How to Set Up Your New Home Bar
There are a lot of articles and opinions on what you actually *need* when setting up a home bar. Today I enter the fray with a list of my own at the request of a friend. What you need of course depends on a number of factors. Here are some questions to ponder before creating your shopping list for liquors, mixers, glassware and hardware:
- What do you like to drink?
- What do your friends and family like to drink?
- Do you want to have beer on tap?
- What liquors do you need?
- What liqueurs do you need?
- What bitters and spices do you need?
- What mixers do you need?
- What juices do you need?
- What fresh produce do you need?
- What syrups and bottled garnishes do you need?
- What tools do you need?
- What glassware do you need?
- What cocktail recipe books do you need?
- Do you need a dedicated refrigerator?
Let’s go through each one of these questions individually. After all is said and done you’ll have a shopping list and a budget for your new home bar.
1. What do you like to drink?
Everyone has a favorite drink or two. This is the thing you order when you go to a bar of unspecified quality—it’s your port in a storm. Maybe it’s a gin and tonic, maybe it’s a widely distributed beer. Whatever it is, this is an important query to ponder, because as much fun as it is to entertain your friends, this bar is really for you—make sure you have everything to make yourself happy. If that means fresh beer on tap, then so be it. If you love tiki drinks, then you’ll want to ensure you have the requisite liqueurs.
2. What do your friends and family like to drink?
Are your friends more interested in beer pong or pre-prohibition era cocktails? How about your uncle Bob and cousin Jimmy? A good bartender can please any guest no matter how discerning or unsophisticated. If Jimmy loves PBR and uncle Bob a good smoky Scotch, you should have them both covered (provided they’ll be over frequently enough, of course).
3. Do you want to have beer on tap?
I struggled with this one myself for quite a while. In order to help you decide, you need to determine if you can drink enough before it spoils—beer dispensed from a keg with CO2 lasts about three to four weeks depending on the variety. A lot of home draft is dispensed from 5-gallon kegs, so you’re looking at about 40 pints of beer from each one (probably a few less due to foam, etc).
If you decide to go with draft beer in your home bar; will it really save you money? Let’s look at a few beers for a quick comparison*:
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
- 12 oz bottle 24-pack (288 oz) = $24.98 ($0.09/oz)
- 5-Gallon keg (640 oz) = $77.99 ($0.12/oz)
- Anchor Steam
- 12 oz bottle 12-pack (144 oz) = $17.99 ($0.12/oz)
- 5-Gallon keg (640 oz) = $87.99 ($0.14/oz)
- 12 oz bottle 30-pack (360 oz) = $22.99 ($0.06/oz)
- 5-Gallon keg (640 oz) = $45.99 ($0.07/oz)
Well, color me surprised! Keg beer in each of these examples is actually *more* expensive! That just ain’t right. Add to that the fact that you’ll need hardware (about $500 for a kegerator or $150 for a keg fridge conversion kit and ongoing CO2 refills) and the kegs quickly lose their luster. So if having draft beer in your home bar will make you happy, then by all means go for it. Just don’t try to convince your wife it’s cheaper than bottles and cans.
Another factor that tilts the scales toward bottles and cans is variety. While you may love a particular beer enough to want to drink five gallons of it, your friends and family may not be so inclined. By forgoing the keg, you can buy six-packs of a few different styles of beer, thus ensuring you have the right beer for each guest. I have found that keeping the following styles of beer on-hand will please most beer drinkers:
- Light (Heineken is OK as is Amstel and Sam Adams)
- IPA and/or Pale Ale
- Stout (Guinness is good to have around for a variety of reasons)
*All beer prices from BevMo.com Website, accessed 12/27/2011 (local pickup option). Prices do not include bottle, can, or keg deposit.
4. What liquors do you need for your home bar?
The answer to this question lies in your answer to questions one and two. You should stock what you and your friends like to drink for starters, but part of the fun in having a home bar comes from being able to make a wide variety of drinks. Here are eight reasonably-priced liquors I would recommend keeping on-hand for a basic bar:
- Bulleit Bourbon
- Cazadores Tequila Reposado
- Cruzan Light Rum
- Glenlivet 12-Year Single Malt Scotch
- Meyers’s Dark Rum
- Remy Martin Cognac VS
- Tanqueray Gin
- Tito’s Vodka
All of this will run you about $175. All of these are well-respected brands (i.e. your boozehound hipster friends won’t make fun of them) and provided you have the requisite mixers, you will be able to make a drink for just about anyone with these on-hand.
5. Branching out now, here are some liqueurs and fortified wines that will work synergistically with the liquors:
- Dry vermouth (I like Dolin—others such as Martini & Rossi or Noilly Prat work, too) – keep refrigerated after opening!
- Sweet vermouth (Dolin for drier drinks, Cinzano for sweeter drinks) – keep refrigerated after opening!
- Campari (The Negroni is popular enough to warrant this addition IMO)
- Cointreau (Get a 375 ml bottle of Cointreau or 1L of Bols Triple Sec if budget is an issue)
- Bol’s Orange Curacao
- Bailey’s Irish Cream (It’s rare to find a non-vegan that doesn’t enjoy a little Bailey’s now and then)
- Kahlua Coffee liqueur (For the White Russian crowd)
This set of liqueurs and fortified wines will cost you another $100. Beyond these, I would recommend buying spirits as-needed for specific drinks. Liqueurs are especially easy to stock up quickly, but you may find that many are unnecessary. One thing you’ll notice is that once you set up your home bar, many of your friends and family will take this as a sign to henceforth give you nothing but booze-related gifts. If you can wait, your Uncle Bob might bring you a bottle of his favorite Scotch or perhaps some Drambuie, so just bide your time.
6. What bitters and spices do you need?
Bitters and spices make up a small but important part of your bar inventory. A few dashes of the right one can make a cocktail really sing. You might think you could do without them, but you’d be wrong. The list of bitters companies and varieties seems to grow daily, and companies like Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers have some great ones that feature really interesting flavors. But you’re just starting out, so I would recommend having these three to start with:
- Angostura bitters
- Peychaud’s bitters
- Regan’s orange bitters
These three will cost you about $20.
As for spices, I would recommend having whole nutmeg and whole cinnamon sticks as well as ground cinnamon. These are great for hot drinks as well as tiki drinks.
7. What mixers do you need?
When it comes to mixers, you have some serious budgetary leeway relative to the booze. My advice is to buy small 10 oz bottles and 6 to 7.5 oz cans of everything you think might come in handy. This includes pineapple juice, but not orange or grapefruit. We’ll talk more about fresh juices in a bit, but for now here are the mixers I like to keep on hand:
- Coke Zero (For low carb types)
- Club Soda
- Ginger Ale
- Ginger Beer (For Dark & Stormy cocktails, among others—I like Bundaberg)
- Pineapple Juice, Unsweetened (Dole has 6 oz cans in a 6-pack)
- Tonic Water (I like Canada Dry)
Depending on how much you buy of each, this will run you another $30-$50.
8. What juices do you need?
Here is an unfortunate obstacle to your impending cocktail greatness, but don’t worry, you’ll get over it. Unlike apple and pineapple juice, the following juices must be fresh squeezed for proper flavor:
If you have read this far, you are undoubtedly serious about your new home bar, so I must make you promise to never use bottled lemon or lime juice in your cocktails. I know lemons and limes can get expensive in the Winter months, and that it’s a pain in the ass to keep them on-hand and squeeze them to-order, but I’m here to tell you that there is simply no other option. There is no such thing as a good bottled lime or lemon juice—not Key Lime, not Santa Cruz organic—nothing. It just doesn’t exist. If you get in a pinch, you can squeeze fresh juice into ice trays and make frozen cubes out of them, but that’s as far as you should allow it to go from fresh.
Two other juices that some would say should be fresh squeezed are orange and grapefruit. In certain cases I would completely agree, but to say that fresh squeezed OJ is going to make a dramatic improvement over a quality packaged OJ such as Odwalla is a stretch in most juice-driven drinks. Canned or non-refrigerated OJ is tempting from an inventory management standpoint, but again, you need to fight the temptation. It tastes terrible, and we both know it.
Grapefruit is a bit more nuanced—there is of course the difference between white and ruby red (most cocktails call for white) and the selection of bottled GJ is not as good as OJ. That said, the most expensive refrigerated grapefruit juice you can find at the grocery store will do just fine in most cocktails.
9. What fresh produce do you need?
When it comes to fresh produce, I would recommend keeping lemons, limes, and oranges on-hand (you’ll need oranges for the twists if not for the juice). If you’re into tiki drinks, mojitos or juleps, you’re going to want some mint as well. Many new craft cocktails are doing things with herbs such as sage, rosemary and basil, but I would probably stock up on those only as needed.
10. How about Syrups?
Syrups and garnishes are certainly necessary, and again what you require is dependent on the drinks you’ll be making. Here are a few items I would keep in stock:
- Martini olives
- Maraschino cherries
- Grenadine (Make this yourself using equal parts POM juice and cane sugar)
- Simple syrup (Make this yourself using equal parts filtered water and cane sugar)
- Coconut crème (Preferably Coco Lopez—good for Painkillers and the like)
- Orgeat (This almond syrup comes up in a lot of tiki drinks)
- Passion Fruit Syrup (Another tiki staple)
This is probably about $30 worth of supplies.
11. What bar tools do you need?
When it comes to bar tools, there are a few you can’t live without and a thousand you will never need. Here is what I would get straight away:
- Boston shaker(s) – these are the shiny stainless steel shaker bottoms you know and love. You’ll need pint glasses to make them work, but we’ll get to that. Get these from a restaurant supply store for about $3/each.
- Strainer(s) – strainers allow you to pour your cocktail into the glass without the ice.
- Barspoon(s) – this long teaspoon with a twisted handle is the spoon you use to measure sugar and syrups, and mix cocktails like Manhattans. You need at least two.
- Jigger / measuring devices—I love my OXO 2 oz measuring cup. It has gradations from ¼ oz and also has metric measurements. If you want to be more traditional, go for a stainless jigger or two.
- Muddler – this is basically a miniature wooden baseball bat or steel equivalent. You’ll need it to make mojitos and other cocktails where you have to press on the fresh ingredients a bit.
- Juicer—for now let’s stick with a scissor type juicer. You can find these at any kitchen supply store or Bed Bath and Beyond.
- Zester/Peeler – good for cutting citrus twists.
- Microplane/fine grater –needed for fresh nutmeg on that Painkiller.
- Optional/Situational: Ice Bucket—depending on your bar set-up, you may need an ice bucket. I can recommend the OXO brand here again. It comes with a cover as well as tongs, and keeps ice cold for hours.
You can probably get all of this for about $50-$75 without the ice bucket—you’re in for another $30 if you need it. Stick with the restaurant supply house if you can. They have great deals on all of this stuff.
12. What glassware do you need?
Glassware purchasing represents a personal decision, and it can get expensive quickly. Outlet stores are often a good source for this stuff, as are restaurant supply houses. The quantity is dependent on the number and type of concurrent guests you plan to have, but for big parties, I would go with recyclable cups. Here are the types of glasses I would recommend having:
- Pint (good for beer as well as for shaking cocktails)
- Pilsner (good for lagers as well as some long drinks)
- Cocktail (what’s come to be known as a martini glass)
- Old Fashioned
- Double Old Fashioned
- Highball (stick with something slender and you can use it for mojitos, zombies, etc)
- (I’m assuming you have red/white white glasses and champagne flutes already, right?)
One thing to keep in mind is that eclectic glass collections are ok—good even. Adding a few weird coupes from a garage sale will help your bar much more than it hurts. I won’t try to put a specific price tag on this section, as there are so many possibilities., but let’s just say it’s around $100 for a smattering of each type.
13. How about cocktail recipe books?
When it comes to cocktail recipes, the Web can be a tricky beast. There are a lot of sites that are very highly ranked in the search results, but their recipes are often wrong. This is one case where good old fashioned paper can still trump modern technology. You can write on the pages and make notes as to your modifications, who likes the drinks, etc. Here are three cocktail books I love:
- The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan and Chris Gall—this one has everything. Tons of recipes as well as tips on bar set-up and more. Written by the folks at PDT who operate a successful speakeasy hidden behind a hot dog shop. ($18 on Amazon)
- Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh—Ted’s book has a lot of recipes found in the PDT book, but the history of each drink is worth the price alone. It’s also really nicely bound—a spiral on the inside of a hardcover makes it lay flat on the bar whilst you mix up the drinks. ($14 on Amazon)
- BeachBum Berry Remixed by Jeff Berry—The Bum is the undisputed expert on tiki drinks. In this book, you get every tiki drink recipe imaginable as well as the history of the drinks and their creators. This is a cocktail book you will read cover to cover. I can’t recommend it highly enough. ($25 on Amazon)
14. Do you need a dedicated refrigerator for your bar?
It’s sure nice to have, but you can get by without one without too much trouble. If you do buy one that’s a small under counter type, I would recommend getting one without a freezer. The freezers in these little guys just aren’t worth the space. Save it for your vermouth and beer. You’ll also want one that vents to the front—those set up in the opposite fashion can overheat easily. There are a lot of price options here ranging from $100 to $500 and up. The choice is yours, but if your fridge is nearby, just use a cooler for parties and spend the extra money on booze.
Well, there you have it folks: my take on what is necessary and what is not when setting up a home bar. If you follow my instructions above, you’ll be into it for about $650 or so. Depending on what you spend on bar tabs, this could have a pretty rapid payback! But that’s not really what it’s about, is it? It’s just a lot of fun to have a home bar, so go for it!
PS. There are so many drinks that require so many liquors and liqueurs that no list would do them justice. That said, here are a few additions I would recommend if budget allows:
Extra Credit booze for tiki bars:
- John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum ($21)
- St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram ($27)
- Appleton Estate 12-Year ($30)
- Rhum Clement VSOP ($36)
- Lemon Hart 151 ($30)
- Any El Dorado rum ($25-$100)
Extra Credit booze for speakeasy bars:
- Old Overholt Rye ($16)
- Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette ($25)
- Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur ($27)
- Laird’s Bottled in Bond Straight Apple Brandy ($27)
- Lillet Blanc ($17)
- Herbsaint ($21)
There are at least a hundred others that I would like to add, but I need to draw the line somewhere. What would you add to the list? Have I made any huge blunders or omissions? Tell me why I’ve been a damn fool in the comments.