While a bar cart instantly conjures glamorous images of pouring whiskey into crystal glasses or shaking up martinis while wearing a floor-length ballgown in a black and white movie, the modern-day bar cart can be anything you want it to be—and it doesn’t even have to be on a cart.
When it comes to stocking the bar, rather than trying to recreate your favorite cocktail bar’s collection at home, the most important thing is to buy what actually makes the most sense for your drinking habits—aka what you would order at said bar. This way, you're creating a personalized home bar, and you can enjoy a cocktail in your pajamas on the couch or with your ballgown on with friends over.
While there is a lot of fancy equipment out there, Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons in NYC, says that you don’t really need a lot of it to make a great drink. With his help and that of cocktail book author Maggie Hoffman, here are the essential elements to stock your bar, plus some extras thrown in there for good measure.
Step 1: Figure Out What Kind of Drinks You Like & Buy the Basics
There’s no point in buying a spirit that you’ll never drink or stocking up on Scotch because you think it sounds fancy. Instead of stocking your cart with a variety of liquors to cover all of the bases, it’s better to buy things that you’ll actually enjoy drinking and serving—points that both Simó and Hoffman told me off the bat. Ask yourself: What do I typically like to drink and what do I like to make for guests? For example, if you’re a martini drinker, then Simó says you’ll want to buy some gin, vodka, vermouth, maybe citrus bitters and at least a bar spoon or sturdy chopstick (and some of the other tools below).
You can keep the base ingredients for your favorite cocktail stocked regularly, but, from there you should shop for cocktails by looking at recipes and gathering the ingredients as you need them. Hoffman's book One Bottle Cocktail offers plenty of recipes for building cocktails off of one base spirit, so you can use that gin you keep stocked for your martini and make an entirely new cocktail for your dinner party simply using grocery store ingredients.
BUY IT: Viski Barspoon, $10 on Amazon
Step 2: Try Before You Buy
If you’re unsure of what to buy in terms of a base spirit to keep around, Hoffman says to go to a bar and order different spirits to taste before investing in one. If you think you might be a fan of gin, for example, she says to order gin and tonics with something like Tanquerey, and then with something you haven’t tried, whether it's Amass from Los Angeles, St. George Botanivore from Alameda or Blue Gin from Austria, or whatever your bartender recommends. This will help you make the right choice for a go-to variety when stocking the bar.
BUY IT: Blue Gin, $50 from Flaviar
Step 3: Buy the Right Books
It’s important to have reliable books to turn to when deciding what cocktail to make and how to make it. Simó recommends two books, first, The Craft Cocktail Party by Julie Reiner that he says is really accessible for home use as the infusions and drinks are not too complicated. He also recommends Cocktail Codex by Alex Day. It teaches you how mixologists think about drinks when making them, which will help you improve your at-home skills.
I'd also recommend stocking up on one or both of Hoffman’s books, depending on whether you want to make batch cocktails or cocktails for one or two people, as they are written in an upbeat and approachable tone with lots of helpful tips.
Step 4: Buy the Essential Tools
A jigger is a must for cocktail beginners according to Simó, as it takes a lot of practice and skill to learn how to free pour. Jiggers typically come in an hourglass shape, but OXO makes one that looks more like a measuring cup, so pick whichever you are more comfortable handling. He notes to look for one with one and two-ounce lines as well as interior markers for smaller measurements like one half or three quarters so you have more flexibility when making drinks.
Mason Jars, Tape, and Sharpies
When you make cocktails, you may have leftovers of ingredients like simple syrup or infused liquors. Simó says it’s helpful to label everything in your fridge with painter’s tape and a sharpie—that way you know how long it’s been there and when to toss it out. Simply write the name and date on a Mason jar, so there’s no confusing your latest batch of simple syrup with the one you made two months ago. His trick, when he has a lot of leftover simple syrup, is to throw in a shot of vodka as it triples the life of it sitting in your fridge. A one-to-one simple syrup (water to sugar ratio) will last about a month, maybe longer. A shot of vodka stabilizes it for up to three months and won’t affect the flavor. Pretty genius trick, right?
Shakers & Mixing Glasses
Simó says it’s not really necessary to buy a crystal mixing glass when you’re just learning how to stir cocktails. You can use the bigger of the shaker tins if you’re not ready for the investment. Buying a 28-ounce or 18-ounce tin lets you make at least two drinks if you’re shaking, maybe three, if you’re stirring. Plus, this is where that good metal bar spoon or sturdy chopstick comes in handy. Hoffman recommends the Boston Shaker set below and avoids three-part shakers as they can seal shut at inopportune times. If you are ready for a mixing glass, I recommend the ones below.
Microplane & Y-Peeler
Use a Microplane to grate horseradish or ginger into a drink. It’s also a great tool for zesting citrus to finish cocktails. The vegetable peeler you use for carrots or cucumbers comes in handy for making clean citrus peels for old-fashioneds or negronis. Even though you probably keep these tools stocked in the kitchen, your bar area might deserve its own set.
Step 5: Get Into Batch Cocktails
Rather than standing there, making drinks to order for all of your friends (and not being able to actually hang out with them), Hoffman says she prefers to make batch cocktails for entertaining (she even wrote a whole book about it). She uses pitchers, swing top bottles, or large mason jars to store make-ahead batches of cocktails and chills them so that guests can serve themselves come party time.
Step 6: Obsess Over Your Ice
A key component to a good cocktail—whether it’s whiskey on the rocks with a fancy cube or gin and tonic—is ice.
Both Simó and Hoffman recommend putting your ice in freezer bags before you entertain. It makes it easy to access—and ensures that it doesn't smell. After all, you don't want your ice to taste like the chili you batch-cooked and froze for a rainy day. You can put the molds in the bags while the water freezes, then unmold the ice directly into the bag once it's frozen. (You can reuse the same freezer bags over and over, since they're just holding ice. But, if you want to avoid plastic bags, opt for large reusable silicone ones.)
BUY IT: Hefty Freezer Bags, 96 count, $16 on Amazon or Gallon Size Reusable Silicone Food Storage Bags, $35 on Amazon
Step 7: Get the Right Glasses
While a collection of glasses makes bar carts more attractive, Hoffman says you don’t necessarily need a million to make great cocktails at home. She says it’s nice to have some tall highballs for fizzy drinks, solid rocks glasses for boozier drinks, like old-fashioneds, and something stemmed for drinks served up, like martinis. She recommends scouring flea markets for affordable glassware and searching sites like Cocktail Kingdom and Umami Mart.
Step 8: Consider a Bar Cart
Yes, you can definitely use a shelf or a counter top to store your cocktail supplies, but an actual bar cart is fun and fancy if you really want to commit. They are also perfect for displaying your cocktail books, fancy glassware, plants or other knicknacks you’ve collected. If you’re in a smaller space, then you can also look for ones that are dual butcher blocks that have shelving below or above for you to store glasses and bottles.
Even if you don't buy a special cart for your bar, Hoffman says to try to keep all spirits in one area and easily in sight so you don’t accidentally end up buying an extra bottle of triple sec because you didn’t see the one lurking in the back corner. And make sure to keep any vermouth or sherry chilled (they are fortified, which means they'll last longer than regular wines, but they still need to be chilled). In the fridge, vermouth lasts about a month or so.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious