The Bar Essentials: How to Stock Your Home Bar
The Cocktail Culture is an established part of the drinks world. While craft beer will likely always be my go-to drink, there are situations where a well-made cocktail can set the mood and make the experience just that much more memorable.
Making great cocktails at home requires the right ingredients and a few tools of the trade. You don’t need to have a mixologist’s encyclopedic memory of cocktail recipes (there are apps for that nowadays), but a little practice in basic bartending skills can really help. And just as any good carpenter will tell you, getting the job done right requires a good set of tools and the right materials.
My bar is well-stocked with a variety of spirits and various tools I’ve collected over the years. But the reality is that you can catch up to my 30 years of collecting in about 30 minutes in a good kitchen supply store and another 30 minutes in a good liquor shop. If you feel the need to start hosting cocktail hours, here are the 12 must-have tools you will need.
Shaker: It’s the one essential tool. Most great drinks start in a cocktail shaker. Make sure you get a metal one that has a tight-fitting lid with a built-in strainer in the pour top. Avoid the ones that come with the shaker on a pint glass. It is one extra thing to clean, and I have seen the glasses get wedged into the metal sections. If you go that route, you will also need to buy a strainer.
Ice Bucket: The best advice I was ever given while working as a bartender for a catering firm during college was, “Make sure you have plenty of ice.” You will need a place to put the ice, and the best place is a bucket with a lid. Make sure to have a set of tongs as well.
Jigger: If you want to bake a great cake, you need to follow the recipe. The same thing applies to making a great-tasting cocktail. Get a two-sided metal jigger. One side holds 1.5 ounces—a full shot. The other side is a half shot. Getting the right measure into the glass is the key to making consistently great-tasting cocktails.
Bar Towels: From drying glassware to cleaning spills, start your evening with at least two clean bar towels. You will be happy you did.
Knife and Cutting Board: Lemons. Limes. Oranges. Pineapples. They don’t come in handy wedges, slices and twists. Besides adding flavor, these garnishes add flair to any cocktail.
Blender: If you are going to make frozen drinks—from a piña colada to a daiquiri—you must have a great mixer. My advice is that size and strength matter when it comes to blenders. As soon as you make the first frozen cocktail, three other people will ask for the same drink. Make sure the blender has capacity to handle at least 3-4 frozen drinks.
Cocktail Spoon: It’s handy to have a spoon with a long handle so that you can easily reach the bottom of any glass. This tool also is indispensable when it comes to fishing an olive or maraschino cherry out of a jar.
Juice Squeezer: Fresh juice is the secret weapon of many professional bartenders. It can make the difference between a drink that sparkles and one that just tastes flat. There are handheld squeezers that can accommodate fruit from limes to grapefruit.
Muddler: There are a few popular cocktails—from the mojito to the old-fashioned—that require a bit of brute strength and the proper application of a wooden muddler to crush and extract flavors.
Corkscrew/Bottle Opener/Can Punch: Depending on your preference, this could be one, two or three tools. But like a Boy Scout, a bartender must always be prepared—to open something.
Speed Pourers: If you end up tending bar for 10 or more people, having these spouts on the top of your liquor can be a big time saver. They are designed to pour a set amount of liquor, depending on the maker and style. You can test them in a shot glass.
Glassware: The proper glass makes a statement. Highball, lowball, martini, Margarita and other shapes don’t really change the flavor of the cocktail. But the right glass just makes things taste better.
Once you have all the right tools, you’ll also need to stock up on condiments and ingredients. (See a shopping list for your home bar.)
The next question you have to answer in getting your cocktail home bar ready for action is which spirits to stock. There are dozens of different options for spirit types and literally hundreds of brands in each category. So the decision process is complicated, and it can get very expensive pretty quickly. The best approach is to start with the basics and then build out as you develop your bar. Start with the liquor you need to make your favorite cocktails and the drinks you see your friends order when you are out.
Brand selection can feel impossible when you visit your local liquor store. It is important to remember that no one expects your bar to be stocked like a cocktail lounge. As long as your selection includes well-known call brands and not low-priced well brands, most people are happy to be flexible and forgo having access to their favorite brand. Who knows, you might even help them find a new favorite brand in the process.
Rick Lyke is a Charlotte-based beverage writer and marketing executive.