Going to the bar is expensive, but at least it’s also noisy and crowded and full of obnoxious drunks. At some point in your life you’re going to reach a phase where dragging yourself out to some questionable establishment just to get liquored up no longer appeals to you, and you’d rather stay at home and imbibe your wonderful collection of serious spirits, instead of paying for some sweaty guy in a black tee to mix you up a weak Grasshopper. When that time comes, you’re going to want to arm yourself with the best bartending gear in the business so that you’re ready to renounce the loud world of watery cocktails and enter a land of comfortable relaxation, where no one is going to put “Sweet Caroline” on the jukebox and try to start a sing-along.
As with any collection of tools, you should start with the gear you need first, then move your way up to the items that don’t often make an appearance in your mixological forays. Buy quality that will last and avoid scrimping, as the wrong equipment will lead to sub-standard sipping, and that cannot be allowed to stand.
The two things that no one mentions about a home bar is that you’re going to need a lot more storage space than you think you do, and you’re going to need to be able to ferry stuff to different spots, even if your house is small. A drink cart gives you the mobility necessary and adds storage space to your bar for a small price compared to adding in cabinets or pantries. You’ll likely end up using it instead of the bar on many occasions.
Here’s where you stock up on all your favorites, and all your friends’ favorites. Quantity goes a long way here, but you can easily waste a lot of money on things you’ll never use. Begin with your common cocktails and get only what you need for those. Then, add in as you or others crave something else. Have a bottle of each of the staples: whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, and tequila but also learn how to make substitutions for different alcohols to minimize your expense and wasted space.
Unless you plan to have a spigot hooked into tanks of club soda, tonic, cola, and whatever else, you’re going to need to have those on hand. Usually Cointreau and vermouth will get added in with your standard seltzers, but as with alcohol, get the mixers you know you will use foremost, then fill in gaps as the need arises. Lots of juices, especially orange and cranberry will go a long way.
Olives, onions, zests, and peels, sugar, salt, pepper, Tabasco, lemons, and limes will put your feet on the ground. After all, you’ll be serving your friends, not the Happy Hour crowd at the Rainbow Room. Don’t forget the cherries.
Space suck that they are, glassware can get daunting in a hurry, since there’s specific glasses for almost every sort of cocktail. Usually if you have a few martini glasses, some wine glasses, maybe a champagne flute or two, shorter rocks glasses, and a set of highball options you’ll be fine.
Quality ice changes a cocktail, and anyone who’s drank watery whisky knows this to be true. Grab a silicone mold of a large ice wedge or a few big ice spheres that don’t melt easily and keep a cocktail cold for extended sipping. Ordinary cubes can come from a bag, but have some really nice ice choices so you aren’t tossing diluted liquor.
A lot of home bartenders will “eyeball” how much booze to put into something. That’s bad mixing and bad magic, which easily wastes alcohol. Recipes aren’t made to be broken, but rather a way to get the right blend of flavors. To measure properly, a jigger is a necessity.
Also important for real cocktail mixtures are knowing how to properly muddle fruits and herbs to add in the unusual flavors that define the world of mixed drinks. A substitution here can leave you with a mishmash of tastes that isn’t properly muddled, but rather mauled. You wouldn’t change a tire with a pair of pliers, don’t homemake or half-ass your muddling.
There’s a few different kinds of shakers out there, and nothing wrong with any of them. You want at least a two-piece Boston or French shaker, but can also upgrade to the three piece Cobbler, which comes with its own built-in strainer if you plan on pouring a lot of cocktails straight from the mouth. Bostons are most beloved, and are ultra-simple, consisting of a glass and a metal base, so most start there.
All of your alcohol should have pour spouts so that you can get it out easily and quickly, eliminating spills and allowing you to do your cute little Cocktail drink spinning routine. If you have a jigger, spouts are less necessary, but they make life easier.
No, any long-handled spoon is not going to work for this. Bar spoons are made the way they are because they’re used to float wine on New York Sours and reach into a mixer without getting the salt and oils of a person’s skin anywhere near the concoction. You can get one with tines for spearing garnishes, but don’t settle for whatever is laying around.
Freshly squeezed juice changes the way a drink tastes, and if you’ve ever tolerated canned juices in your drinks, you know the tinny tang that can sneak in under the wire and ruin the whole thing. Have a hand-juicer nearby to put the squeeze on all your lemons, limes, and mandarin oranges.
There’s always more to learn and more to try, so never rest on your laurels as a bartender. Plus, it gives your guests something to thumb through to test your mettle once you’re ready to don the mantle of mix master.
Even if you have a mixer with a strainer, you need one that can be removed to fit over the top of glasses for pouring and filtering. Otherwise you’re going to muck up your cocktails with chewy chunks.
Buy a basic bitters set or bring in the ones you plan to use the most in the cocktails you love. There’s an endless supply of tastes and flavors, so you can both never go wrong and never go quite right. Any is always better than none.
Every bartender has a knife they love, but if you haven’t found yours yet, then consider the BD as your go-to bar knife. It handles all the cutting and trimming you’ll need, with a few bottle-opening extras that you won’t find in most blades of this variety.