So you want to start a home bar. Maybe it’s a lifelong dream; maybe it’s all those quarantinis on Instagram. Maybe you’re looking to master the art of the cocktail; maybe you just want something to sip after a long day spent social distancing. Whatever your goal, the trick to drawing out your inner bartender while staying home is to improvise, innovate and, above all, keep it simple.
“Cocktails are an intuitive process you should approach like you do cooking,” said Tess Rose Lampert, a beverage educator. “Some people follow the recipe to the T; some read many recipes, then make their own variation; some are comfortable substituting with what’s on hand.”
Ideally, a home bar will have a good supply of the basics. Start with a whiskey, preferably a bourbon or a rye — then go with vodka or gin, white rum and tequila or mezcal.
From there, pick three or four cocktails you know you’ll want to drink and augment your bar with a few special bottles. If you’re partial to whiskey cocktails, add a blended scotch and a single malt; if you prefer tropical drinks, add an aged rum and a dark rum. If you like gin, get a London Dry, such as Tanqueray, and a New Western Dry, such as Hendrick’s (the first kind is juniper-forward; the second leans into the botanicals).
Chances are your local liquor store will have several options for all of these. If you don’t want to go out, many stores will deliver.
Bolster your booze squad with mixers. High-quality tonics, such as Q or Fever Tree, which are made without high fructose corn syrup, are ideal, although you shouldn’t sweat if all you can find is Schweppes. You’ll also want some combination of soda water, seltzer, cola, ginger ale — any of these go with a base spirit and ice to make a highball, a delicious (and easy!) cocktail style.
Add at least one kind of all-around bitters, such as Angostura or Peychaud’s. Many bartenders like to keep some orange bitters on hand, too (these are also liquor-store staples). Don’t forget sweet and dry vermouth — yes, you’ll need both. Summer is coming, and even if you’re stuck indoors, you’ll probably want something light — so get Campari or Aperol for spritzes, or an orange liqueur for margaritas.
Finally: citrus. Fresh, whole lemons, limes, grapefruit — keep them handy and change them up. “Sometimes a twist of a citrus peel can completely change your ‘whatever and soda,’ ” said Berit Jane Soli-Holt, who tends bar at Banzarbar in Manhattan and Jupiter Disco in Brooklyn.
When it comes to gear, the good news is that less is more. Troy Clarke, the founder of Twelve24 Cocktails, which makes professional bar equipment, recommends a couple of items: a jigger (with measurements between a half-ounce and 2 ounces), a tall mixing glass, a bar spoon and a shaker. He prefers a Boston shaker (two parts, one slightly larger than the other) over a cobbler shaker (smaller, with a built-in strainer). A Boston shaker is larger, so you can make two drinks at a time, but you’ll need to buy your own strainer.
You’ll be surprised how many supermarkets carry basic bar equipment; it’s also easy to find online. But in a pinch, if you have a decently equipped kitchen, you have what you need already. Measuring cups double as jiggers; slotted spoons double as strainers. Mason jars or even metal water bottles work as shakers. “At the end of the day, nothing is absolutely necessary outside of the booze,” Clarke said.
Finally, in the internet age, recipes are just a few clicks away. But it’s worth investing in a few classic books, like Dale DeGroff’s “The Essential Cocktail” or Gary Regan’s “The Joy of Mixology”; both are comprehensive and easily accessible for beginners with smaller bars. Both are bestsellers, and you can easily find them online. (You can also find hundreds of bartenders giving in-home lessons on Instagram these days.)
Once you’ve got the basics down, change them up. If you’re quarantining, chances are you’ll have to tweak, compromise and substitute, and that’s OK. “Follow recipes in the beginning — but don’t be afraid to mess with them,” said DeGroff, a veteran bartender. Half the fun is making something new and uniquely your own.
And even as you map out your cocktail future, don’t forget that, sometimes, you just want a shot of something tasty, right out of the bottle.
“I also really believe in having something nice to sip on, like if you’re home and you get some great news — or terrible — there should be something to sip straight,” said Meaghan Dorman, the bar director at Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, both in Manhattan. “I love Balvenie Caribbean Cask or Calvados. I also always have a bottle of Champagne. It is a fun errand when it’s time to replace, in normal times.”