Stocking a home bar requires a substantial financial investment, but it can also save money. One of the luxuries of a home bar is that it's a collection, not a business. This means you don't have to worry about tipping bartenders, paying outrageous markups on liquor or getting in a fight with the angry-looking biker in the corner (unless, of course, that angry-looking biker is a friend of yours and will be coming over a lot). You don't even have to worry about getting home after having a few rounds.
Whether you've got a modest drinks cabinet or an elaborate home bar with beer on tap, a flat-screen TV, custom stools, a dartboard and minifridge, you're ready to get your libation on. But with all the cocktail requests your guests could make, where do you start when it comes to stocking your bar? We'll take a look at the top 10 most essential items for the perfect home bar so you're prepared for New Year's Eve, happy hour or your next dinner party.
The comedian Henny Youngman once said, "My grandmother is over 80 and still doesn't need glasses. Drinks right out of the bottle." Youngman had the right spirit, but unless your irrepressible grandmothers are the only people to whom you serve drinks, you're going to need some glassware. An assortment of glasses is essential to an established home bar, and a good variety of styles ensures that you can serve an assortment of drinks.
Since the shape, size and volume of the glass can affect the taste of the beverage, every type of drink deserves its own glass. Typically, there are snifters for brandy, shot glasses for shots, martini glasses for martinis, wine glasses for wine and flutes for champagne. This doesn't mean that you have to have the complete collection; rather, your glasses should reflect your personal style and the offerings of your home bar. For instance, pounders and pint glasses are a must if you keep microbrews on tap. If you plan to serve the hard stuff, you'll need rocks and bucket glasses. Thinking of going for a sleek, retro kind of bar? Keep highball and lowball glasses on hand. And if you're the type to tiki, it never hurts to have a few hurricane glasses around to whip up a mai tai or a Singapore sling.
Like your glassware, the mixers you'll want to have on hand can vary according to the style of drinks you intend to make. They're also an alternative for guests who prefer nonalcoholic drinks. While there are some staples to keep in your drinks cabinet, there's no shame in pretending you're fresh out of clam juice when someone asks for a Bloody Caesar.
Instead of stocking the more outlandish ingredients, keep an assortment of standard mixers that work as a base for popular cocktails. Juices are one set -- most bars have a standard set of four or five in the well and a ready supply of orange, cranberry and tomato juices. Throw in some sour mix and milk or cream, and you're halfway to making common drinks like screwdrivers and vodka cranberries. The other set of mixers is sodas. A soda gun is ideal (and is what commercial bars use), but for your purposes, assorted bottles of lemon-lime soda, ginger ale, cola, tonic water and plain soda water will suffice. Finally, for shelf mixers, there's Rose's lime juice, simple syrup and grenadine. Angostura bitters is another classic ingredient that's become rarer these days, but it keeps forever and having a small bottle available will impress old-school cocktail lovers.
The Brown Stuff
Ah, whiskey, bourbon and scotch. There's a reason the original name for whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning "water of life." You can mix these brown liquors into cocktails if you like, but part of their appeal is a unique and subtle flavor. These liquors are more likely to be consumed on their own or with just a splash of soda or water. The quality of your whiskey, bourbon and scotch should determine whether you mix anything with it.
While a fully stocked home bar always has at least one bourbon, one whiskey and a blended scotch for everyday uses, letting a bottle of single malt scotch mellow and gather dust on a high shelf is the mark of a classy bartender. It's best to keep a bottle of the good stuff in reserve for special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries and lottery wins.
The Clear Stuff
There are four big names among the clear liquors that the well-stocked home bar can never be without: gin, rum, vodka and tequila.
These days, you can't turn around without accidentally knocking over a cocktail made with vodka -- martinis, White Russians, Bloody Marys and screwdrivers to name a few. Your supply of vodka will take the heaviest hit, so it helps to have a top-shelf brand for guests who know their vodka and a cheaper variety for mixing. Gin has a somewhat limited number of combinations in cocktails, but once it's paired with vermouth or tonic water, the variations become infinite.
Rum is a necessity for anything tropical. Everyone has a preference, so keep a dark and a light rum on hand. Tequila is a bit of a wild card. It's rarer in cocktails (aside from tequila sunrises and the all-important margarita) but it makes a popular shot. According to an old and very believable legend, tequila shots temporarily cure heartbreak.
Garnishes are a tricky issue. How many should you keep around? If your guests claim they don't want a paper umbrella or tiny plastic sword in their drinks, are they telling the truth or just pretending?
Love for paper umbrellas is nearly universal, but there are also perishable garnishes that your guests crave, such as green olives or pearl onions. These should ideally be kept in the refrigerator at all times -- you never know when or how someone will want a martini. The same goes for fresh limes and lemons, which are used in hundreds of drinks. Slice them in wheel form to use as a garnish, ream them for their juice or peel them to use their zest. Other garnishes, like pineapple wedges for tropical drinks and celery sticks for Bloody Marys, aren't essential for a home bar, though you'll probably want to stock them for special occasions or themed gatherings.
One last garnish to consider is fresh herbs. Mint and basil, for instance, are easy to store and will add a powerful flavor punch to many cocktails.
There are many tools that make mixing drinks at home more comfortable and impressive. Soda guns, muddlers, stirring spoons, speed pourers, salt and sugar rimmers and rubber bar mats are all advantageous to have around, but there are two tools you'll need more than anything else.
The first is a cocktail shaker. Without it, liquors go unmixed, tasty beverages go undrunk and thirsts go unquenched. To put it simply, the cocktail shaker is to bartender as horse is to cowboy (or cowgirl). Two common types are the Boston and the cobbler. The Boston shaker is frequently used in bars. It's essentially a large metal cup that covers a mixing glass. This type of shaker is useful for making and shaking drinks quickly with easy cleanup, but you'll need an external strainer if you're planning on making drinks with crushed ice. The cobbler shaker is a little more complicated: a metal cup, a lid with a strainer and a cap for measuring. All parts are useful, but this shaker can be annoying to clean if you're making a diverse amount of cocktails in a short period of time.
The home bartender's second best friend is a strategically placed book of cocktail recipes left open underneath the bar. Nothing's more embarrassing than the words, "What's in a dry martini, again?" and nothing's more impressive than, "A dingo, a black widow and a French 75? Sure, I can make those." Preserve the mystique of the omniscient bartender, even at home.
Liqueurs are nice to stock in your bar because they look good on a shelf, allow you to make more complicated cocktails and last forever. But not just any liqueur will do. The must-haves are coffee and orange liqueurs. A cosmopolitan without Cointreau or triple sec is only a humble vodka cranberry, and a blended margarita without these liqueurs is only one step above a snow cone. As for essential coffee liqueurs, you must stock Kahlua and Tia Maria if you plan on making White Russians.
Aside from coffee and orange, other common liqueurs include amaretto, Drambuie and cinnamon, peach and peppermint schnapps. These are all popular and mixologically useful, but ultimately, the liqueurs you choose are influenced by your guests' tastes. For instance, you may not get a lot of use out of a bottle of Midori unless you know someone with a weakness for melon. Of course, you can always look stocking liqueurs as a learning experience -- every bottle is a new cocktail to make.
A bar without beer is no bar at all, and those who are serious about beer will want to tap their own keg, choose their own drafts and glory in every perfect pour.
Kegs for home use come in several sizes. Half kegs are the largest at 15.5 gallons (62 quarts), which comes out to about 200 12-ounce servings of beer (assuming about half an inch of head). Next is the quarter keg, which contains 7.75 gallons (31 quarts) and serves around 100 beers. The smallest units available are pony kegs and beer spheres, both of which are 5 gallons (20 quarts) each. If you're looking for something smaller than that, you might as well just be buying by the bottle.
When choosing a beer to keep on tap, consider the season. Keep dark beers like stouts or porters on tap for the winter, when their sweetness and heaviness make the cold a little more bearable. During the summer, it's best to lean toward a lighter brew like pilsner, wheat beer and India Pale Ale (IPA), which tends to mix better with bright days and citrus flavors.
People's interests in wines vary. Some of your guests prefer flashier extravagant cocktails, while others will refuse to drink anything but wine. It's an easy enough request to fulfill: Pop the cork and pour. Your challenge lies in making sure people are given a choice to fit their mood. If you're serving wine at a party, you should have at least two options each for red and white wine. For a seated dinner, you can just pair wine with food and worry less about choices.
Along with your wine collection, don't forget to keep a few bottles of dry champagne, which is a useful mixer for mimosas and spritzers. As with scotch, always keep a bottle of the best wine out of reach until a special occasion rolls around.
When people drink, they like to nosh. You should always have snacks on hand in your bar. There are a lot of directions to go here. You can go the highbrow route with homemade bacon-wrapped pickled asparagus, sashimi and stuffed mussels with manchego cheese and anchovies. Or, you can broil some chicken wings and make nachos in the microwave. Then, of course, you could just keep a jar of pickled eggs at the end of the bar to see which of your guests is bravest and/or most foolish.
Though people need snacks to keep them happy while they're sipping your perfectly mixed cocktails and downing your tasty beers, what's most important is that there is anything to eat at all. Flashy tapas will elicit gasps and applause, but a bowl of crackerjacks or some hot tater tots are just as respectable. If you're the sort of host who throws impromptu parties, keep nonperishable snacks stashed in your bar. A tin of mixed nuts and a bag of pretzels will do the trick. It's expensive to entertain, and if you're shelling out for pricey liqueurs and a wide assortment of vino, don't break the bank getting snacks (and make sure it's only one pickled egg per person).
You don't have to go out to have a killer cocktail if you have a killer bar setup at home. We'll tell you exactly what you need to make it happen.
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More Great Links
- Drinkstreet. "Garnishes and Garbage." 2001. (Dec. 10, 2009).http://www.drinkstreet.com/article.cgi?article=10
- Giglio, Anthony and Jim Meehan. "Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide." John Wiley & Sons. 2009.
- Kegman. "Top Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions." 2009. (Dec. 13, 2009).http://kegman.net/tap_info.htm#keg_volume
- Kirk, Alan. "Light Vs. Dark Beer." Beermasters. 2009. (Dec. 10, 2009).http://www.beermasters.com/content/beer-and-food/light-vs-dark-beer