You’ve decided to set up a bar in your home, but where do you start? With all of the liquor options available, it can be tough to figure out what to buy for a home bar when you’re just getting started.
First, consider the space you're working with. Will your bar be limited to a corner or small nook that isn’t being used? Or maybe you’re converting a coat closet that you don’t need? Or could it be a larger area, like that formal “dining room” where you never actually eat? Your bar’s location and design is up to you – but what’s important right now is stocking that bar, to make the most out of the space you have.
Cost is also a factor. With literally thousands of brands and many types of liquor, and even more sub-types, such as flavored vodkas, multiple styles of gin, tequila and bourbon, and different manufacturer types like small batch, local and regional brands, etc. – it can be easy to break the bank when stocking a bar. The challenge is to buy enough to be able to make a good variety of drinks, but also stay within your budget.
Like many things in life, stocking your home bar will work best if you keep it simple and start with the basics. Consider it a work in progress – you can build it up over time. But at first, focus on the main ingredients needed to make a good variety of classic cocktails.
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up, shall we?
- Booze – the main ingredient! Your first investment can be relatively small: 1 bottle each of vodka, gin, scotch, whiskey and rum. You might be asking at this point, “Which ones? There are hundreds of options!” As a first guideline, resist the urge to buy from the bottom shelf. It may seem like a good idea because bottom-shelf liquors are so much cheaper – but you and your guests will notice the lower quality, harsh flavor (and possibly a worse hangover!) and it just isn’t worth it. Life is too short to drink cheap booze! Instead, stick with middle-shelf or the lower priced top-shelf spirits, or perhaps something you’ve drunk and enjoyed in the past. A few examples of this (without endorsing any brand specifically) would be Tito’s, Absolut or Smirnoff vodka, Tanqueray, Seagram’s or Bombay gin, Dewar’s or Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, Jim Beam or Jack Daniels whiskey, Bacardi or Don Q white rum. And if your space or budget doesn’t allow for all five types of spirits at first, then stick with what you like and what your frequent guests like.
- Mixers – those things you mix with the main ingredient of your drink. The basics are: tonic, club soda, and cola (feel free to use the diet versions of these things if you like). And for martini and Manhattan lovers, I would add dry and sweet vermouth, and bitters also. As you expand your bar over the months and years, you’ll also want things like bloody mary mix, sweet & sour mix, margarita mix, etc. And there are a few miscellaneous items you may want too, depending on your drink preferences - things like grenadine (a concentrated pomegranate juice) and sweet lime juice. (Rose’s grenadine and lime juice are the most popular.)
- Garnishes - those little items you add at the end for looks and an extra hint of flavor. (For more on this topic, see our recent article “The Garnish - Last But Not Least”.) Your must-have garnishes include lemons, limes, olives, oranges, and Maraschino cherries. Since the citrus fruits won’t keep very long, you’ll have to buy them as you need them. But the olives and Maraschino cherries can be stored in the refrigerator once opened and can last a very long time.
So, here’s a shopping list for your first bar-stocking trip:
1 – 750 ml bottle of vodka
1 – 750 ml bottle of gin
1 – 750 ml bottle scotch
1 – 750 ml bottle bourbon (or other American whiskey)
1 – 750 ml bottle of white rum
1 – small bottle of dry (white) vermouth (for martinis)
1 – small bottle of sweet (red) vermouth (for Manhattans)
1 – small bottle of bitters
1 – six pack club soda
1 – six pack tonic
1 – six pack cola
1 – jar Maraschino cherries
1 each – orange, lemon, lime
Of course, feel free to buy larger bottles if you have the space and budget. And remember, this is just the beginning – you'll add to this collection over time, expanding into all the varied and wondrous types of spirits available to you.
But for now, your bar is stocked and you are ready to serve. Cheers!