If you are just in the planning stages of a wedding, “stock the bar” wedding showers are extremely popular. While the traditional nuptial registry is comprised of salad servers, gravy boats, and formal china place settings, it is perfectly acceptable to include bar tools and, yes, even alcohol on your list.
Many of your guests, particularly the younger ones, would rather give the happy couple a bottle of Remy Martin XO cognac than a tarnishable silver tray that may just sit in the cupboard, never to see the light of day again.
And a stylish bar tool or a fine spirit is an appealing gift option to friends with hopes of being invited over to sip on that iconic, brilliantly distilled, using-only-Champagne-grapes cognac themselves.
Young couples are not the only ones creating well-stocked and beautifully appointed home bars. People at all stages of life are finding that a home bar is a wonderful addition to their furnishings. Without that insidious establishment markup charge, the drinks — even those made from more expensive bottles of alcohol — are much cheaper. Drinking and driving is not a risk because you are already home, and you can open and close the bar any time you want. There is no “last call” in your own living room.
And if you have ever been to a bar when an overbearing, overopinionated, and overserved stranger keeps trying to engage you in a heated discussion about whether or not Ross and Rachel of Friends were really on a break, the appeal of a home bar, where you get to control both the company and the conversation, becomes enormously enticing.
Once you have made the decision to enhance your current taproom situation, you may be tempted to do it all in a single weekend. But try to start small. This will give you a chance to figure out what you really enjoy and then build from there.
The first bottle you add to your collection should be your favorite spirit and not something that you think will make you look cool to your friends. Likewise, if you hate whiskey, then starting with a bottle of Lagavulin 16 — a very upscale single malt Scotch that costs about $90 per bottle — just because that guy on Parks and Recreation drank it is not a good idea. Whiskey loving guests might be grateful, but when you want to relax with your own drink, you will be out of luck. And you’re married now. You are going to need a drink.
Instead, think of your favorite cocktail, buy the alcohol and mixes needed to make that drink, serve it in nice glasses, add a garnish or two and some ice. For example, if tequila makes your clothes fall off, then your very first home bar could be as simple as:
• 1 bar tray, or you could use the silver tray that Aunt Helen got you instead of the Don Julio 70 Cristalino Tequila you really wanted
• 1 bottle of silver or resposado tequila for cocktails
• 1 bottle of Añejo Tequila for sipping
• 1 bottle of Triple Sec or Cointreau for cocktails
• 1 bottle of simple syrup
• 6 to 8 margarita glasses, which have a curved bowl on top, smaller bowl in the middle, stem on the bottom, if you are planning to start only with margaritas and daiquiris
• Or 6 to 8 coupe glasses, which are similar to margarita glasses but without that smaller bowl in the middle, if you think you might be branching out to other cocktails soon
• 6 to 8 stemless wine glasses for tequila sipping or if you or your guests would prefer wine or soda
• Limes for juicing and for garnish
• Ice bucket (optional)
Arrange the tequilas and the Cointreau on the tray, add some glasses and the ice bucket if they fit, store the simple syrup and the limes in the refrigerator, make sure you have a robe handy (tequila … clothes … just saying) and — Voila! — your very first home bar!
You can expand from there.
Trays, Bar Carts, and
A bar tray is an easy starter and can be displayed anywhere — on top of a cabinet, on a kitchen counter, or even on a short bookcase — but when that no longer fits your needs, you’ll need something a little larger.
Bar carts, elegant and efficient, are mobile and can easily be pushed out of the way, making them perfect for small spaces. Remember to keep your cart neat and avoid over piling with glasses and bottles. Not only will it distract from the grace and polish of this Victorian era offshoot, it will also make wheeling it precarious, especially after sipping a cocktail or two. Show off your best bottles and keep it stocked with the ingredients for just a couple of your favorite cocktails.
If you have more room, you might consider investing in a bar cabinet — a stationary piece of furniture in which to store wine, cocktail ingredients, mixers, and tools. Some have built-in wine and stemware racks, shelves, and organized storage space. You can keep the bottom doors closed and style the top in a way similar to your bar tray.
Bar cabinets come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so consider both your home space and your housekeeping skills. Messy people should avoid any sort of storage space built with glass doors.
Once you have a place to store the elements of your home bar, start collecting the bottles that are the building blocks for most popular drinks. You will need:
Tequila – You’ll want two bottles, a silver or resposado for mixing cocktails, such as margaritas, tequila sunrises, and palomas, and a pricier version — perhaps that Añejo on your wedding registry — for you or guests who enjoy a good sipping tequila.
Rum – Again, you’ll need two versions. Light rums tend to be less expensive and are perfect for making mojitos, piña coladas, and daiquiris. Save the pricier, darker rums for sipping or for making drinks that need a smokier, deeper, more rum-forward flavor, such as a dark and stormy or a hot buttered rum.
Gin – Any reasonably priced London dry gin will do nicely and can be used in such classics as martinis, gin and tonics, and gimlets. If you or your guests are really into the “ginny-time” feeling, add a bottle of Old Tom Gin, which is slightly sweeter and works wonderfully for fruitier drinks such as a Gin Daisy or Southside Fizz.
Vodka – Used in a wide range of cocktails, this is a must for every home bar. If it will be mixed primarily in tall or multi-ingredient cocktails, then a moderately priced vodka is perfect. For drinks that have more vodka than mixer, such as a vodka martini or a cosmopolitan, a higher priced vodka is suggested.
Whiskey – Again, this is in the “preferably two bottles” category. Because it tends to be a little sweeter than other types of whiskey and is smoother than rye whiskey, bourbon is a good choice for cocktails, like an old fashioned or a bourbon sidecar. For whiskey served neat, invest in a good bottle of Scotch.
Brandy – Cognac is the most famous of the brandy category and should absolutely be included in your collection. Expensive bottles should be saved for sipping, while an additional cheaper version is wonderful for cocktails such as a Brandy Alexander or a milk punch.
Liqueurs – Many classic cocktails require a liqueur either as the sole alcoholic ingredient or mixed with one of the above liquors, so you’ll want to be prepared. These include:
• Coffee Liqueur – such as Kahlúa or Tia Maria Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur
• Orange Liqueur – Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Triple Sec are examples
• Vermouth – both dry and sweet
• Almond Flavored –Amaretto works well
• Irish Cream – Bailey’s is the most well-known, but there are other brands, such as Saint Brendan’s and Five Farms
If you have a favorite cocktail that includes a lesser used liqueur, perhaps Crème de Cocao or St. Germaine Elderflower, then by all means, purchase that as well.
Non-Alcoholic Mixers and Sodas
For specialty cocktails, the most popular mixers include simple syrup, soda, tonic water, fruit juices — such as cranberry, lime, orange, and tomato — tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, bitters, grenadine, and milk or cream.
You’ll want to keep a variety of nonalcoholic drinks on hand as well, such as Coke or La Croix, because you might have guests who do not want an alcoholic beverage. Please remember that it is never okay to ask why they are not imbibing or to continue to offer them a spiked drink once they have turned one down. Pour them a soda, enjoy your own drink, and keep the conversation, not the alcohol, flowing. If they wanted you to know the reason, they would have already told you.
If you want your cocktails to look amazing and really “wow” your guests, garnishes are a must. Olives, fruit wedges, and maraschino cherries are standards, but you may also need salt, sugar, mint, or whipped cream. Check your favorite recipes for suggestions.
You’ll need grown-up glasses for grown-up drinks, so invest in in at least four each of the following:
• 5.5-ounce coupe glasses – A very versatile glass that can be used for many different cocktails, especially those that are strong, stirred, or shaken, such as sidecars and cosmopolitans. Coupes have actually taken the place of the traditional cocktail glass for martinis as well because they leave a little more room for a garnish, and the drink doesn’t slosh as easily as it does in more traditional cocktail glasses.
• 7-ounce single rocks glasses – These are awesome for drinks served neat or for those on the strong side, like a whiskey sour or White Russian.
• 12 to 14-ounce double rocks glasses – Also known as a double old-fashioned, these are not meant to hold 14 ounces of alcohol but rather to fill almost completely with ice and then add the cocktail ingredients on top.
• 11-ounce highball glasses – Good for taller drinks, where presentation and garnishes are particularly important, such as mojitos, Bloody Marys, and Cape Cods.
You might purchase other fancy glasses, such as the cute little Nick and Nora glasses, shot glasses, or traditional margarita glasses, but most cocktails will look lovely in any of the four listed above.
Tools of the Trade
Not everything comes ready to pour into a glass. In order to construct the perfect cocktail, get some basic bar tools.
Jigger – A measuring cup that resembles a very small hour glass (more like a minute glass) that allows you to pour a precise amount of liquid ingredients into each cocktail and eliminates the classic “He got more vodka than I did!” squabbles.
Shaker – For drinks that require shaking
Strainer – For drinks that require straining
Muddler – For drinks that require some sort of muddled fruit or herb
Long bar spoons – These can be used to mix evenly all of your drinks, whether they are served in a single rocks glass or a tall and skinny highball glass. And, if you are making really fancy, stacked drinks, they are excellent for helping to create those impressive layers.
Juicer – If you are just making a single margarita, you can squeeze that lime by hand. But 10 margaritas? Invest in an electric juicer.
Knives and peelers – You’ll be cutting fruit and making curly peel garnishes, so both of these tools are necessary.
Cutting board – All that cutting, peeling, and juicing needs to take place somewhere, and a cutting board is the perfect place.
Ice bucket and ice – The bucket isn’t strictly necessary, but getting ice for your guests out of an attractive ice bucket looks a bit more refined than fishing out ice from that bag you just bought at the 7-Eleven. Ice can also be made at home, and all sorts of pretty ice molds will add a touch of whimsy to all of your cocktails (see page 24).
Corkscrews and bottle openers – Gone are the days when all of your drinks came with twist-off tops.
Cocktail Recipe Book
Every single item in your bar will be for naught if you don’t know how to make the cocktail. Suppose a friend comes over and requests a Ramos Gin Fizz. First of all, you need a new friend because shaking that drink until it is the right consistency will wear out your shaking arm. And secondly, what the heck is a Ramos Gin Fizz? You need a cocktail book to provide you with the answer.
Start with an easy to understand one, like The Home Bartender, which contains all the classics, as well as plenty of new bartender tips. The Drunken Botanist is also a great resource, and The Craft of the Cocktail, with more than 500 recipes, is marketed specifically to at-home bartenders. Literally thousands of others are available, so find the one that sparks your interest and serves your needs.
Before having guests over, make a few favorite cocktails for yourself and forgiving family members. Once perfected, you can look anyone straight in the eye and say, “Can I interest you in a ‘The Juice is Loose’ cocktail?” I would certainly say yes to that, even if I didn’t know what was in it, and your position as the coolest home bartender ever will be sealed.
Because the best way to finish the line, “A man walks into a bar and says … ,” is with the ending, “Honey, I’m home.”