The essential guide to setting up a home bar
It can be very easy to spend a small fortune setting up a home bar. Our advice to those just starting out is to start small. Focus on perfecting how to craft just a few of your favorite drinks, and expand from there.
The primary ingredient of any cocktail is some sort of spirit. This provides the basic structure of the cocktail, which you then refine with secondary ingredients along with bitters and garnishes. Don't skimp on the spirits! You don't need top-shelf spirits, middle shelf will often work just fine, but don't get the cheapest either. One indicator of a lower quality spirit is if comes in a plastic bottle. Avoid those.
Now, let's go over the basic spirits most home bars stock.
This is probably the most versatile spirit and is featured in a huge number of recipes, including the classic Gin Martini. It is a neutral spirit that is then infused with various botanicals and aromatics.
The popularity of bourbon has skyrocketed in the last few years. It is a barrel aged spirit, distilled from a mash primarily made of corn (at least 50%). It is a quintessential American spirit and forms the base of a good many recipes, including the Manhattan cocktail.
While not quite as popular as bourbon, rye whiskey is enjoying a renaissance. It is a barrel aged spirit, distilled from a mash of at least 50% rye. It generally is a little less sweet than bourbon, sometimes featuring a slight grassy quality. It is often used as a replacement for bourbon in many recipes, providing a little more "bite" than the sweeter bourbon.
Vodka is a neutral spirit, distilled either from grains or potatoes. It is generally highly filtered and completely clear. It can be used as a replacement for Gin in many recipes, including the Martini.
Rum is distilled from sugar cane. It has been associated with sailors for centuries (known as "Grog"), and is a very important spirit in the West Indies.
Dark Rum can be aged in charred wooden barrels, which imparts flavor and aromas from the wood and gives it a darker color and smoother texture.
Light rum is aged for less time in plain wood barrels or stainless steel. It has a lighter body and harsher taste. It is used in many tropical drinks such as the Daiquiri.
Tequila is distilled from the leaves of the blue agave plant and made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It is a complex spirit and tastes can vary from harsh to very smooth, depending on how it was processed and aged. Tequila is featured in many cocktails, the most popular being the Margarita. Its popularity has exploded over the last couple decades, leading to shortages and higher prices at times.
Now let's focus on the secondary liquors that complement the primary spirit when crafting a cocktail. These are usually used in smaller amounts and their flavors generally complement or contrast with the primary spirit to create a fuller flavor profile.
Dry vermouth is a dry white wine that is fortified with alcohol and infused with botanicals and aromatics to create delightfully complex flavors and aromas. It can be enjoyed by itself as an apéritif, and is also a necessary ingredient for many cocktails, notably, the Martini.
Like dry vermouth, sweet vermouth comes from a base wine, usually a red wine. It is also fortified with alcohol and botanical infusions. It has some added sugars to give it a sweeter, smoother flavor. It is used in many cocktails, including the very popular Manhattan.
Bitters and garnishes
Bitters are often overlooked, but absolutely essential to building most cocktails. Bitters are concoctions of botanical and aromatic products stored in a suspension of alcohol and water. The alcohol acts as a solvent to free up the botanical compounds and preserve the product. Many bitters started out as medicinal products and were used to heal various ailments.
By themselves, they are often not that palatable, having very strong bitter or medicinal flavors. So why would we bother mixing this into our drinks? Because of the subtle ways they interact with the other ingredients of the cocktail. Used in small amounts they impart nuances of aroma and flavor, binding the other ingredients together. After you have gotten used to properly using them, you'll agree that a cocktail made without bitters is missing something essential.
Garnishes impart the final light touch to make a good cocktail a feast for all the senses. Perhaps it is the bright yellow of a twist of lemon peel contrasting with the clear abstract triangle of the Martini glass. Or it is the subtle citrus aroma given off by the oils in the peel when applying the twist.
Bartending gear and glassware
We finish up our gear guide with the utensils used to make the cocktail, and finally the glassware to serve and present the finished cocktail.
If creating cocktails is a type of alchemy, the Shaker is the ice forge from which they are made. Here you will mix your ingredients in precise proportions along with ice. You then need to either shake the ingredients together, or more gently stir them with a bar spoon. A simple Boston Shaker is what is called for, and you'll need a bar spoon for stirring.
Finally you need to serve your creation in a container that is a delight to the eyes, and more importantly, keeps the drink cold. There are many types of cocktail glasses, and as you expand into the world of making different cocktails you'll want a few of them. For now, just starting out, we suggest the versitile martini glass. It can be used for many different types of cocktails and the long stem prevents the heat of your hand from warming up the drink.
Putting it all together
Note that you don't need to get all of these at once! You can start your home bar with only one or two base spirits and then grow your stock as you experiment with other recipes.
Let's say you want to start by making Martinis and Manhattans. In that case, you could just start with a bottle of Gin and a bottle of Bourbon or Rye Whiskey. You would also want a bottle of sweet red and dry white vermouth as well as Angostura bitters, and some sort of citrus bitters (Orange being most popular).
Now that you have the basic ingredients, you'll just need a Boston Shaker, a measuring jigger and possibly a bar spoon. Time to build a cocktail!
Finally, after you've built your cocktail, you'll want some garnishes (lemons, cocktail olives, cocktail cherries) and a nice cocktail glass to serve it in.
Now it's time to relax and enjoy the cocktail that you've made. Take notes- would you like the next one to be dryer or sweeter? Would you like more or less of the accent that the bitter gives? Would you want to let the cocktail rest in the shaker to "open up" for longer or shorter before serving?
After you have dialed in your personal favorite cocktails, it's time to explore the rich world of cocktail culture. Don't be afraid to make adjustments to recipes you come across. Remember, you are the ultimate judge of what tastes great to you!