may even be making Leah’s favorite truffle oil cocktail by this time next year!
Photo courtesy of Leah Hall, Craft Cocktail Club member
HOME BAR STORAGE: FROM BASEMENT BARS TO CABINETS TO A SIMPLE BAR CART
Any essential home bar makeover requires storage! If you don’t have a built-in liquor cabinet, you might have to get inventive with how you store your bottles of liquor, depending on your space.
As Chris points out in episode 201, you can store liquor anywhere; Leah even calls it “laundry room booze”– Hey, sometimes you have to find ways to use your existing space!
Note: I’m focused on spirits, but if you’re a wine drinker, consider adding a wine cabinet or wine cooler. Love beer? Look into a mini-fridge or even a Kegerator to keep your beers on hand.
Photo courtesy of Michael Smutny, Craft Cocktail Club member (Bar cart from Mitchell Gold)
A basic bar cart is the simplest (and smallest) way to store your spirits, glassware, books, and tools. You could also devote one kitchen cabinet to your tools and glasses and then display your booze on your cart.
The best thing about a bar cart is that, even if you upgrade your storage later, it will never go to waste. Keep your cart around to use when you’re entertaining– put your drink essentials on it, and wheel it outside during your next party!
There are a variety of carts on the market, ranging from fancy gold to sleek, classy wood. You could also go vintage and look at thrift stores for something quirky and unique if you want a real statement piece.
“I think a bar cart is great. You can put glassware on there; you can put your bottles on there. […] If you have bar books, they look really cool if they’re next to your alcohol. […] As you start to expand, maybe think about a bigger wine cabinet or something like that. But I think a bar cart is a great way to start off. It’s small, but it can look really classy in the corner of a room. It can make a statement in your house. It can be a pretty piece.” –Leah Hall
Photo courtesy of Tony Kennedy, Craft Cocktail Club member
If you have the room, a standing cabinet is an excellent way to store everything in one place. They come in a variety of sizes– and even ones to fit in a corner– so you have options to fit your living area, no matter your situation.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Modlin-Smith, Craft Cocktail Club member
Maybe you don’t have much floor space but do have room on your walls. Build some shelves! You can display all your beautiful barware and booze for everyone to see.
Photo courtesy of Brian Johnson of Better Cocktails at Home, Craft Cocktail Club member
BUILT-OUT HOME BAR
Talk about extravagance! For those with the budget and room, consider building out an actual home bar. Maybe you have a basement you just don’t know what to do with or a large patio– Make it your own little dive. I’ll come over and cheers with you when you’re done!
Some things to consider when building a full bar in your home:
- Where you’ll put it and how much room you have
- Whether or not you have to keep bottles and glassware out of the hands of any little humans running around your house
- Style you want: Check out Pinterest, Instagram, and Houzz for inspiration!
- Budget (it adds up!)
“Deciding to build a bar is the first step of many hundreds of steps and decisions that you have to make. I mean, everything from size to style to location to how much it’s going to be able to store, if you’re going to put a sink in there with running water. There’s so much that goes into it.” — Chris
START ESSENTIAL AND THEN MAKE YOUR HOME BAR YOUR OWN
“Just do it. Go with what you like. Even things you used to order in college, try them again. Just try things. […] You are going to make some bad ones, I promise. […] But try. Just see what you like; find what’s easy for you, what’s easy to make when you entertain, what you can offer people. To me, it’s hospitality and it’s part of entertaining.” –Leah Hall
We’re excited to see how you stock your home bar! How do you store all your stuff? What is your one absolutely essential bar tool, liqueur, or spirit? We can’t wait to hear all about your at-home bar in the comments below or in our Facebook community group. Don’t be a stranger– Come join us to talk all things cocktail.
Photo courtesy of Michael Paley, Craft Cocktail Club member
And of course, as you already know, we create and sell high-quality bar equipment. Aiming to solve common problems we’ve seen behind the bar, our barware is designed to last and make your mixing journey smooth sailing. Hop over to our shop to pick up everything you need (and more) to stock your own bar at home!