Whether you’re an accomplished cocktailian or mixologist or you think the best drink is the one someone else makes for you, you can set up a home bar can produce quality cocktails with just a few inexpensive, simple tools.
But before you begin your home bar journey, it’s a good idea to spend some time with a cocktail menu. If you want to get insight into how to make your favorite drinks, Caroline Pardilla, digital cocktail editor for Imbibe Magazine, recommends getting to a bar around the time it opens to ensure you’ll have the full attention of a bartender (order an espresso martini so make sure you’re at your sharpest).
“Sit at the bar in front of where the bartender is making drinks,” said Pardilla. ‘That way not only can you watch how they’re making the drinks but you can ask them questions while they’re making them.”
While you might get inspiration, Robert Simonson, a cocktail writer for The New York Times and author of Modern Classic Cocktails, cautions home mixologists to not “aim for the stars,” and try to recreate exactly what you had at a cocktail bar because that bar might be using special syrups, infusions or even custom glassware that could be difficult to find.
“Keep it simple at home,” said Simonson. “The drinks we make the most at home are old fashioneds, Negronis, and Manhattans. They’re classic and easy. You can perfect the simplest drinks, making them better and better.”
By sticking to a smaller set of cocktails initially, you can also keep to a budget and avoid buying expensive bottles of liquor that you don’t use often. Morten Krag, who runs The Cocktail Blog, suggests that stocking a home bar is like making a grocery list.
“Start making a top ten list of your favorite cocktails,” recommended Krag. “For each drink, list out the necessary ingredients, bar tools, and glassware. This will help you build a shopping list and ensure that you have the supplies needed to make the drinks you think are most important to you.”
The joy of the home bar is that it can be whatever you want, a distilled reflection of your tastes, says Simonson. “The good thing about drinking at home is that if you love drinking out of fancy coupe glasses, you can do that if it gives you pleasure. If you want to drink out of a juice glass, you can do that too. Nobody’s looking.”
Once you know what drinks you want to make, getting the right equipment ensures you spend more time enjoying what you’ve crafted. Our trio of cocktail writers recommend 10 tools that will help you elevate your home cocktail bar.
Both Krag and Simonson note that ice — even though it comprises roughly one-quarter of your cocktail — is the most overlooked ingredient. Large format ice cubes — such as the two-inch cubes made by the Tovolo tray — will melt slower than smaller rocks (cocktail bar slang for ice) keeping your drink from getting diluted. The covers on these silicone molds should also help prevent odors from other food in your freezer from getting trapped in your ice.
Pro tip: Simonson recommends that about 15 minutes before you grab your ice molds you place your glasses in the freezer to help keep cocktails colder for a longer period of time.
$20 at Bed Bath & Beyond
The OXO is a well-thought-out juicer with a measuring cup base that tapers in the middle to make it easy to grip while you’re squeezing a lemon for a daiquiri. “Fresh ingredients definitely make a difference in cocktails,” said Pardilla. “It’s worth the extra effort of juicing.”
The juicer also comes with two reamer attachments (the pointed tops that help extract the juice, but not the pulp, from citrus): a larger one for oranges and grapefruits (try a paloma) and a smaller attachment for lemons and limes.
The Homestia Bar Jigger makes it easy to measure spirits and mixers. As to why you need a jigger, Simonson simply explains “measuring drinks correctly results in the best drinks.” This jigger holds up to an ounce (with clear markings for ½-ounce or ¾-ounce) in the smaller cup and two ounces (with a line at 1½- ounces) in the larger cup. It also comes in black, silver, or gold.
Martini fans should pick up a pair of Briout bar spoons. The long-handled, twisted, stainless steel spoon is designed to stir drinks, like martinis, that don’t need to be shaken because they don’t have dairy or citrus juice.
“A regular spoon won’t work,” explained Simonson. “A bar spoon spins within your grasp and goes fluidly around the perimeter of a mixing glass.”
The OXO cocktail strainer keeps little bits of ice and pulp from getting into your whiskey sour or daiquiri. And this stainless steel Hawthorn strainer fits both the top of the Anchor Hocking pint glass and cocktail shakers, so you can have clearer cocktails.
$70 at Crate & Barrel
The stainless shaker from Elevated Craft has a built-in jigger, strainer, and is dishwasher-friendly (although we’d recommend hand-washing). “Not only is it user-friendly with screw-on components so you don’t have to worry about leakage but insulated so you won’t freeze your hands when shaking,” said Pardilla. “Just make sure to shake the cocktail for only 10 seconds or so or you risk overshaking and diluting it.”
The 16-ounce Anchor Hocking Pint Mixing Glass has enough space to stir together spirits and ice for drinks like a Negroni. It’s inexpensive; yet still has a good heft and can double as a beer glass on game day. Keep in mind, this utilitarian glass doesn’t have a pour spout, so a strainer helps to transfer your cocktail to your drinking glass.
If you regularly add herbs (we’re thinking of mint juleps and mojitos here) or fruit to drinks, A Bar Above’s cocktail muddler is an effective masher. The 12-inch wooden muddler will easily reach the bottom of a glass or your shaker and the flat end should squish without tearing delicate leaves. You can also use it to crush ice (in a plastic bag or bar towel) in a pinch.
The inexpensive Kuhn Rikon Swiss Peeler does a great job of separating the peel from the pith to help you garnish cocktails. It’s lightweight and makes it easy to grab thin slices of orange peel that can lend a nice pop to a Negroni or old fashioned without slicing up your knuckles. I steal mine from my bar to use in my kitchen frequently to peel potatoes too.
Luxardo cherries have been adding color and body to drinks for more than a century. Simonson noted that “it’s worth investing in decent garnishes,” and the complex sweet Italian cherries preserved in syrup can add depth to a Manhattan or last word. These lustrous red cherries would be right at home on a bar alongside olives for martinis and fresh lemons for a gin fizz.