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.
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.
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:
Benedictine - a unique herbaceous liqueur with notes of honey and licorice
STOCKING THE FRIDGE
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.
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.
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.
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
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.