Home Bar Primer

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The holidays are right around the corner, and the first big party holiday of the season, Halloween, is next week. That means a great deal of entertaining in the home, bringing people over, and having cocktails on hand for all of the guests you will entertain. It is a perfect time to start up that home bar you have been talking about for years. With the Cocktail Revolution in full force, there are more choices of liquors out there than ever before, from a wide range of flavored vodkas to classic ingredients making a comeback. Not only do you need the liquors, you need something to mix them with. There are also few basic tools that every bartender needs to make sure they can produce a wide range of drinks, from a classic Sazerac to a modern Cable Car. Glassware is an important part of a nicely stocked bar, and the range of glassware you can find in most cocktail books can also be very daunting. So let’s start with…

The Basics

Of course, the defining characteristic of a bar is the liquor, and your bar will be no exception. The first rule of putting together your own home bar is: It is your bar. You can have whichever liquors you like, crafted to whichever cocktails you prefer to make. If you love tequila, you can have five bottles of various styles of tequila handy, to enhance the flavors of everything from a margarita to a Paloma. Most bars have at least one of what are considered the five main liquors that most cocktails are based off of.


This is the liquor most historians say the first cocktail started off in. Rum is an incredibly versatile liquor, working well popular summer drinks like the Mojito to the hammer-you-in-the-head strength of a Devil’s Poison. It ranges from the lighter flavors of Bacardi to the full flavors Kraken. For a home bar, Bacardi or Cruzan are great stock rums for you to have. If you want to add a little spice to you bar’s selection, Captain Morgan or Sailor Jerry are excellent options as well.


The most recent addition to the cocktail world (it did not get big until the 20th century), this is now a staple to almost every bar. Its colorlessness and lack of flavor makes it a great base spirit to use if you are looking to have a lively drink with less liquor burn. It also boasts a wide range of flavors, from sweet cake and whip cream to spicy pepper. For your bar, it is best to stick to the original. Flavored vodkas are great if there is a specific drink for it, like Absolut Peppar in a Bloody Mary, or Stolichnaya Citros in a Cosmopolitan, but not for general cocktail making. Absolut, Grey Goose, and Ohio’s own Buckeye vodkas are all great brands to stock your bar with.


A classic, this is also something that you should have in your home bar. Whiskey has been around for centuries, and one of the earliest bases for cocktails to be made from. Whiskey is a little tricky to add, since there are so many types of whiskey on the market, all with unique characteristics. Do you get a bottle of Canadian whiskey? Irish whiskey? Scotch? Bourbon? The answer is to go with the one that you drink the most. If you are looking for a good base for a wide variety of cocktails, Jack Daniels or Jim Beam are the best bets. They also both mix well in cocktails.


The refreshing gin and tonic

A staple of many classic cocktails, gin has fallen out of favor because of its bold flavor (typically heavy on the juniper, which makes it taste piney). However, this is a great liquor to rediscover because it mixes so well with other liquors. Most cocktails we now love also started their lives as gin cocktails, but gravitated to the less-obvious-you-had-a-three-martini-lunch vodkas. Tanqueray, Bombay, and Beefeater are good basic gins to have as ingredients behind your home bar.


Tequila and gin hang out in roughly the same neighborhood: good liquors with a tarnished reputation. Tequila is needed for many cocktails like the margarita and Tequila Sunrise, and even makes a guest appearance in a Long Island Iced Tea. And, of course, people will take shots of it. Silvers seem to be very popular at the moment, Patron being the brand of choice with 1800 and Jose Cuervo both being good choices for your bar.

Outside of these five liquors, there is one other you may choose to add.


Brandy and cognac are liquors that are fairly out of fashion at the moment, but are useful to have for an assortment of classic cocktails like the Sidecar (I am a huge fan of this cocktail). This category is very much a matter of choice; if you are not much for brandies, there is no real need to keep one behind the bar. Paul Masson and E & J both make a nice brandy to have in stock.

Schnapps, Liqueurs and Other Flavors

There are a few liqueurs you will want to have for you home bar, for a variety of reasons. Triple sec is a popular ingredient in many cocktails, adding either a sweetness to the cocktail or a slight orange flavoring. DeKuyper or Mr. Boston makes a fine triple sec, but you may also be tempted to purchase Cointreau or Grand Marnier as higher end substitutes. In the same vane as triple sec, blue or orange curacao can be added to you bar for an orange flavor. The blue variety is much more common than the orange. Amaretto is another liqueur that you should add to your basic par set up, again being very versatile in multiple cocktails, and just as delicious on the rocks. Disaronno is a good upscale amaretto, but others can be found at a lower cost. Vermouth, both sweet and dry, are good pick ups as well. A bottle will last you a long time, since most recipes that call for either call for a splash, dash, or other very small amount. Most people are familiar with dry, since it is a key component in a classic martini. Sweet vermouth is found in Manhattans, and other whiskey based cocktails with a similar flavor profile. While we are discussing the Manhattan, add a bottle of Angostura bitters to your list of mixers. Usually only a few drops of this potent liquid is needed in any drink, so a bottle of it will last you a good long while.

Flavors for all occasions...

Flavors are something else you are going to want to look for. Schnapps have a smoother, more natural flavor profile for cocktails. Apple, peach, and banana are popular ones. They do not punch out as much as stronger puckers do. Puckers , which still fall into the schnapps category, are usually very sour, and add a stronger flavor to your cocktail, as one might find in an Appletini. Other popular puckers you may consider are Razzamatazz (raspberry), cherry, grape, and watermelon. To round out the flavors you may consider behind the bar, add some white crème de cocoa and white crème de menthe (mint). They add flavor without tinting your cocktails, and some classic cocktails have these flavors to add some bite, like the classic Stinger. DeKuyper and Mr. Boston make a wide selection of flavors for you to try and add to your collection. If there are cocktails you or your friends like that have different schnapps, make sure you have some on hand. Schnapps will usually last quite a while, depending on use.


Very few cocktails are straight liquor. You are going to need something to mix them with. Of course, the common ones to buy are cola, diet cola, lemon and lime soda, ginger ale, tonic, soda water, orange juice, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, and sweet and sour mix. For carbonated drink mixers, most cola companies make smaller sized cans that are perfect for mixing into a cocktail. Using the smaller containers helps to keep the carbonation popping for when you want to make the drink. Opening and closing a two liter may be fine for the non-alcoholic glasses of pop, but you will not go through it as fast behind the bar. Sweet and sour mix can be found with pre-mixes in most groceries and liquor stores. You should also pick up a bottle of grenadine and a bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice, for the added color, flavor, or both. The juices can be bought in the juice aisle. For orange juice, I would suggest the pulp free kind. Having lemons and limes handy would help as well, since some drinks call for fresh squeezes of both of these fruits.

Mixers are things that you do not always have to have stocked behind your bar. Make sure you have the ones you commonly use on hand, but buy the others before a big event. Even sealed or closed, it is possible for fruit juices to go bad and carbonated beverages to go flat.

Basic Tools

Stainless steel tools for all your bar needs

There are plenty of gadgets you can have behind your home bar, but only a few that are truly needed as part of a kit of basics. Jiggers are a must. Recipes for cocktails are put there for a reason, and the jigger will help you make sure your drinks taste the same each time you make them. There are two types: you can get the single glass with measurements on the glass, or a stainless steel one with separate measurements on each side. A wine key is an outstanding all purpose bottle opener, useful in opening everything from wines to bottles of beer. A cocktail shaker will be needed for chilling liquors and mixing ingredients. Speaking of mixing, you should also have a bar spoon handy, since not all drinks need to be (or should be) shaken to blend the ingredients together. Since some of the older style drinks are coming back into vogue, a muddler is also a good tool to have behind the bar. It is used to crush herbs and fruits to release their oils or juices into the drink. They are more commonly plastic or metal, but you still may be able to find a wooden one if you look around. And once you have all you ingredients mixed, muddled, or chilled, a Hawthorne strainer will help to get the cocktail neatly into the glass you are serving it in, while keeping the ice and crushed fruit in the shaker. One other tool that every bar has is a handy book filled with cocktail recipes. It is always nice to have a reference book for cocktails, either to try new things with the ingredients you have on hand or to see which ingredients you need for one you wanted to try. Mr. Boston Platinum Edition is one of the ones I have behind my bar, but swing by a local book store to check them out. The book will also help you determine which garnishes you will need for your drinks, such as olives, oranges, cherries, and a host of assorted others. Many will even tell you how to prepare them.


There isn’t a great deal of glassware you should run out and buy to get your home bar started. A set of martini glasses would be a lovely addition, as well as a set of wine glasses. You can put a wine into any wine glass, so pick the wine glass most appropriate to your favorite type of wine. If you do add brandy or cognac, a set of brandy snifters should also be added to enhance the aromas and flavors of the liquid in the glass. Any other cocktails will go fine into the glassware you have in the house. You are going to be spending plenty of money on the rest of the tools and liquors to set up your bar, so no need to get fancy with the glassware up front. Save that for the next few rounds.

While the list above may look daunting, over a short period of time you can acquire are fairly well stocked home bar. Buying a few pieces at a time will help spread the costs out, as well as give you some time to figure out what you need and what will just turn into something else for you to dust. And of course once your bar is nicely stocked, you get to enjoy experimenting with some cocktails at home you may never have thought to buy while you were out on the town, and share some of that with your friends. Maybe even invite them all over for a fun night in. Cheers!

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avatar About Brian Petro

Brian Petro is a designer, educator, mixologist and bon vivant. His quest for knowledge never stops and he loves to share what he learns with others.