Building a Better Bar

Sometimes I’ll see pictures of a cocktail that wow me. I’ll be further drawn in by the lip-smacking name of the drink. I'll get motivated to make the drink but notice the recipe has like 7 steps. I get a bit discouraged but then carry on. Then I realize that the instructions call for something I don’t have, whether it be a barware tool or some ingredient. “Welp! Looks like I'll just be having a soda then!” I crack the tab in resignation.

It's pretty common to only assess what you have in your home bar once you're called upon to make a drink. But by then, it's too late.

It's pretty common to only assess what you have in your home bar once you're called upon to make a drink. But by then, it's too late. 

The art of building a good home bar comes from anticipating what you will need long before you approach a recipe, making the whole process simple and enjoyable. This checklist is designed not only to up your game in making the best cocktails possible, but also to make the entire process of mixology fun, easy, and approachable.

To Cart or Not to Cart?

First things first, you’re going to want a designated area to put all your cocktail goodies. Seeing that everybody’s kitchen is different, you may already have the perfect spot for your lute. If not, a bar cart is a worthy investment. Personally, I had all my bottles and tools taking up a corner of the kitchen counter. But trying to see which bottles were in the back, or even just trying to extract bottles from the corner was clunky and risky as a game of Jenga. When I finally purchased a bar cart, it completely freed up a whole section of my kitchen while providing an aesthetically pleasing display that was inviting enough to motivate my inner mixologist.

Tools of the Trade:

When all you have is a hammer everything looks like nails. And when you have all the right tools for your bar, every cocktail recipe looks easy-breezy. 

When all you have is a hammer everything looks like nails. And when you have all the right tools for your bar, every cocktail recipe looks easy-breezy. 

At bar-minimum (apologies for the pun) you should have a shaker, strainer, and bar spoon. The shaker from Elevated Craft is a favorite with its twist-close top that never gets stuck and its lid that doubles as a jigger to measure in both ml and oz.

Many cocktails call for shaking the contents with ice, but then not pouring that same ice into the glass. This is where the mighty strainer comes in. The strainer prevents unwanted splashes from remaining bits of ice sliding into the glass and lets you pour only the liquid over fresh ice that hasn’t been broken into bits from the shaking process. The strainer also enables you to make any recipes that call for serving a cocktail ‘up’, meaning the liquid is chilled in the shaker ice, but then served without any ice in the glass. 

That's the Spirit!

There’s no such thing as cocktails without spirits, so you’ll need to fill out your bar with some choice selections. There are many ways you could go about stocking up to suit your own particular needs. You could curate your bar with only the spirits you know you like, thereby minimizing clutter and having only what you want on hand. Or if you plan to do some entertaining, you may want to have more of the staples on hand so you can whip up just about anything your guests desire. 

So what are the staples? Vodka, Whiskey, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Mezcal, and Tequila, also known as the 7 base spirits, will get you through the majority of commonly requested cocktails. If you're going for a full zero-proof setup, you can find great N/A options for all of these (including our own Monday Gin, Whiskey, and Mezcal). If you’re sober-curious, having both alcoholic and N/A options on hand allows you to accommodate all kinds of guests. It also gives the unique ability to construct low-alc cocktails by supplementing regular spirits with non-alc spirits to dial back the ABV of any given drink. Recipe calls for 2oz of Mezcal? Try subbing in 1oz Monday alcohol-free mezcal with 1oz regular mezcal for a low-alc cocktail that maintains all the punch in the flavor department, while allowing you to control the speed and intensity of your alcohol intake. 

All In the Mix(er):

Having some quality mixers on hand dramatically simplifies the entire mixology process. Soda water, tonic, and ginger beer are among the most commonly called upon additions and will yield highballs, gin & tonics, and mules. Most stores these days are stocked with a dizzying display of craft sodas and mixers, so in the name of exploration, depart from the big-name soda brands and discover something a little more interesting to elevate your cocktail. 

To make sure you don’t get lost in the endless options, we have a few tried and tested mixers that we can recommend with confidence: Fever-Tree makes a range of top-notch soda mixers designed to elevate any cocktail, Withco Cocktails makes mixers with unique flavor profiles such as cucumber lime and mint, and lavender lemon rosewater, and El Guapo boasts a delicious Lime Cordial and a Salted Paloma mixer that is so good, its darn near cheating.

Better With Bitters:

Bitters are concentrated spirits infused with botanicals such as spices, fruits, bark, herbs, and roots. Many cocktails fall under the categories of either sweet or sour and bitters act to round out those extremes, resulting in a more complete and well-balanced flavor profile.  Some of the cocktails commonly boosted by bitters include the Sazerac, Manhattan, Negroni, and old-fashioned.

Aromatic bitters are a standard and you’ll often find Angostura bitters readily available in stores. Chocolate or Mole bitters work magic in an old-fashioned. El Guapo has a wildly creative line of bitters including Crawfish Boil, Holiday Pie, and ‘Fuego’ which has notes of grapefruit, lime, cilantro, habanero, jalapeño, and cumin that take any tequila or mezcal cocktail to the next level. 

Garnishes to Class Up Your Glass:

Some garnishes are essential to the flavor profile of a cocktail: think the orange peel to the old-fashioned or the olive to the martini. Some elevate the cocktail, like limes to agave spirits, or maraschino cherries for spirit-forward style cocktails. And some garnishes are primarily for the aesthetics of the cocktail. But don’t scoff at this last category as non-essential, because one thing is for certain, the more you like how your cocktail looks, the more you will enjoy the entire experience.

The Essentials: Oranges, maraschino cherries, limes, olives

Super Simple Syrup:

This is one of those ingredients you find in all sorts of recipes. It’s funny to me now but It's also one that used to stop me in my tracks and leave me throwing in the towel. “Simple syrup? Well, I guess I’ll just find something else sweet in the fridge…there, 7-Up! That should do.” 

I should’ve picked up on the clue that was right there in the name, “SIMPLE” syrup, but just a slight lack of culinary skill mixed with fear of the unknown was enough to obscure the simplicity. If only I knew how incredibly easy it is to make simple syrup, I would’ve done my cocktails justice right then and there. Simply mix a ratio of one to one, ie: 1 cup sugar to 1 cup of water over heat, stirring regularly until fully dissolved. Sub honey or agave for sugar for a version that leaves out any refined sugars. 

‘Cold Gold’ aka Ice:

You're going to be using ice in nearly every cocktail you make, and having quality ice makes a world of difference. It is worth the small investment 10 times over to have a few quality silicone ice trays handy.

The difference between those white, funky flavored cubes that come tumbling out of your refrigerator’s ice maker and ice from a silicone tray is vast.

The difference between those white, funky flavored cubes that come tumbling out of your refrigerator’s ice maker and ice from a silicone tray is vast. Larger pieces of ice have more volume and thus melt slower resulting in colder, less watered-down drinks. Consider acquiring a few different shapes for your ice, like spheres, small or medium size cubes ideal for shaking, and large ‘rocks’ cubes for drinks that are primarily spirit-based wherein minimal dilution is needed to maintain consistency and flavor.

There’s some fun-shaped ice out there too, ranging from diamonds to skulls, or even the Death Star from Star Wars. If you’re like me and have loved crushed ice since childhood, you can employ a Lewis Bag, (essentially a canvas bag you fill with ice and then crush with a big wooden mallet). Viski makes a top-notch Lewis Bag for a great price. The crushed ice does wonders instantly cooling down warm-weather drinks that benefit from a modest amount of dilution. 

Glassware With Flair:

All the magic of a carefully crafted, delicious, beautiful cocktail can be lost if you serve it in the wrong glassware. Conversely, a drink will be far more enjoyable when sipped out of the ideal vessel. But not to worry, this one has quite a simple solution. You really only need 3 categories of glassware to cover all the bases of mixology: short, tall, and stem. Dial in the quantity of each based upon how many people you plan to entertain, and boom! Done. Viski makes a dizzying selection of the coolest quality glassware to suit any style.

(And honestly, it's fun just perusing their site).

 The experience of sipping cocktails out of quality glassware makes the entire experience astoundingly better, (even if you flub the recipe). 

Built to Enjoy:

The whole point of building a better home bar is to increase enjoyment; enjoyment from making more delicious cocktails, from having a dedicated organized space for the craft, from streamlining the process of mixology in the name of creativity, simplicity, and ease, from entertaining and socializing with others, or maybe just to flex on your friends and reign supreme in the realm of cocktail mastery. Wherever you derive your enjoyment, a mindfully constructed home bar is sure to enhance the experience of these deliciously crafted moments.