The concept of a home bar started in the 1940s America, where people were living sociable lifestyles and neighbours popping in for a quick tipple was the norm. All the way through to the 60s many liked to entertain guests at home and they had proper bar tops and trolleys, so they could easily fix a Martini, Gin Rickey or Sidecar. Over time this habit has faded away, but due to many factors people are hosting more often in their homes again. As we grow older we don’t need to hit the bar scene so frequently.
Having a home bar doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a built-in bar and all the bells and whistles. With a some basic equipment, glassware and essential bottles you will be able to make simple yet delicious cocktails at home without too much hassle. Start off small, think what you like to drink and get the ingredients you will need. When buying spirits, you don’t have to go for the most expensive, there are enough brands available to fit any budget. Remember, a huge price tag doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality.
A home bar is something you will keep building over time – you might pick up an odd bottle at an airport, or maybe you’ll get a few as gifts when friends and family realise your interest in serving tasty drinks.
If you are planning on making some cocktails, getting a few simple pieces of equipment will help the process. Obviously, if you are only enjoying your spirits neat or on the rocks you don’t have to worry about the tools that much.
I recommend having at least this basic bar equipment:
Bar spoon (makes stirring Martinis easier)
Shaker (you can also use the glass part of the shaker as a mixing glass)
Jigger (always measure your spirits)
Muddler (for those fresh Mojitos…)
Strainer (a must if you are shaking cocktails)
For more on cocktail making and essential equipment, check my previous article Beginner’s Guide to Making Cocktails at Home.
It is nice to have a few special cocktail glasses for that extra wow factor when serving drinks at home. Again, you should consider what style of drinks you are serving. Do you need highballs, tumblers, Martini glasses or coupes? Or, if you are glassware crazy like me, you probably want to get them all (and more…). If you are a whisky drinker, you might own at least one Glencairn whisky glass, but there is nothing wrong with serving neat spirits from a rocks glass.
It is important you store all the liquor in a cool place away from direct sunlight. You can store it in a cupboard or a specific bar cabinet, but if you have one of those stunning drinks trolleys, I recommend you only stock it up when you actually have guests, to avoid the bottles being exposed to heat and light. Liquor will keep for a long time when stored properly. Vodka and gin are great served from the freezer. Unfortunately, we don’t often have large enough freezers…
Liqueurs are lower in ABV and therefore will start losing flavour after opening. To extend their life you can store these in the fridge together with vermouth.
Below some recommendations for spirits:
There are hundreds of gins on the market and over 700 gin-based cocktail recipes, so it can be difficult to choose the right gin. Get different flavour profiles to play around with in cocktails or G&Ts. My favourite pink gin remains Pinkster Gin, Tarquin’s Seadog makes a tasty Martinez (or a Negroni) and Hayman’s London Dry is perfect for those who love a classic G&T.
Vodka served neat and ice cold is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a versatile spirit when used in cocktails. Quality is everything. My current favourites are Arbikie Haar and Black Cow, but there are many others that can be as good. Black Cow makes a helluva Caipiroska!
It’s nice to be able to offer a dram for your guests, but if you aren’t a whisky drinker, it is OK not to include any in your bar. However, there are some nice entry-level whiskies that won’t break the bank and are easy to sip. On the other hand, if whisky is your go-to drink, then you might want to invest in something different. Also, whisky doesn’t mean it has to be scotch. You could get a nice bottle of Japanese or Irish whiskey, for example. Try Midleton Method and Madness Single Pot Still if you fancy Irish, Bunnahabhain’s Stiùireadair (good luck pronouncing that, btw!) is excellent value for money, or if you like it peaty, Bruichladdich Octomore might be the one for you.
Bourbon is a must if you like an Old Fashioned, Manhattan or other classic whisky cocktails. I used to drink a lot of bourbon when I was younger, but now I only really enjoy it in cocktails. Bulleit, for example, works well in cocktails.
If you like tequila, I’d get Añejo for sipping and reposado or blanco for cocktails. Make sure it is always 100% blue agave and none of that cheap mixto stuff. Herencia de Plata Añejo is smooth for sipping, and Ocho Reposado or Blanco is perfect for mixing.
White rum is fine for cocktails such as daiquiri and mojito, but get the good dark stuff if you are serving it on the rocks. Try Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros for neat serves, or Ron Cubay 3-year-old Carta Blanca for cocktails. Neither will break the bank.
Dry vermouth is a must for Martini lovers, and you need sweet for Negronis.
A base ingredient in many cocktails, such as Margarita and Sidecar.
Bitters can include anything from Italian bitter liqueurs, such as Campari, Aperol or other bright aperitivo liqueurs. I would also consider buying a bottle of cocktail bitters such as Angostura Aromatic Bitters. This is a basic one, but you can also choose different flavours.
I recommend you consider what style of cocktails you are likely to make and base any extras on that. Sometimes I like to serve a digestive after dinner – this might be a limoncello or mastiha (both served from the fridge).
Don’t forget to stock up on a few mixers, such as premium tonic and soda water. For fruit juices and sugar syrups, you can easily make your own when needed. I use a Mexican elbow for a quick squeeze of lime or lemon.
Ice! Make sure you always have some ice in the freezer. I recommend getting moulds for large round cubes as well, as these will look nice in a Negroni, for example. If you are going for the full bhuna you could get an ice bucket for the bar cart.
If you are planning on serving white wine or prosecco, you should consider getting a wine cooler, especially if you don’t want to be running back and forth to the fridge to top up. I’m using a simple wrap-around cooler, which I keep in the freezer for when one is needed.
A cocktail recipe book might come in handy when looking for inspiration.
We have a built-in bar cabinet in our apartment, but I am still dreaming of a bar cart for those special occasions. Here are some of my favourite finds from Cox & Cox, but I also like to keep an eye out for special finds at any vintage furniture markets.
What is in your home bar? What kind of drinks do you like to serve?
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