Building out an at-home bar can quickly become overwhelming. If you’re not a bartender or someone who knows the ins and outs of cocktails and mixology, the process can go from being a fun task to a chore in minutes. Which liquors should you always have on hand? Are there specific tools that are better than others? What about garnishes—are they really necessary? To answer some of these questions, we spoke with bartenders across the country about their best tips and tricks for an ideal at-home bar setup and some simple mistakes to avoid. The first piece of advice? Steer clear of pre-curated bartending kits. “The quality is almost always lacking,” Marisa Campbell, a bartender in Rogers, Arkansas, says. “It’s better to buy individual pieces you admire and slowly build your collection to your likes and dislikes.”
Campbell’s ideal at-home bar cart is perfect for anyone with enough space for a well-rounded and robust setup. It includes both a mesh strainer and a julep strainer, a bar spoon, a Y-shaped peeler for citrus peels, a channel knife for citrus twists, and a Japanese-style precision jigger because they’re more accurate (and elegant) than others. When choosing a shaker, Campbell prefers a Boston-style shaker with a tin-on-tin design (as opposed to glass-on-tin) because it’s easy to use. “The cobbler-style shaker has the plus of a built-in strainer, but even I have difficulty breaking the seal to get them apart sometimes and there are more pieces to clean,” she explains. Brooks Moyer, a bartender in Brooklyn, New York, agrees that a Boston-style shaker is the way to go. “As long as you know how to seal the tins before shaking, there’s minimal mess, plenty of space in the tins for multiple drinks, and one tin can serve as a little mixing glass for stirred cocktails.” Like Campbell, he also prefers the Japanese-style jiggers for measuring—but notes that any measuring device that’s as specific at 0.5 ounces will also work—and Y-peelers for any citrus peels. “You have good control and are able to get a nice, wide swatch of citrus when peeling.”
Wylie Whiteaker, the manager at a bar in Conway, Arkansas, prefers a bar cart that saves space. “Take up less space with tools and you’ll have more space for that hard-to-pronounce liqueur you love to use,” he says. “For me, that means two things: A bar spoon with a simple muddler attached to it and a cobbler shaker. With these two pieces, you have your jigger, strainer, muddler, shaker, and spoon with the least amount of real estate needed and a maxed-out number of cocktails you can make.”
When it comes to filling your cart, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the different liquor and liqueur options available. Start by choosing the base spirits you love and use frequently—once those are set, you can add specialty ingredients and liqueurs that provide opportunities for versatility and experimentation. “As far as base spirits go, I think every home bar should have a whiskey (I like Elijah Craig Bourbon or a standard rye like Rittenhouse), a gin (I’m a big fan of Dorothy Parker gin from New York Distilling Company), and tequila (or mezcal, my preference),” Moyer says.
As far as base spirits go, I think every home bar should have a whiskey, a gin, and tequila (or mezcal, my preference).
Now that your bar tools and spirits are sorted, it’s time to move into specialty goods like syrups, bitters, sugars, and garnishes. “Angostura bitters, sweet vermouth, Campari, an orange liqueur like Cointreau, and then maybe some simple syrup and club soda are very important if you want a variety of cocktail options,” Moyer says. If you like the idea of having simple syrup or a shrub on hand—syrups being only sweet (made from equal parts sugar and water, and sometimes including fruits or herbs) and shrubs being both sweet and acidic (typically made from sugar, vinegar, fruits, and aromatics)—you can buy pre-made options or create your own. Dominick Walker, a bartender in Queens, New York, says he makes his own simple syrups at home but buys bottled shrubs to make things easier. He also always has three different bitters on hand: aromatic, orange, and chocolate. “You don’t just have to use them in cocktails,” he says. “Add a couple of dashes of Angostura’s aromatic bitters to soda water and it can help an upset stomach or mild nausea.”
If you’re wondering what kind of sugar to keep around, it depends on how you plan to use it. If you only envision yourself using the sugar for an Old Fashioned or a pour of absinthe, sugar cubes will do the trick. “I do recommend keeping different kinds of sugars (cubed or not),” Campbell says. “They can bring more depth and richness to a cocktail versus plain white sugar.” If you’re using the sugar for garnishing the rim of a glass or coating a lemon wedge, then you’ll want to keep a small dish with white or brown sugar nearby.
Luxardo cherries are a must, along with fresh citrus.
When it comes to garnishes, the options are endless. Olives, pickled pearl onions, cherries, citrus peels, dried fruit, and sprigs of herbs like mint, basil, or rosemary are typical. “Luxardo cherries are a must,” Campbell says. “Along with fresh citrus.” These rich, syrup-coated cherries are typically used in classic cocktails like a Manhattan or Whiskey Sour (although they’re also great in non-bourbon cocktails like a Last Word or a Dirty Shirley).
Now that you’ve learned how to build an expertly crafted at-home bar, we’ve pulled together some pro-approved picks to help get the ball rolling. From cocktail books and Italian Luxardo cherries to strainers and citrus peelers, here’s everything you need to start mixing.
1. Stainless Steel Boston Shaker, $40
If you want to try the shaker style Campbell and Moyer recommend, this sleek Boston shaker by Fortessa will do the trick. With two stainless-steel pieces that seal extra tightly to curb spills, double-band details for extra grip, and markers inside for common drink measurements, it has everything you need.
2. Etens Cobbler Shaker, $12.79
If you’re more intrigued by the cobbler-style shaker Whiteaker suggested, this shaker, which boasts an almost five-star rating, over 1,000 reviews, and budget-friendly price point, is an easy choice.
3.Hybrid Cocktail Shaker, $70
Unsure of which style you prefer? This hybrid shaker from Elevated Craft has lid measurements from 0.25 to six ounces, a twist closure with a silicone gasket that helps prevent spills, vacuum-sealed insulation that keeps things cold (aka: you can use less ice), and a built-in strainer.
4. Italian Pewter Julep Strainer, $92
Campbell suggests keeping a julep strainer on hand. This handcrafted pewter version is a one-of-a-kind version of the classic. Want a more budget-friendly option? Try this stainless steel option from Boisson.
5. Cocktail Kingdom Hawthorne Strainer, $18.99
If you’re searching for a Hawthorne strainer, this durable, stainless steel option will fit your favorite shaker seamlessly.
6. Cocktail Kingdone Japanese-style Jigger, $10.95
Separated by one- and two-ounce ends, this Japanese-style precision jigger will help you pour perfect measurements every time.
7. Bar Spoon With Muddler, $9.95
Whiteaker recommends getting a bar spoon with a simple muddler attached to the end and this is just that. With a five-star rating and over 100 reviews, it’s a classic option you can’t go wrong with.
8. Y-Shaped and Channel Knife Set, $100
While Campbell recommends avoiding bar-tool kits, this quartet might be an exception. You’ll have your citrus slicing and peeling needs covered in one swoop. Prefer to buy items one at a time? Try this OXO Y-shaped peeler, Mercer Culinary channel knife, handcrafted bar board, and paring knife.
9. Angostura Aromatic Bitters, $23.95
As Walker said, aromatic bitters go further than just cocktails. Angostura has been making bitters since 1830 and you’ll see their label behind most bars—any bitters from their collection are a reliable choice.
10. Classic Tonic Variety Pack, $54
Want to play around with different kinds of tonic water? Upgrade your next gin and tonic with these celery, rosemary and cucumber, and classic tonics from Six Barrel Soda Co.
11. Ginger Shrub, $18
Don’t worry about making your own shrub—Pink House Alchemy has you covered. The Arkansas-based brand specializes in bitters, syrups, and shrubs that are bound to impress.
12. Hot Pepper Simple Syrup, $25
If you like to add a little kick to your cocktails, try this basil habanero or jalapeño simple syrup from Gris Gris Cocktail Magic.
13. Luxardo Gourmet Cherries, $24.99
As Campbell says, Luxardo cherries are a must. While countless brands bring us delicious syrup-soaked maraschino cherries, we prefer to stick with the original Luxardo.
14. Demerara Sugar Cubes, $8.95
Add one of these small sugar cubes (muddled in or intact at the bottom of the glass) to any cocktail calling for some added sweetness.
15. Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails,
If you’re looking to learn more about different cocktails, liquors, and methods (and have an encyclopedia of recipes), Moyer suggests Death & Company’s cocktail book.
16. Meehan’s Bartender Manual,
This bartender manual from Jim Meehan, the award-winning bartender, journalist, and co-founder of New York City’s Please Don’t Tell speakeasy-style cocktail bar, is a must for anyone looking to do an educational deep-dive into bartending.
Need more inspiration for cocktails? Visit our collection of recipes and cocktail-centric news at Drinks52.
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