If you enjoy alcohol, you should consider investing in some home bar essentials. The beauty of setting up a home bar is it only needs to be as complicated as you want. If you just enjoy drinking beer and straight liquor, all you need is your alcohol of choice and the right glasses. If you’re looking for a little more intrigue from your alcohols, there’s a whole world of two-ingredient cocktails out there for the beginner mixologist. And if you’re looking to expand your cocktail repertoire, with a few more staple ingredients, you can start making bar-quality cocktails at home for far less than half the price.
We’ve rounded up a few of the best home bar essentials to help get you started. Of course, if you’re looking to go over the top with your set up, we’ve got round-ups on things like the best bar carts, but for this article, we’re only focused on what you need to make your home bar respectable. That includes the most essential home bar tools, some of our favorite liquors and a few basic mixers. These are important because not only will they suffice for a basic home bar, but you’ll need these basics if you want to make more sophisticated cocktails down the road. And just so you know what you can actually do with this stuff, we’ve included what mixers go with which liquors. After all, when you’re done setting up your home bar, you’ll have earned yourself a strong mixed drink.
As a heads-up before we dive into the home bar essentials, we’re mostly focused on how to build a home bar for liquor here. But if you’re looking for recommendations geared toward wine, which is a totally different beast, we’ve identified some great boxed wines, rounded up the best wine glasses and even sought out some of the best electric wine openers to help you get your grape drink on. Because even though liquor is great, wine is amazing too. With that being said, let’s take a look at all the home bar essentials you’ll need to start drinking and serving liquor like a pro.
1. A Shaker Set
Whether you’re looking to build a basic bar or trying to mix it up with the best bartenders in New York, you need a shaker set. We recommend Cresimo’s Shaker Bar Set. It contains the four most essential tools for any home bar: a shaker set with a built-in strainer, a jigger and a bar spoon. Everything is stainless steel, so they won’t rust on you, and the shaker is practically leak-proof as long as you remember to put the cap on.
You could buy each of the components individually, but you don’t even need to make shaken cocktails to justify this set. The shaker is of course great for shaking; all you do is pour in the ingredients with some ice, pop the top on, throw the cap on and give everything a few solid shakes. But a shaker is also great for just mixing ingredients with the bar spoon too. You’ll never have to worry about fizzy cocktails foaming over or not mixing properly. And we can’t forget about the jigger, the hourglass-shaped tool used for measuring parts of alcohol. While it can be fun to eyeball the liquor and “accidentally” over pour, a sophisticated cocktail is about proportion and so the jigger creates a lot of possibilities for more advanced cocktails.
2. Beer Glasses
We’re mostly focusing on liquor-based home bar essentials in this round-up, but we had to make room for some proper beer glasses because they are life-changing. Sure, you can’t go wrong with a classic pint glass, but if you’re looking to get more flavor out of your beer, we recommend the Samuel Adams Perfect Pint Glass. The Boston Beer Company wanted an exceptional glass to showcase its beer, so it went ahead and developed its own. This glass features an outward turned lip so the beer hits the front of your tongue for maximum flavor. The top is narrowed to help maintain the beer’s aroma and frothy head, while laser etchings at the bottom of the glass help make bubbles to sustain the flavor and aroma for as long as possible. Yeah, we know, you’re shaking your head with doubt, but once you try this glass, you’ll miss it every time you’re drinking quality beer from a basic pint glass.
3. The Old Fashioned Glass
If you’ve ever ordered a cocktail, you’re familiar with the old fashioned glass, also known as a rocks glass or lowball glass. It’s the glass of choice for a number of whiskey-based cocktails, such as the old fashioned, and tends to be short and heavy to handle ice cubes and any mashing of ingredients at the bottom. It’s perfect for sipping straight liquor like bourbon or for liquor on the rocks (which just means served with ice cubes, hence the rocks glass moniker.)
We recommend Marquis by Waterford Markham Double Old Fashioned Glasses. Double old fashioned just means it holds more liquid than a regular old fashioned glass. These glasses are made in Italy from lead-free crystalline glass and have a beautiful look and a decent weight to them, so you’ll feel like a master of the universe when you’re drinking out of them.
4. The Coupe Glass
Traditionally used for champagne in the early 20th century (think The Great Gatsby), the coupe glass made a comeback in the 2010s after an almost century-long hibernation as a classic alternative to long-stemmed cocktail glasses or martini glasses. Like the cocktail glass, it’s typically used for drinks served up, or chilled drinks with no ice, and it has a stem so you don’t touch the bowl of the glass and warm up the cocktail. We recommend the coupe glass over the traditional cocktail glass simply because it’s used for the same cocktails and frankly is more difficult to spill due to it’s shorter height. You can’t go wrong with Luminar’s Barcraft Coupe Cocktail glasses. They’re about 5 inches tall with the traditional rounded lip for easy sipping without spilling. This set of four glasses will class up your home bar without breaking the bank.
5. Round Ice Molds
First, a disclaimer: Forget about any whiskey stones or rocks or whatever the heck those things are. Water is a key ingredient for liquor and those rock monstrosities just make the drink cold without the tiny bit of water that helps bring out the liquor’s natural flavor. We’ve never been to a bar that’s used them, though to be fair they’d also be impractical in that setting.
In any case, to move toward the positive side of ice and liquor, nothing beats whiskey on the rocks on a warm evening after a long day at work. Though ice cubes from any old tray will do, if you’re looking to build up a home bar, you should go for a cooler option. Nothing says “This is a fancy drink” like a nice spherical ice ball, and ice balls offer practical benefits beyond their appearance. This style of ice melts slower than regular ice cubes, so your drink can stay colder longer. An excellent consequence of that is your drink won’t dilute as fast, so you enjoy the water-liquor flavor sweet spot even longer.
The most important thing for an ice ball mold to have is a flexible top for easy removal. That’s why we recommend Adoric’s Round Ice Cube Mold. The plastic bottom keeps the mold stable while the flexible silicone top makes removal a piece of cake. The top silicone part also snaps to the bottom so you won’t spill, and this dishwasher-safe set comes with a little funnel for easy filling. Once the water is frozen, you can easily pull the top off, pop out an ice ball and drop it into an old fashioned glass for a next-level cocktail.
The Essential Liquors
Before we tell you some of our favorite liquors, let’s be clear: The best liquors for your home bar are the ones that you enjoy drinking, whether it’s the stuff on the bottom shelf or liquors made by celebrities. Don’t let us or anyone convince you otherwise. That being said, when stocking our own home bar essentials, we tend to go for three liquors: whiskey or bourbon whiskey, vodka and gin. We like whiskey and vodka because you can easily drink them straight, but they also make for great bases to so many simple and advanced cocktails. As for gin, we wouldn’t recommend drinking it straight, but it’s an essential base for some classic cocktails. A gin basically needs to have juniper as the primary ingredient, but beyond that gins can utilize a wide variety of botanicals in the distillation process, which results in a lot of different flavor profiles for one kind of liquor. Now that we’ve explained ourselves, let’s dive into some of the best brands.
We’ve had a lot of whiskeys and bourbons here at SPY and there are truly so many we could recommend. If you want to learn more, we’ve got a whole breakdown of the best whiskeys and bourbons and the different kinds of whiskeys. But we’re trying to keep things simple here, so we’re going to stick to one bourbon just to get you started. Thankfully when it comes to excellent bourbons, Bulleit Bourbon stands out from the crowd. The Kentucky-made bourbon is mostly made from corn with a substantial amount of rye and barley malt, and it has that lovely amber color you expect from bourbons. If you sip and smell carefully, you can get notes of maple, nutmeg and some spice from the rye as well as a bit of smoke and oak from charred oak barrels. Drink it straight, on the rocks or in a cocktail. You won’t be disappointed.
Vodka is essential to any home bar due to its comparatively neutral flavor among liquors. Because it’s basically water and grain alcohol, it doesn’t have as much inherent flavor. That makes it great to drink straight, but it also makes it a fantastic base for cocktails. Though there are a lot of great vodkas out there, when buying just one vodka for your home bar, we recommend Absolut Vodka. It drinks fairly soft with little bite and has a mild wheat taste. In other words, it’s the perfect vodka for just about any drink, and it’s pretty inexpensive given its drinkability and mixability.
As we mentioned above, gins basically need to be made with juniper to qualify as gins, but the rest of the ingredients, such as botanicals, spices or fruit and floral flavors, are up to the individual distillery. (If you want to learn more about gin, we’ve covered a lot of history and some great gin picks.) So if you’ve never had gin, you might want to stick to just whiskey and vodka. But if you have, we recommend New Amsterdam Gin. Don’t let the relatively low price fool you. As far as gins go, New Amsterdam Gin goes down fairly smooth, with notes of vanilla and citrus, and is a real bargain among gins. It’s less juniper-forward than other gins, but there’s a reason it’s a staple in bars around the world over better-established gin brands.
Some Essential Mixers
The best cocktails typically feature more than two ingredients, but to be fair, so do the worst cocktails. So keep in mind that you won’t be able to do everything with just one liquor and one mixer, but even a simple cocktail is a great way to change things up from straight liquor. We’ve got a handful of mixers listed below, but if you’re looking for more options, check out our round-up of the best mixers to expand your horizons.
Yup, the staple summer beverage of children everywhere also makes for a fantastic mixer for vodka, gin and whiskey. Though traditional lemonade is great, you can also substitute fruit-flavored lemonades instead. Simply Lemonade makes great traditional lemonade, but it also makes strawberry and raspberry lemonades.
2. Club Soda
Club soda, or carbonated water, makes for a wondrous mixer and is a true home bar essential. It brings effervescence to any cocktail, which helps bring out the flavors inherent to the liquor, and it doesn’t have the extra sugar of other sodas. You can add it to vodka, gin or whiskey for a simple upgrade. We recommend Fever-Tree Premium Club Soda. It doesn’t have any artificial flavors or any added sugars or sodium and is an all-around high-quality club soda.
3. Citrus Soda
If you’re looking for fruity flavors along the lines of lemonade, we highly recommend going for any other citrus sodas for the carbonation and the fruit flavors. San Pellegrino makes a whole line of citrus sodas and they mix great with vodka and gin. We think you should go for the San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa. The blood orange flavor might crowd out the natural flavors of the liquors a bit, but it makes for an easy twist from drinking them straight.
4. Lime Juice
You may be picking up on a theme here. Citrus flavors make for simple, easy mixers. One of the more classic citrus mixers is lime juice. You can mix it with vodka or gin to make a simple gimlet, and you’ll be shocked at how delightful it tastes going down. The best, most accessible lime juice is Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice. The concentrated fruit juice has been around since the mid-1800s and remains a bar staple to this day.
5. Tonic Water
Tonic water is one of the most well-known mixers you can have, despite its simplicity. It’s just carbonated water with added quinine, a chemical compound with a bitter taste. That bit of bitterness, and some added sweetness in modern tonic water, makes for a great mixer with vodka and especially gin. Truly, if you’re buying gin, you have to buy tonic because they go so well together. Though you can go for basic Canada Dry Tonic Water, we recommend going for something of a higher quality, such as Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water. It costs a bit more, but it tastes much better and makes for an all-around better cocktail.
6. Ginger Ale and Ginger Beer
Ginger ale and ginger beer are not the same things, but both are ginger-based and ginger flavors pair extremely well with just about every whiskey or bourbon out there. If you’re looking for something sweeter, more carbonated and less ginger forward, go for Canada Dry Ginger Ale or Fever-Tree Ginger Ale. If you’re all about that ginger flavor and looking for a bit more spice, go for Fever-Tree Ginger Beer.