So you’ve started branching out from beer & wine at the local watering hole and you might even have a few “go to” cocktails that you really like. Maybe you went to the local fancy cocktail bar and had your socks knocked off by their creative creations – or maybe just a really, really good Margarita. Either way, it’s too late now. You’ve been bit by the cocktail bug, and you want to start creating your own craft cocktails at home.

But where do you start? Going from zero to cocktail can seem like a massive and expensive project.

Today’s post is intended to be a sort of “training wheels” to give you some sense for where to start.

Two disclaimers:

  • 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 recommend a few tools that we make / sell via our sister company, Top Shelf Bar Supply. That’s because we chose (or in some cases, custom designed) the tools that we really believe are the best! So you’ll have to forgive us for tooting our own horn here. These tools are pretty awesome. 🙂

Let’s dig in!

The Tools

I know you were expecting me to start with the booze, but I’m going to make you wait just a few minutes and start with the tools instead. (I’ll make it quick!)

Stuff you Really Need:

Stainless Steel Boston Shaker (18oz unweighted & 28oz weighted)

A quality Cocktail Shaker

You know what’s really annoying? When you’re shaking a cocktail and it leaks everywhere, 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. Here’s our recommendation.

A Boston Shaker (the kind with two cups, instead of a top with a cap) will take a little more practice to learn, but it’ll be your #1 shaker forever after that. Cobbler shakers (the other kind) are often marketed to cocktail novices but they have a bad habit of dripping, leaking, and / or getting frozen stuck shut, so you can’t get your cocktail out. Super frustrating. This shaker comes with a handy diagram on the inside lid of the box to help you get the hang of it.

Stainless Steel Boston Shaker (18oz unweighted & 28oz weighted)

A Hawthorne Strainer

The quintessential cocktail strainer, otherwise known as a “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, juice pulp, etc. We actually custom designed this one, and choose a finely wound spring so you can usually get away without a fine strainer (see “the next level” below.) It’s a comfy all-around strainer that won’t let you down.

Stainless Steel Hawthorne Strainer

A Jigger

Just starting out? Check out the OXO angled measuring jigger. It’s super easy to start with and has nearly every measurement you’ll need. Plus, it’s very inexpensive! (Leaving more room in your budget for the aforementioned “booze” section, coming next!)

OXO Angled Measuring Jigger

The Next Level

These are tools you can probably live without (for now). Go ahead and put them on your wish list for Christmas though – I’ll wait here.

  •  A Fine Strainer
    Ideally, shaken cocktails made with citrus should be double-strained (Strained out of the shaker with a hawthorne strainer, then again through a fine strainer to catch any tiny pieces that snuck through the first round.) This is not really necessary, but it’s a nice touch. When you’re ready to add a fine strainer, look for one with a good, strongly welded handle. Flimsy handles break off all the time and it’s super frustrating.
  • A Mixing Glass
    While you don’t need a mixing glass, 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.
  • A Bar Spoon (or two)
    Required? Nope. You can use any spoon to stir a cocktail – heck you can even use your finger if you want. But for how much easier a “real” barspoon makes it, I’d recommend spending the < $10. They’re inexpensive, it’s worth it.
  • A Muddler
    Now here’s something I get 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). I can’t recommend one right now because (top secret) we’ve custom designed our perfect muddler and it is (literally) arriving today. It’ll be for sale in a few days, and I’ll update this then. Until then – stay tuned!

The Booze

I promised you wouldn’t have to wait long. You could very easily spend a fortune stocking your bar. 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.

The Baseline:

I couldn’t make the list below as short as I wanted to. I’d recommend starting with this list and eliminating anything you know you don’t care for. (Example: Hate gin? Wait on Gin. Can’t stand vodka? Skip it. You can always add them later when feeling adventurous.)

Here’s a list of some must-have booze:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • White Rum
  • Whiskey
  • Blanco Tequila
  • Triple Sec
  • Sweet Vermouth*
  • Dry Vermouth* (Only if you’re a big Martini drinker – otherwise this can wait.)

*Note: I’d 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 just 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 them out! It’s your bar.

Buy These Next:

Got the baseline above? The next time your booze allowance comes in, I’d add these:

  • Rye Whiskey
  • Aged Rum
  • Reposado Tequila
  • Brandy

Add 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.

Bitters, Mixers & Juice

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 Bitters aren’t important. Without this key ingredient your cocktail creations will be seriously limited. The good news is – you don’t need much!

Cocktail Bitters

  • Start with Angostura Bitters. They’re the most commonly used bitters and you can go away with just these.
  • Next, add Orange Bitters. You’ll use these often too.
  • Tough choice for number three, but we decided that Peychaud’s is probably the third most versatile of the cocktail biters we see behind the bar. (Plus, it’s a required ingredient in the Sazerac, which is just plain delicious.)

Mixers & Juices

I’d argue the most important thing you can do to make your cocktails taste great is to use fresh citrus. To that end, here’s your shopping list for the produce section

  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Oranges (often just for the peel, but worth it!)

Now stop by the soda aisle and get:

  • 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 the five items above you can do some serious damage. If you’re a Gin and 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.

**Thou Shalt Not Buy Simple Syrup. Seriously. 1 cup water + 1 cup sugar. Stir. Bam. Simple Syrup.

Now the best part: The cocktails!

You didn’t think I would leave you without a list of cocktails to make, did you? If all you get is the “baseline” stuff above, you can dig in to all of the following recipes:

(Note: I am sure I am missing some good ones – add them in the comments below!)

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.