Thursday, March 25, 2021

Cocktail 101 for the Home Bartender

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.

Starting a home bar doesn't have to be fussy or expensive if you begin with some basics and then add to your collection over time. Unlike some guides that feel strongly about spirits brands, appropriate glassware and what type of shaker you use, this is going to be a judgement-free zone. Because making cocktails at home should be fun! Below is a guide for building your home bar including items I think you should buy now, items you don't need immediately but are fun and inexpensive and those things you will add over time. Even a small collection will allow you to make a great many types of cocktails. Once you have the basics, it's fun to add a specialty liquor from time to time. And because those tend to be used more sparingly than the base spirit, they'll last much longer.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


Bar carts are super trendy right now and there are lots of styles and price points to choose from. But if they don't fit into either your budget or your space, no worries. My liquor bottle collection lived on top of a cabinet for many years before I finally treated myself to a bar cart so keep 'em where you've got room for 'em. But if you keep items together it will help to keep track of what you have and make for easy cocktail making access.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


No need to buy one of each unless you want to. Just pick one or two of your favorites and grow your collection from there. Some spirits are better for mixing and some high quality ones are great for sipping. Most liquor stores will be able to guide you about quality if you need help choosing. Ultimately, a well stocked bar will include vodka, bourbon/whiskey, gin, rum, tequila and brandy/cognac.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


Some mixers (vermouth, orange liqueur) should really be part of any home bar collection and others are just fun to try. But a good start would include these liqueurs.

Sweet and dry vermouth. This flavored and fortified wine is an essential ingredient in martinis and Manhattans. Quality matters in vermouth so don't go for the cheapest bottle.

Orange liqueur. You can choose the fancier Cointreau or just an inexpensive Triple Sec but lots of cocktails call for orange liqueur so this one is very handy to have around.

Elderflower liqueur such as St. Germaine. Arguably one of the most delicious mixers that can add flavor and sweetness to many cocktails.

Coffee liqueur such as Kahlua or chocolate liqueur such as Godiva. These rich and sweet mixers are great for creamy, chocolate flavored drinks. Note that you can start with inexpensive versions from  deKuyper's if you don't want to spend a lot of money on name brands.

Amaro is the Italian word for bitter and the term encompasses quite a few different varieties. The best known are probably Campari, Aperol and Fernet. Campari is the most bitter of all the amaros and is a key ingredient in the famous Negroni cocktail. But if you find it too bitter (as I do), Aperol is a delicious, and sweeter, alternative.

Fun Additions Down the Road:

Absinthe - a 100 proof anise flavored liqueur
Amaretto - an almond flavored liqueur that is often sipped straight as an after dinner drink
Benedictine - a unique herbaceous liqueur with notes of honey and licorice
Blue Curacao - a sweet blue liqueur flavored with bitter orange
Buttershots - a sweet, butterscotch and/or caramel flavored liqueur
Chambord - a raspberry flavored liqueur
Chartreuse - a strong and spicy herbal liqueur that comes in green or yellow
Creme de Cassis - a black currant liqueur
Creme de Menthe - a sweet green mint flavored liqueur
Creme de Noyaux - a creamy almond flavored liqueur made with apricot and cherry pits
Creme de Violette - a floral liqueur infused with violet buds
Domaine de Canton - A ginger flavored liqueur
Frangelico - a hazelnut flavored liqueur that can be sipped straight or added to cocktails
Grand Marnier - a bitter orange cognac liqueur
Irish Cream - Everyone's favorite sweet combination of cream, cocoa and Irish whiskey
Limoncello - an Italian lemon liqueur
Luxardo - a maraschino cherry flavored liqueur
Midori - a bright green, melon flavored liqueur
Peach Schnapps - a popular peach flavored liqueur
Sambuca - an anise flavored liqueur

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


Most cocktails require some form of citrus such as lemon, lime or even oranges and grapefruit. Adding a few to your weekly grocery shopping isn't very expensive and you'll always be ready for cocktail making.

Keeping a selection of small juice bottles also comes in handy when creating drinks. Flavors like pineapple, apple, pear, orange and cranberry will greatly enlarge your cocktail repertoire. But if you're only going to keep one kind of juice, go for cranberry since it will be the most versatile.

Simple syrup is the standard cocktail sweetener. It is made with an equal amount of sugar and water, cooked together for a few minutes until the sugar has dissolved. I make a new batch every couple of weeks and always keep it in the fridge. It's great for sweetening ice tea as well since the sugar has already dissolved.

Maraschino cherries are the quintessential cocktail garnish and I always have them on hand. You can buy a jar of the brightly colored ones in the supermarket or splurge on fancy Luxardo cherries. Personally, I kind of love those neon red jarred cherries and I don't want to hear from the cherry police here.

Grenadine is a common bar syrup made with pomegranate juice and known for its sweet and tart taste. It can be found in most supermarkets but is also pretty easy to make at home. Because it's not as commonly used in the drinks I like, I buy the grenadine and make the simple syrup. But you do you.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


You've probably seen the iconic Angostura bitters bottle everywhere with it's bizarrely oversized label. Think of bitters as seasoning for cocktails. These flavored tinctures can greatly enhance the taste of a drink and all home bars should have at least one bottle. There are quite a few different flavors of bitters made by different manufacturers that can be found online or in specialty stores. They can get a bit pricey, though, but also last a long time so worth adding a bottle here and there as your home bar grows. The little crystal bottle with the dasher is called a bitters bottle and there are lots of pretty styles to choose from. You absolutely do not need one but, they don't cost much and are very pretty. The one I own is linked below.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


You will absolutely need a basic shaker. Metal is great for keeping things chilled and it should have a strainer on top. Also on the must have list is a jigger. They come in lots of styles and sizes but make sure you can at least use them to measure out half and whole ounces. Not mandatory but nice to have will be a good mixing glass and a tall bar spoon. Cocktail picks are an inexpensive way to present a garnish such as cherries, citrus wedges or olives in style. 

So, when do you shake and when do you stir? James Bond liked his martinis shaken, not stirred, but most bartenders would disagree. Their easy guideline is that if the drink includes juice, citrus or egg white it needs to be aerated and, therefore, shaken. Stirring introduces much less oxygen so it's more appropriate for drinks that contain only spirits, liqueurs and bitters. Examples would be martinis or Manhattans. That being said, shaking a drink breaks down more ice and dilutes the drink more. So, if you want your drink to be less strong, even if it doesn't meet the bartender's guide for shaking, go ahead and shake it anyway. You'll be doing it the Agent 007 way.


If you're like me, you can spend hours looking at glassware on eBay, Etsy and every thrift shop and flea market stall you find. But you don't need lots of different types of glasses in order to make and serve cocktails at home. Collecting them can be fun and it's useful to know all the different types which is what I've outlined below. But, ultimately, there's no drink that's not fine to serve in martini glasses despite protestations from those who believe only gin martinis belong in them. Buy a set of martini glasses and maybe some rocks glasses and you can leave it like that forever if you want. No guest will refuse your well made cocktail because it's in the "wrong" glass.

Basic Glassware:
Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.

Martini Glass - a conical glass that's wider at the top
Daiquiri/Margarita Glass - a stemmed glass with a curved bowl
Rocks Glass/Old Fashioned - A short tumbler
Champagne Flute - a stemmed glass with a tall, tapered conical shape
Champagne Coupe - a stemmed glass with a broad, shallow bowl
Wine Glass - usually a stemmed goblet
Highball/Collins Glass - A tall, cylindrical glass

Fancypants Glassware:

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.

Glass makers always try to tweak designs so you'll find lots of glasses that look sort of familiar to known styles but with slight changes. They might have fluted edges, crystal cuts, more tapered, more rounded, stemless or just more interesting. If you can't immediately identify the type of glass it is then they tend to get lumped into the category of cocktail glass. These are my favorite types to collect. And what should you serve in a cocktail glass? A cocktail of course. Whatever kind you want.


A lot of people have a lot of opinions about the correct shape of ice cubes. I am not one of those people. Larger chunks of ice melt more slowly and therefore keep your drink cold longer without watering it down. If you like to sip slowly, keep that in mind. Otherwise, use whatever ice you have.

Easy guide for putting together a home bar including spirits, mixers, glassware and tools.


So, do you need to buy all these bottles? Oh, hell no. Buy what you love to drink. Personally, I love bourbon drinks so that's where I spend the most money. And if you don't know what you love yet, that's fine. Most liquor stores sell mini bottles and those are a great way to sample. And if there's something you can't find in a mini, ask a bartender on your next outing if you can buy just a shot of that spirit or liqueur. It's a less expensive way to determine if that taste is to your liking or if that more expensive top shelf gin is worth the money to you. Cheers!



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