The Beginner's Guide to Setting Up a Bar at Home
A proper home bar is one thing every grown-up home should have — even if you don’t drink, you should always have something on-hand to offer your guests. Whether you’re just beginning to make cocktails and appreciate spirits, or you’ve been mixing for years, this guide will help you set up a home bar that not only has all the essential tools you need, but is also beautiful and inspires you to try new things.
First, we’re guiding you through where and how actually arrange your bar, and then we’ll show you all the must-have essentials, including specific bitters, bar tools, must-read cocktail books, spirits, glassware, mixers, and garnishes. Whether you have room for a single tray or a full built-in wet bar, you’ll find that setting one up isn't as daunting as it may seem.
There’s no denying that bar carts are one of the hottest furnishings around — we blame Don Draper for making them trendy again. If you have the space for it, bar carts make a great dedicated area for mixing a drink, and they’re welcoming, too, so guests can feel comfortable walking up and making their own.
If your bar cart is open, be mindful of organizing it neatly. You may even want to store your less frequently used items in a pantry, so it doesn’t look too cluttered or messy.
Transform any console table, sideboard, or credenza into a bar by simply topping it with a tray! Corral your bottles, decanters, bitters, and glasses on your tray, and store your essential bar tools in a nearby drawer or in a vessel.
Much like a console table, the surface of any bookcase or bookshelf can easily be transformed into a bar. You can use a tray to keep it organized, or simply arrange it by category, with spirits on one shelf, glasses on another, and so on.
Many houses have built in dry bars (meaning they don’t have a sink) that are designed with mixology in mind, with shelves for bottles of liquors and glassware and drawers for bar tools. If you have one, store your less frequently used spirits and glassware in the cabinets below, and keep your go-to bottles accessible.
Have a bona fide wet bar (bar with a sink) in your home? Then, you have no excuse not to sharpen your mixology skills! In addition to all the other bar essentials you’ll need (keep scrolling for those!), you should also keep a bar towel handy and a small trash can under the sink, in case you’re washing glasses or using fresh ingredients.
Bitters are a type of high-proof alcohol infused with herbs, roots, and spices that’s used in dashes as a botanical additive to drinks. A cocktail renaissance has swept the nation, and gone are the days when one lonely bitters bottle held court behind the bar. These days, you can find everything from rhubarb bitters to coffee bitters in your local liquor store.
While we certainly suggest experimenting with these unique flavors, we highly recommend stocking your bar with three specific types which are commonly used in classic cocktails. Keep scrolling to learn more about them.
Angostura Angostura Aromatic Cocktail Bitters ($12)
Angostura Bitters has been the most well-known and popular bitters and has been since it was developed in 1824. This secret blend of tropical herbs and plants is used in classic drinks like the Old Fashioned, the Champagne Cocktail, the Manhattan, the Pimm’s Cup, and the Rob Roy.
Peychaud's Peychaud's Aromatic Cocktail Bitters ($9)
Created in New Orleans in 1793, Peychaud’s Bitters is a gentian-root-based bitters that is similar to Angostura, with a lighter body, a more floral aroma, and a bit sweeter taste. It is an important component of the classic Sazerac Cocktail, and it's used in other classic drinks like the Vieux Carré and the Horse’s Neck.
Regan's Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6 ($8)
The third in this trifecta of must-have bitters, Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, is a tasty blend of orange zest, cardamom, coriander, and a few other herbs and roots. Orange bitters are a staple in many cocktails, like the Martini, the Alaska, and the Scoff-Law,and you’ll see this Regan’s in most artisan cocktail bars.
As you develop your mixology skills, and become more and more interested in making cocktails, you may find yourself buying gadgets like a soda siphon for making soda water and ginger beer at home, or, if you're really adventurous, a vacuum sealer for making oleo saccharum (used in punch). But the beginner bartender needs only a few essential bar tools to develop his or herskills. Read on below for our recommended tools.
Cocktail Kingdom Japanese-Style 1 oz/2oz. Gold Jigger ($17)
Use a jigger to measure the volume of spirits, syrups, and juices you pour into your cocktail shaker or mixing tin. "A jigger" is equivalent to a shot, or 1.5 fl oz, but the jigger tool comes in other sizes and may not actually measure a fluid jigger. This one, for example, measures 1 oz. on one side and 2 oz. on the other.
Williams-Sonoma Insulated Cocktail Shaker ($)
A cocktail shaker is essential to every home bar. For cocktails that require shaking, you'll generally add your non-alcoholic ingredients and any herbs, produce, or syrups that need to be added or muddled. Then you'll top with ice and your liquor, and shake until there's condensation on the outside of the shaker. You can also use the base of the shaker as a mixing tin for any drinks that only require stirring.
Cocktail Kingdom Premium Julep Strainer ($12)
A julep strainer is shaped like a bowl with a handle and is traditionally used when straining a cocktail from a mixing glass. (If you don't have a mixing glass, you can use any household beer pint glass.) The julep strainer got its name because it was originally used to serve mint juleps; before the straw came into popularity, it would allow a drinker to sip the drink without getting a faceful of mint and crushed ice.
OXO Steel Cocktail Strainer ($7)
The Hawthorne strainer, as this is called, features a disc or "rim" with two stabilizing prongs, and on its underside is a metal coil spring that fits snuggly into a mixing tin, filtering the ice out. Traditionally, this is used with a mixing tin, rather than a glass.
Pug! Handmade Cherry Muddler ($40)
A muddler is a wooden pestle-like tool with a long handle that's use to mash — or "muddle" — fruits, herbs, or spices into the bottom of a glass to release their flavor. You'll often muddle herbs and fruits together with simple syrups and citrus juices to combine the flavors together.
Jerry Thomas Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks ($12)
Written in 1862, Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide is arguably the most famous bartending and cocktail book of all time, and it was the first real cocktail book published in the U.S. It is the first written record of many classic cocktail varieties like the fizz, the flip, the sour, the julep, and more. While its language and metrics may feel outdated, it remains highly relevant today, and it's essential read for anyone to learn the basics and history of cocktails.
David Wondrich Imbibe! ($18)
Co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, historian David Wondrich is one of the greatest cocktail writers around today. In this tribute to the aforementioned cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas, Wondrich spotlights 100 classic cocktails from Bartender's Guide, contemporized with current equivalents of old-time tools, ingredients, and measurements, making it more accessible and inuitive for today's budding mixologists. He also introduces 16 new recipes inspired by the early days of the cocktail from today's top mixologists. It is the first cocktail book ever to win a James Beard award, and needless to say, a must read.
Harry Craddock The Savoy Cocktail Book ($13)
The American Bar in London's Savoy Hotel was the birthplace of some of the world's most famous cocktails, and the Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, was written by its legendary barman Harry Craddock. Featuring 750 of Craddock's most popular recipes — from the dry martini to flips to smashes — this book is a true record of cocktail history (and of London during the art deco era), and it continues to influence cocktail menus across the world to this day.
Amy Stewart The Drunken Botanist ($15)
As important as knowing what makes up a good drink is knowing what produces a good spirit. Author and botanist Amy Stewart has enlightened us all about the plants that are used to create the world's greatest spirits, from agave to walnuts, with her revolutionary book The Drunken Botanist, which was released last year. After nailing a few great cocktails, anyone who has developed an interest in drinks should dive into this book: it will open up a world of spirits.
The first rule of stocking your bar is to choose spirits you actually enjoy. This is the only way to develop a knack for making and appreciating cocktails. Once you nail a few favorite cocktails, your interest and palate for other spirits is bound to expand — we guarantee it.
The second rule is don't do it all at once. Liquor is expensive, so start small. There's no need to spend your car payment at BevMo in one afternoon. All you need is one great cocktail to impress your guests, and if you learn to craft a few things well, others will take notice and appreciate that. Liqueurs, mixers, apéritifs, and digestifs in particular are things you will and should accumulate over time.
That said, the most classic and popular drinks include a handful of spirits. So, we recommend these basics if you want to begin with a few:
- Bourbon Whiskey
- Scotch Whisky
- White Rum
- Dark Rum
Vodka may be notably absent from this list to you. Designed to taste like nothing, it is devoid of both aroma and flavor, and thus, it isn't a spirit that will help a beginner learn the craft of the cocktail. While it has no place on our bar, we occasionally keep it in the freezer if we're expecting guests who prefer it — or for when we want to blend up a boozy frozen fruit cocktail that tastes like, well, fruit.
Keep scrolling for our most recommended spirts — as well as essential glassware, mixers, and garnishes.
Williams-Sonoma Edward Double Old-Fashioned Glasses ($80 for 4)
Every bar should have a short tumbler, like an Old-Fashioned Glass, a rocks glass, or a lowball glass. These are ideal for serving whisky on the rocks and mixed drinks that are "built" in the glass (i.e. not made in a shaker), such as an Old Fashioned, a negroni, a mint julep, or a Sazerac.
Williams-Sonoma Edward Highball Glasses ($80 for 4)
One thing to note when you're shopping is the size of the glasses you're eyeing. Some go up to as large as 20 oz., but we recommend between 10 and 16 oz. for a highball. If you're making a classic cocktail, such as a negroni which measures just 3 fluid oz., you'll find that the portions are small. A smaller cocktail ensures that the drink stays cold while you drink it. As the aforementioned legendary barman Harry Craddock famously put it, "The way to drink a cocktail is quickly, while it’s still laughing at you." Needless to say, it would be unfitting to use an oversize glass with a small portion.
Schott Zwiesel Coupe Cocktail Glasses ($78 for 6)
The cocktail glass, stem glass, or coupe is an alternative to a martini glass that suits more varieties of cocktails — and doesn't spill as easily! Use this type of glass for any cocktail that has been shaken or stirred but doesn't have ice, such as a martini, a Manhattan, a Southside, a sidecar, or a daiquiri. The stem of the glass keeps your hands away from the bowl of the glass, so they don't warm the glass.
Stock up on mixers that you enjoy. As you try to make new drinks, your collection will expand naturally, so there's no need to do it all in one day.
These are the mixers we generally have on hand:
- Soda water (we actually use a soda siphon to make it at home)
- Ginger beer
- Fresh juice, such as orange or grapefruit
Depending on which cocktails you prefer, you may also want to stock cans of cola, tonic water, Sprite, tomato juice, or pineapple juice. The best cocktails are made with fresh ingredients, so try making drinks with juices you're drinking otherwise. We also recommend using Tomr's Tonic, a tonic syrup, instead of the sticky sweet stuff sold in grocery stores.
We always have lemons and limes in the kitchen, as they're essential to many great and favorite recipes. Sugar cubes, or fine white sugar, is also a must for every home bar. It's also great to have a basil plant and a mint plant in the house, so you can make herbal cocktails at the ready. Other herbs like sage and thyme are also wonderful garnishes. If you like martinis or Bloody Marys, cocktail olives, onions, horseradish, salt, pepper, and hot sauce can also be essential.
Once you've stocked bar, shake or stir up some of our favorite cocktail recipes.