Having an elegant and well-stocked bar in your home is a level up. It says to the world, “Yes, I do have it together.” (Whether or not you actually have it together is your secret, but your bar won’t be the one to spill it!) Do it right, and you’ll add a touch of class to your space, in addition to introducing a new decor element. This guide will walk through how to get started, what you’ll need, and some helpful tips for having a dedicated bar in a smaller space.
Classic cocktails all start with a base spirit and build on that by adding an acidic ingredient, a sweet ingredient, and a mixer. It’s important to have these foundation spirits as staples in your bar, but they don’t always need to be top-shelf. If you prefer gin but can’t stand rum, stock up on the good gin for your fave gin cocktails like a perfect homemade gin and tonic, and have a passable rum on hand for your Old Fashioned-loving guests who may want to have a few rum cocktails. Here’s a checklist for bar must-haves:
These three don’t fall in the base spirits list (there are some exceptions, like a Negroni or a Purple Rain Cocktail) but are still critical to creating a wide selection of cocktails.
- Red vermouth
- White vermouth
Your wine selection will vary greatly depending on whether or not you’re a wine person yourself. If you are, the options are endless, and you likely have an excellent stock already. However, it’s always a good practice to ask your guests what varietal they prefer in case you have a healthy selection of cab sauv and nary a sauv blanc in sight, it would also be important to learn how to properly store and preserve wine at home, to make sure your wine stock is always in good shape. If you’re not a vinophile, here’s the rundown on what you should have on hand to offer your wine-enthusiast guests.
- Red wine
- White wine
- Sparkling wine
Now we’re getting to the exciting stuff. A far cry from the days when a “mixer” meant something along the lines of Pepsi or Gatorade to cut the taste of whatever college-style spirit had been procured; cocktail mixers are the life of the party.
Many classic cocktails are different ratios of the same ingredients or slight variations on a surprisingly small amount of ingredients. That’s why stocking up your bar with these staples will let you experiment and try mixing different drinks without needing specialty ingredients that you’ll use once or twice a year and have to find space to store them the rest of the time.
Syrups – Syrups are how you’ll add sweetness, flavor, and spice up your cocktails. It’s best to use a cylindrical squeeze bottle with a narrow, pointed cap. These bottles will help you control the amount you’re pouring and keep things tidy. The most basic is simple syrup, and you can buy this or make it at home. From there, the variations are endless – make your own flavored syrups like orange, ginger, or rose, or find ones in stores that you love. Many craft distilleries make syrups as well – find your faves!
Other staples aside from the simple syrup family are classics like grenadine and orgeat (almond syrup), or if you want to make some spritz, you can add some Aperol to your selection.
Bitters – If you’re not a mixologist per se, this category of mixers might seem less complex or significant than it is. Bitters have a long and storied past, invented primarily as medication and later adopted as a cocktail additive. The reason bitters are used and generally used quite sparingly is that cocktails mainly involve sweet and sour flavors. Adding bitters plays on another one of the taste elements and makes the flavor profile more well-rounded and complex.
There are many more options than the standard yellow-capped bitters most of us would recognize. Bitters are made using herbs and plants to create their distinct qualities, but like other botanical spirits like gin, there are many options to create unique and distinctive flavors. Similar to syrups, many craft distilleries produce small-batch bitters and can give you a great recommendation on how to use them.
Modifiers – A modifier is something that is usually added to your drink that isn’t a base spirit or syrup. This can cover many items, from egg white to cream, to a dash of scotch to “burn” a martini.
Garnishes – Garnishes can make the cocktail! There’s no need to go overboard on your basic garnish lineup, although if you do want to get fancy, the options are endless. Here are the basics to get you started:
- Lemon wedges
- Lime wedges
- Wide-cut orange zest (this is often used to prime a glass as well as for the garnish)
- Brandied cherries (not a maraschino cherry, these little beauties are super easy to make at home and a classy garnish for drinks like a Manhattan)
Having the proper glassware is vital to the experience. Even a beautifully mixed gin martini doesn’t taste quite right in a pint glass! Your glassware doesn’t have to be crazy expensive, many stores like HomeSense carry a wide selection of affordable glassware, so while the list might seem long, you won’t need to break the bank on breakables.
- Glass tumblers (also called rocks glasses)
- Tall glasses (also called Collins glasses)
- Shot glasses
- Wine glasses (red and white, stemless if you need to save space)
- Champagne flutes
- Martini glasses (stemless if you need to save space)
Let’s talk bar tools! Much of what’s on this list can be substituted for other kitchen items when you’re getting started, but once you work with the real deal, there will be no going back. If you’ve been muddling with a spoon or fork, just wait until you use a muddler. Game. Changer.
- Ice bag
- Bar spoon
- Cocktail shaker
- Ice cube trays
Best Places to Set Up Your Bar in a Tight Space
The best part of the bar cart if you have limited space is that it’s portable. Second, it’s classy and can be a fun design piece. Wheel it out when you need it, and tuck it safely away when you don’t. Bonus points in the summer because it is easy to move outside with you. This is a perfect option if you’re renting and don’t want to put anything on the walls.
If you can designate some of your countertop space for a bar area, there are a few things you can do to maximize that space. Get a tray that fits the size you can allot to your bar. This helps show that it’s an intentional space and not just a cluttered area of your counter and makes cleaning easier. Then, buy glass racks and hang them under the cabinets to store stemmed glassware. Consider a tiered corner rack for storing smaller bottles, bar tools, etc.
If you have the space for it, a console table is an excellent option for smaller areas. Often also called a sofa table or hallway table, they are thinner and come with and without cabinet space underneath. A glass top console table will make clean up easier and less prone to damage from liquids than wood or veneer.
The cousin of the bar cart, a bar tray is great if you need to dismantle your bar at the end of each use. Whereas a bar cart is great because it can be moved to another area of your home, that’s still not overly helpful if you don’t have an area to put it. A bar tray might be your best bet in this case, as even an oversized tray can be tucked away in the back of a closet or under a bed, and the bottle and bar tools put away in drawers and cabinets.
If you’re really committed, the built-in bar is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be gigantic – think about if your home has any oddly-placed nooks or alcoves that don’t see much use. These might be perfect places for a built-in bar! Bonus points if you put a sink in. (Pro tip – it doesn’t even have to be connected to plumbing, it’s just nice to have a place to put your ice, and it can drain into a bucket underneath).
Home Bar Do’s and Don’ts
Do – start slow by building your repertoire of the basics first.
Do – Invest in the full lineup of glassware. Not only is it for esthetics, but glassware is also functional and plays a part in how your drink will taste. For example, a Whiskey Sour should be served in a coup and held by the stem, so the heat from your hand doesn’t warm the drink.
Don’t – get crazy with a lot of exotic mixes and spirits right off the bat. You’ll end up with an expensive array of impractical ingredients that aren’t often used.
A dedicated bar space in your home will add a fun new element that feels upscale and classy. What’s not to love about that? Regardless of if you’re working with a tiny patch of countertop, or a built-in, you’ll be doing something to elevate your space and adding an intentional new feature to your home, and that’s always fun!