What you need to build your at-home bar like a professional bartender.
So you finally got a bar cart or a nice bar top space in your home, now what? The tempting next step is to go ham at the liquor store and haul home enough junk to keep you tipsy post apocalypse. But this is a marathon, not a sprint people! Before you spend $87 on blackberry-rosemary bitters and White Chocolate Bailey’s, read over our guide to running the perfect home bar.
1. Start small, start slow.
Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your thirst though, start slow with your collection. You always have less space and less need than you think you have when starting out. Pick 3 or 4 spirits you know you enjoy, a couple tools from the list below, and a few glasses to get you started. Get used to how your bar space will work, it’s always easier to organize as you go and not after blowing an entire paycheck at Costco.
2. Don’t spend money on spirits you don’t like, at first.
Most people make the mistake of thinking they need every type of liquor under the sun represented in their home bar, but if you’re just going to end up shuffling around an unopened liter of Malibu for a couple years then what is the point? For your casual entertaining, your guests will likely drink whatever you offer them. Unless you’re planning a themed party or you know that your Aunt Judith only drinks Gimlets and she’s visiting next week, don’t waste money on things you don’t like. This is YOUR bar above anything else. Vermouth is exclusive to martinis so don’t buy it if you don’t drink them! St. Germaine is a really sexy bottle, but that purchase can wait until later.
3. Invest in basic tools.
You won’t need everything all at once but you do want to get started with a couple basic bar tools:
- A good sized shaker, ideally one that allows you to mix more than one cocktail at a time.
- A sturdy knife with a serrated blade for cutting citrus
- A cutting board
- A jigger, the double sided shot glass type apparatus used to measure alcohol by the ounce.
- A few easy to clean glass bottles or jars for containing simple syrups and fresh juices.
- A basic corkscrew/wine key
- A basic bar key/bottle opener for opening beer
- A muddler
- A set of white towels that can be bleached (being a bartender is sticky business)
Items to purchase later or along the way:
- A blender
- A red wine bottle aerator
- An electric corkscrew
- Wine bottle stoppers
- A citrus press to easily make fresh juices
4. Know what mixers to always keep on hand.
Canned juices and mixers that won’t expire quickly are always good to keep around. Start with these first:
While bitters aren’t technically a mixer, keeping a shaker of orange Angostura bitters on hand is a good idea, they go into quite a few basic cocktails. Always keep white or Demerara sugar (brown sugar used in old fashions and manhattans) on hand to make simple syrups, simples definitely have a shelf life and only keep for about a week when refrigerated. To make simple syrups, combine one part sugar with two parts hot water and shake until sugar fully dissolves.
5. Basic glassware is everything.
Another huge money pit when you first invest in your home bar is glassware. It takes up space and it’s more expensive than you realize, so going back to tip #2 – don’t buy what you know you personally won’t use! If you don’t like martinis, don’t waste a shelf of your life to martini glasses. Especially when you can serve a martini from a lowball glass and it will taste the exact same. Ask yourself what you know you will use and start there.
Some basic glassware to get you started:
- Pint glasses: Before shelling out a ton of money on the various types of glassware needed for properly pouring beer, start with the basic pint. Double mixed drinks can end up in them too.
- Red wine glasses: I say red wine specifically because you can pour white wines into red wine glasses but not vice versa. Get a wine glass with a bulbous body and wide mouth for proper airiation.
- Lowball glasses: The short bodies are perfect for single shot drinks, liquors imbibed “neat”, and your crafty creations.
Invest in these glasses later:
- Coup glasses: Coup glasses double as champagne glasses and craft cocktails that do not require ice, also they look classy as hell.
- Martini glasses: You’ll need them eventually.
- Copper mugs: Mule lovers of all varietals (mules can be made with pretty much anything, not just vodka) will appreciate you serving up their beverage of choice in a copper mug.
- Highball glasses: For your Tom Collins drinkers or in case you really want to have a tiki cocktail night, these tall glasses are a must.
- A punch bowl: Not just for Sunday School anymore.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask friends to contribute.
Any proper host feels weird asking people to bring supplies to a gathering, but if you’re hosting folks in your home you really should get over this reservation. For your own mental health and status of your bank account, asking a friend to stop for limes and ice on their way over is a must. What you might assume are “little” expenses really add up, especially for things that won’t last until tomorrow. If you’re in the middle of a full blown party and realize you’ve run out of rum for the Hurricanes, ask a friend to open up Saucey and get another bottle on the way.
You’re a host, not Daddy Warbucks. And if you are, can we get an invite?
7. Your wet bar is the perfect place to start a souvenir collection.
This might sound weird, but I decided a long time ago to not waste money on trinkets and dumb t-shirts and instead bring home items from travels that really speak to the culture of the places I had been. Once I started doing this, my friends started to contribute (it really pays to follow tip #6!) and began to bring back really special treats just for me.
Now my bar is stocked with bottles of ports and digestifs from Italy, rum and cigars from Cuba, and a couple amazing bottles of Cabernet from Sonoma County. Hell, even if you just keep a growler of your favorite beer from your local brewery on hand, it counts! Not only do you get to tell the stories of places you’ve visited, but you can share in the flavors and character of these experiences. It’s really a cool thing, even if it’s a little expensive to ship.
8. Keep a few cocktail books on hand.
Sure, you can Google anything these days and I’m sure Siri could tell you pretty precisely the perfect mojito recipe. But there are few things as satisfying as referencing a book, setting it down and flipping through the pages, to decide on a cocktail that jumps out at you.
If nothing else, books are a badass way to decorate your bar and you will look knowledgeable AF. Sift through your local recycled book store or peruse the used offerings on Amazon for some truly unique publications.
9. Citrus is your best friend.
Never underestimate the relationship between fruit and booze. Oranges, lemons, and limes are as basic to cocktails as the liquor itself.
We know you’ve followed tip #3 and have invested in a good knife and cutting board, put it to use. The difference between a cocktail and an AMAZING cocktail is the fruit juice, never cut a corner with pre-made preservative riddled garbage if you can fresh squeeze it yourself. It’s a pain of course, but so worth it.
10. Don’t be afraid to freeze some things.
Unless you’re also willing to maintain a full herb garden along with your wet bar, freezing a few things here and there is a necessity. Fresh mint, rosemary, and basil are great additions to a cocktail; seal them into freezer bags and squeeze out the extra air. Other ingredients like berries, peaches, pineapple, and ginger will stay good in the freezer for a few months as well. No need to waste.
11. You will always need more ice than you think.
Think about it. Between chilling down your glasses (filling them with ice, then water, and letting it sit while you make the drink), the ice you add to a shaker to make the drink, and the fresh ice you add back into the glass after chilling – that’s a lot of ice for one cocktail. Keep a couple bags on hand or ask a couple guests to grab some on the way over. Your ice maker will thank you.
12. Polish your glasses.
This is a very nit picky thing amongst seasoned bartenders – SPARKLY GLASSES! Even the best dishwasher is going to leave behind water spots, lipstick smudges, and finger prints.
Keep a few dark linen towels (black is best as they don’t leave behind lint) on hand to do a quick polish before serving. It’s not necessary of course, but it is in the attention to detail that makes you an exceptional host. And you don’t want your dude friends accidentally wearing someone else’s red lipstick.
13. Your bar will extend to your fridge, so make room.
Organization is key, when planning a party you need to consider the space that ingredients will take up outside of your bar and how much will be left over. Having extra jars and glass containers designated for left over ingredients will help you better manage this space.
14. Wine and beer matter.
A proper bar isn’t just hard liquor. Having a couple wine varietals and beers in stock will always account for the guests who aren’t that into mixed drinks. A couple reds, a white, and an off varietal like Rosé or even Champagne will cover all your bases – nothing too fancy though. A California Cabernet, a light Pinot, and a buttery Chardonnay that price around $12-$15 a bottle is a great place to start. For beer, a pale lager or an amber ale are safe choices to keep on hand.
15. Come up with projects to keep it interesting.
The worst part about investing in a bar is watching it collect dust after a few months of use. Come up with some projects to keep your hands dirty and “patrons” over regularly. Research some vodka infusions and aim to have your friends over for a tasting at least once a month or a build your own Bloody Mary bar and homemade brunch. Find a cocktail book that appeals to you and pick 5 drinks you want to master, have people over every other week to taste the evolution and your own eventual spin on things. Host a tiki cocktail night and challenge those people who claim they don’t like “sweet drinks” to change their minds…be prepared to have them sleep on your couch though. Rum is a tricky mistress.
We like to cook and host friends in our homes because those experiences are so much richer than simply meeting out for dinner somewhere, the same concept applies to managing your own home bar. Whether you’re a beginner or a novice, the crafting of a cocktail and the pleasure of watching someone enjoy it is a very special thing. Don’t rush to make it perfect all at once, enjoy the process.
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Great post.Ne’er knew this, thank you for letting me know.
Thank you for posting your tips, making a home bar you can also consider adding some games like table football or even pool table if your room is large enough.
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