The “Set the Bar” series is meant to give anyone the tools to have the best home bar for their budget. This is for that person that occasionally scrounges up a bottle of schnapps from the freezer, and for the person that keeps more than 3 gins stocked at home. From beginner to pro, this series will be a fun guide to setting up the right at-home bar for all budgets and tastes.
Moving on, this is the first of three articles in the series. This (being the first) will serve as the foundation for any good bar. Just because it’s the beginners guide, doesn’t mean you need to slum it. You won’t see crappy wells here, just solid low cost bottles. Recipes are simple, and mixers are minimal.
Shakers – this isn’t a necessary tool for person that’s interested in drinking a vodka soda or bourbon on the rocks, but it’s nice to have. You can buy a ton of different styles, and I prefer to use two weighted tins or a tin-on-tin Boston shaker. They take a little time to get used to, but they feel less complicated than the standard cobbler shaker.
Strainers – If you want to use any fresh juice in a cocktail, I would suggest purchasing a hand juicer as well as a tea strainer and a hawthorne strainer. The tea strainer will insure that your juice has no pulp, and the hawthorne strainer will allow you to decide how much ice you want in the end resulting cocktail. Again, if you’re just looking to have a rum and coke – skip these.
Jigger – There are a million different kinds of jiggers, and they really only come in handy when mixing cocktails. I prefer a Japanese style, but OXO makes a good one too.
Ice/Soda – I’d suggest having 2 full ice trays at all times in your freezer, and any special ice trays you may desire, and whatever sodas/etc you fancy. When looking for ginger beer, keep an eye out for Cock’n Bull (sweeter, more soda like) , or Goslings (drier, less sweet). For tonic, Q is drier and more floral and herbal, while traditional tonics are much sweeter.
Syrup – For this beginner article, I’ll just suggest you have a bottle of simple syrup on hand. You can buy it, but it’s so easy to make I’d recommend that route. It’s nice to have on hand for cocktails but also for coffee or iced tea.
Bitters – Again, we’ll get into bitters in later articles but for now a bottle of Angostura is all you need. You can find it online, in liquor stores, or usually in a grocery store.
The Booze (with recipes)
For me, a base level bourbon shouldn’t be painful. It should be wallet friendly while still being structured enough to be able to be sipped on ice. I would drink either of these straight with a smile on my face.
A simple recipe to make with bourbon is the Old Fashioned. Add 2.5 oz bourbon, 1 teaspoon simple syrup, and 2 dashes of bitters to a mixing glass (like a pint glass). Add some ice and stir. Strain into an old fashioned glass over ice, preferably one large cube. Garnish with lemon or orange peel.
Finding a cheap gin tends to be a bit more difficult. The best that I’ve found for the price is Seagrams, ringing in at about $15, and sips fine with a little ice. Beyond that, you have to spend a little more to find something that won’t hurt.
One of the simplest gin cocktails out there (beside a gin and tonic) is the French 75. In a cocktail shaker add 1 oz. gin, .50 oz. lemon juice, and .25 oz simple syrup. Add ice and shake it up. Strain into a champagne flute, and top with sparkling white wine. A perfect cocktail to offer guests if someone had previously brought over a bottle of bubbly, and you just have no idea what to do with it (other than drink it on its own).
There’s no reason to drink garbage vodka, and for me it seems like cheaper vodka is more apparent in flavor and texture. If you’re looking for a vodka that doesn’t set your mouth on fire, you do have affordable options.
Put your vodka to good use in the delicious Moscow Mule. Just combine 2 oz. vodka and .50 oz lime juice over ice in a glass (or one of those fancy copper mugs), and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge.
And there we have a basic, but quite solid foundation to a home bar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep some citrus fruit on hand, and you’ll be able to offer a guest any number of cocktails depending on their palate and what they’re in the mood for. Up next, we’ll move on to the intermediate tools and bottles, and finally, the more advanced equipment and spirits for those who want to go the extra mile.
About the Author: Ashley R. is Bartender in Boise, Idaho. She’s known for challenging traditional expectations regarding what a cocktail should be, and having an intuitive understanding of the way flavors interact.