Are you planning to have your friends over for a little barbecue at your pad, but wondering what you might serve to quench their thirst before you sit down to eat? Walking in to a well-stocked liquor store can be overwhelming, but you don’t need to buy all the things all at once. You just need to know where to begin. And we’re here to help you start building a great home bar that you can be proud of.
The cocktail is America’s greatest contribution to the beverage world (sorry, fans of Coca-Cola, but this is an indisputable fact!). And while the original use of the word itself remains somewhat disputed, the basic definition of a cocktail is generally accepted as a beverage composed of liquor, juice or another mixer, water, and a bittering agent. Changing any one of those four ingredients for another (for example, swapping tequila for rum, or club soda for tonic water), or even adjusting the ratio among them, changes the cocktail itself. There are endless variations to cater to endless taste preferences — what’s not to like?
Building a home bar is a lot easier than you may think. You may be surprised that not one of the following tips will involve purchasing any neon-colored “margarita mix” or “sweet-and-sour mix.” If you take a quick peek behind the bar the next time you’re out at a legitimate artisanal craft bar, you won’t see any of those pre-mixed abominations. Instead, you will find a stack of fresh citrus fruits and lots of intriguing bottles of fresh-squeezed juices and syrups. Let’s start by talking about the tools and ingredients that you’ll commonly use in many drinks.
Basic equipment: The tools of the trade
A cocktail is a mixed beverage, so you’ll need a few simple tools to combine the ingredients and get them to the proper serving temperature. Because it’s summertime, we’ll focus on cold beverages (check back in the late fall for an exploration of hot drinks!). The two main methods of mixing and chilling are stirring and shaking over ice.
A side note about ice: it’s more than just frozen water, it’s a very important ingredient in cocktails because it both chills to a pleasant temperature while subtly diluting the drink to soften its alcoholic edge. You want your ice to be neutral-tasting and without any lingering odors, so the safest way to guarantee that is to buy a bag or two of prepackaged ice rather than just using the stale cubes from your own freezer. A bag of prepackaged ice has a nice variation of shapes and sizes that work well to maximize its chilling efficiency; and commercial ice is usually clear, which will help the color and clarity of your drinks shine through the glass. When hosting a party, depending on how well you know your guests, you can ask your friends to bring a bag of ice as their “cover charge” — it never hurts to have a bag or two of extra ice in reserve!
What to get: a glass pitcher
For stirred drinks (typically those that don’t include juices), you’ll want to use a non-reactive tall pitcher made of glass, because you don’t want your finished beverage to take on any flavor that may be lurking in plastic containers (margarita with notes of grape Kool-Aid, anyone?).
How to use it
Pour all of your liquid ingredients into the pitcher and then carefully add ice last. This prevents the ice from melting and over-diluting the ingredients while you are building the cocktail).
What to get: mixing glass and bar spoon
As for a stirring tool, any long-handled metal spoon or, alternatively, a chopstick, will do well. Pro-tip: don’t use one of your wooden cooking spoons to stir and chill a cocktail, because any cooking residue will inevitably leach out during your stirring, bringing an unwelcome flavor to your drink.
When your budget allows, you can upgrade your stirring game by getting a dedicated mixing glass and bar spoon. Mixing glasses are typically made of crystal and are quite heavy, insulating the ingredients and increasing the speed with which they get cool. The bar spoon is quite long and has a twisted shaft that makes it easy to spin around in your hand while stirring. This helps keep the ice from shattering in the glass while you’re stirring and thereby over-diluting the drink.
How to use it
Stir the drink vigorously for about 60 seconds. Once the ingredients are chilled, pour it into the glass through a fine-mesh strainer (consider a hawthorne and julep strainer), discarding the ice.
What to get: shaker
For drinks that need to be shaken (those with juices or foamy ingredients), get yourself a three-piece “cobbler” shaker — the kind with the tall cup, lid, and built-in strainer. Consider getting a glass version, since metal expands and contracts with temperature, and it can get uncomfortably cold to hold while shaking.
How to use it
Add all of the ingredients first, then the ice. Replace the lid, and shake-shake-shake! Hum a tune and shake to the beat for at least 15 seconds (here’s a good primer). Pro-tip: Shake with two hands holding the shaker, one on the base and one on the lid, shaking over your shoulder with the lid facing away from your guests to prevent a drenching disaster in case the lid slips off. To transfer the chilled drink into your glass, just remove the top cap and pour through the built-in strainer.
What to get: a juicer and a peeler
Two other essential bar tools that you’ll need: a juicer and a peeler. I prefer a hand-operated citrus juicer, as it can easily squeeze both lemons and limes. And for a peeler, you may already have a potato peeler in your kitchen drawer which will work fine, but I prefer a Y-peeler to create nice, wide strips of orange and lemon for garnishing drinks. (This one is sharp and dishwasher-safe.)
Basic mixers and garnishes
Fresh citrus: When it comes to mixers and garnishes, your first home bar needs only a few fresh ingredients and prepackaged staples. You’ll always need several fresh lemons and limes, both for juice and garnishes. Never use bottled lemon or lime juice — the fresh flavor makes all the difference! You may also want a package of fresh mint leaves to use as garnish (find these along with the other packaged herbs in the vegetable section of your grocery).
Soda and sparkling water: In the soda aisle, pick up some Coca-Cola and some lime-flavored or plain sparkling water (La Croix and Waterloo are both excellent). I prefer lime-flavored waters because they add a little bit of character to the drink, without adding *too much* that can distract from the base spirits in the cocktail.
Bitters: You may recall as we discussed the definition of a cocktail that the final ingredient is a “bittering agent.” Typically this means a few dashes of, appropriately enough, cocktail bitters. Bitters are essentially a highly concentrated tea of herbs and spices that act like the salt-and-pepper of the cocktail world — not something very pleasant to consume on their own, but without them in the mix, there’s something missing.
There are literally hundreds of commercial brands of bitters, but for your first home bar, you need only focus on the most widely distributed brand: Angostura Aromatic Bitters – typically available at your average grocery store, and certainly at any liquor store that is worth patronizing. For any given cocktail, you may use only two or three dashes, so the standard four-ounce bottle will last you a good long time.
Simple syrup: The other ingredient that you’ll want to have on-hand for your summer drinking is simple syrup, which you can easily make at home. It’s called “simple” because that’s what it really is: add one cup of granulated sugar to one cup of water in a saucepan on the stove over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Cool and store this syrup in the refrigerator for up to 30 days, though you’ll likely use it much faster than that.
Those are the basics of equipment and ingredients that you’ll need on hand to start your new hobby as a mixologist. You’re on your way to making delicious cocktails for your friends!