The home bar begins with one bottle.
Although it is fun to collect spirits, focus energy on spirits you are inclined to drink when you go out.
It may be vodka, gin, or tequila for some. For others it may be whiskey, rum, brandy, or liqueurs, perhaps it’s even wine or beer. It doesn’t matter where you want to start. Keep in mind when you buy anything ask yourself, is this something I will drink? Chances are if you have to think about it or don’t like it; you won’t drink it.
You are the architect. This is your spotlight to showcase your home bartending skills. It may also help you become a better bar patron and understand your palete. Once you start with favorites you can then move on to add modifiers based on your preferences. Example, I’m a fan of sweet, floral, and fruity. I focus on the dark brown spirits and branch out from there. For a point of reference, my home bar started with a couple bottles of peated whisky. After a few months, I started to think in terms of cocktails and started adding other category spirits. I also started to consider what spirits, modifiers, equipment, and barware I would want to set-up a home bar.
I’ve read various home bar set-up guides over the years. The bare-bones home bar set-up in some of these guides was anywhere from 10-52 bottles. As someone just starting out, this can be overwhelming, and give a skewed view of the type of investment needed to start a home bar. Now I have a better understanding of cocktails and spirits. A bare-bones home bar could start with 2 -3 bottles of spirits depending on how you drink your spirits or the cocktails you make. The method I embrace at home is, Keep It Simple (KIS). I have limited space, resources, and money. Another perspective to think about is if I can make this at home the way I like it, "Why would I order it at the bar?" This becomes a forcing function to broaden horizons by trying new spirits, flavors, and styles of cocktails.
Only one bottle from a category is needed to start your home bar
Bitters- Go with a mini set because it gives you the diversity without a huge investment. However, if you’re going to be entertaining large groups frequently the regular size bottles may be the better bet for you.
Scrappy’s Classic Bitters mini set (This is what I started with.)
Vermouth/fortified wines – American cocktails have an interesting relationship with vermouth. The two main countries which vermouth is derived are Italy and France. However, Spain, America, and the UK have started to produce vermouth as well. This article by Madeline Puckette can help you better understand vermouth and its flavor profiles, and styles. I also encourage visiting your neighborhood cocktail bar to taste various styles and brands of vermouth. At a minimum, one category of vermouth would be represented whether it is dry, or sweet.
Liqueur/Amaro - This is where going to a tasting or a visit to your local cocktail bar would be helpful. I would also encourage reading Brad Thomas Parson’s book, Amaro. As this is where most of the flavor in your cocktail may come from because it highlights and/or enhances the flavors in the cocktail.
Simple Rich Syrup – There are recipes everywhere on the interwebs and in cocktail books on how to make simple syrup. The trick to rich syrup is 2:1 ratio. 2 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water. I prefer it because I end up using less.
Lemon Juice or Lime Juice – These should be freshly squeezed every time right before you assemble your cocktail; no more than 24 hours in advance because once the juice has been pressed from the fruit the pH in the juice will start to change. This will impact the overall flavor and balance of the cocktail.
Tonic - Personally I prefer a syrup rather than water. it depends on what you're making
(If it's underlined I consider it a necessity)
Bar Spoon -
Cobbler Shaker – Although you can purchase one of these from any home goods store, I would recommend spending a little extra money and purchase a professional style one. You’ll find it easier to work with than a fashion shaker.
Juicer – No notes on the juicer. Just make sure it’s one that fits your needs. Example if you're making large format cocktails like punches, juicing 10 lemons or limes at a time on a regular basis with a hand press juicer. It's is going to get old fast!
Jigger – The more you can control the measurement of ingredients the closer you will be to achieving the desired cocktail. It was while reading Jamie Boudreau's cocktail book that I learned about Cocktail Kingdom's stepped jigger. Of all the jiggers I've seen so far, it provides the most accurate measurements. It's not the one I first started out with but I wish it had been.
Conical Strainer - Although it's not a necessity it does help with the clarity of your cocktails and ensures any bits of ice, pulp, or herbs are removed from the cocktail before serving.
Glassware - This is where your personality can shine a little bit. I go for the antique or vintage glassware. However, don't let that limit you. The thing to keep in mind is you will want to fill whatever type of vessel you use to serve your cocktails. A half-full glass or cup may not look as good. At the same time when working with spirits, you don't want to triple the recipe just so you can fill a single glass unless you have three people sharing a cocktail. Otherwise, you run the risk or over serving someone which could have less than desired outcomes.
Candied cherries - Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are the original candied cherry. Typically found in better cocktail bars. The neon cherries found in most bars are a very poor version of the Luxardo Maraschino cherry. If making bourbon cherries is too labor intensive, buy a jar of the Luxardo cherries. Keep in mind although they are the priciest of the garnishes they keep for up to 3yrs. Alternatively Trader Joe's sells Amareno Candied Cherries at a price $4, worth it.
Bourbon cherries - These can be DIY and not as expensive as candied cherries.
Morello cherries - One of the most economical. Trader Joe's sells these for $7 a jar. I like to use them as is.