Cocktail Basics: How to Stock Your Home Bar Like a Pro

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Here's everything you need to stock your home bar like a pro!

With the holidays right around the corner, it’s time to think about entertaining friends and family with all those holiday get-togethers! You’ve got your favorite dishes to make and decorations to put up. But if you really enjoy entertaining, a well-stocked home bar and a few cocktail recipes up your sleeve should be checked off your to-do list before company comes over!

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Okay, but where do you start?

If you really want to hone your mixology skills, you need to start with the right setup first. Think of it the same way as cooking. You would probably find it pretty difficult to cook without the proper equipment in the kitchen. And cocktails start with ingredients, just like when you are cooking a dish.

That’s why I’m here! I can’t magically turn you into the best at-home bartender in the neighborhood, but I can help get you started.

These are all the necessary basics that you will need for mixing up all kinds of cocktails! From an Old Fashioned to a White Russian, and plenty of other classic cocktails, here’s what you need to get started.

And once you get your home bar stocked, there are a few simple and classic cocktail recipes to practice!

The Spirits

Spirits are crucial to crafting cocktails. Your home bar needs to be stocked with a few high-quality spirits to work with. Don’t get this twisted, though. We’re going to be mixing these, not drinking them straight, so they don’t necessarily need to be top shelf. Great mixing spirits can often be found for $40 or less. Save the $400 bourbon for savoring on its own.

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The Five Crucial Liquors

These are the five crucial liquors every cocktail enthusiast should stock their bars with:

  • Vodka – You will need this clear, smooth spirit to create cocktails like a Moscow Mule, White Russian, or Cosmopolitan.
  • Gin – With its herbs and botanicals, gin is an essential home bar ingredient. You’ll need this liquor for Martinis, Negronis, Tom Collins, and more.
  • Bourbon Whiskey – Bourbon, the more popular whiskey, and is used in iconic classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Mint Julep.
  • Tequila – Made in Mexico, tequila comes from the blue agave plant. It is essential for classic drinks like Margaritas and Palomas.
  • Rum – Rum is one of the oldest known spirits, so it’s a no-brainer when it comes to stocking a home bar. You’ll use this if you want to whip up a classic Mojito, Daiquiri, or Piña Colada.

Other Useful Additions

Obviously, there are tons of different liquors out there. Beyond these five, here are a few others that are nice to have if you are looking to expand your home bar selection:

  • Mezcal – Mezcal is agave-based like tequila, but it is made differently, giving it depth and a smoky flavor.
  • Brandy – Brandy is distilled from wine and is both enjoyed on its own and used to make cocktails like a Sidecar.
  • Dark Rum – Most people use white rum for mixing. Dark rum has been aged inside wooden barrels, giving it a distinct flavor and darker color. It can be sipped on its own or used in cocktails.
  • Whiskey (Bourbon, Rye, or Scotch) – Having different kinds of whiskey opens more possibilities as their flavor profiles are different. Rye whiskey is made with rye instead of bourbon’s corn, and Scotch only comes from Scotland.
  • Aged Tequila (Reposado, Añejo) – Tequila Reposado and Añejo are two kinds of aged tequila. After being distilled, they are aged in oak barrels. They are more golden in color and have more complex flavors.
  • Flavored Liquors – Flavored liquors aren’t usually used in the classics, but there are some drinks that work well with the extra flavors.

Obviously, you can stock your home bar with any liquors you personally enjoy! These are just the basics that give you plenty to experiment with.

Other Spirits

While liquor is an important part of creating a proper cocktail, you will need more than just that for your setup. All of these aren’t necessary, but liqueurs, bitters, and other spirits will definitely take your cocktail game to the next level and give you many more options. Other popular spirits include:

  • Vermouth
  • Triple Sec
  • Orange Bitters
  • Amaretto
  • Irish Cream
  • Campari
  • Kahlúa
  • St. Germain
  • Sambuca
  • Frangelico

For more, check out this List of Liqueurs from A to Z.

The Mixers and Garnishes

There is certainly no way I could ever list out every mixer and garnish out there, but I can give you an idea of the basics. You likely have at least a few of these in your home already!

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Must-Have Mixers

First, let’s take a look at some of the must-have mixers for your cocktail experimentation:

  • Sparkling Water
  • Tonic Water
  • Ginger Beer
  • Simple Syrup
  • Lemon or Lime Juice
  • Grenadine Syrup
  • Orange Juice
  • Cranberry Juice
  • Ginger Ale
  • Other Sodas

Common Garnishes

Often thought of as showy finishing touches – and hey, sometimes they are! – these garnishes elevate basic cocktail ingredients. These can include all kinds of herbs, fruits, jarred items, and even sauces. But let’s just look at a few of the necessities to get an idea:

  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Orange Peel
  • Fresh Mint, Rosemary, Basil, and Other Herbs
  • Cinnamon
  • Olives
  • Maraschino Cherries
  • Hot Sauce
  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Horseradish
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper

Most of these garnishes are used in a variety of different concoctions, making them pretty useful for general experimentation. You don’t have to have all of these to get started, of course. But the more cocktails you learn how to make, the more of these you will eventually use.

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The Cocktail Tools

Having all those ingredients won’t do you any good if you don’t have the tools to create your drinks! These are the basic tools of the trade. While it’s possible to craft your drinks without these, they’re worth springing for. They’re relatively inexpensive and will make your job much easier. You won’t need to spend a lot of money to pick up these items, except for maybe the blender.

Cocktail Shaker – Just like the name suggests, a cocktail shaker is used to shake up all the ingredients to mix them together. But please do not use this to shake your martinis!

Strainer – A strainer is used to pour the drink into a glass without the ice it was mixed with.

Long-Handled Metal Bar Spoon – You will need a spoon to stir cocktails, and the long handle of a bar spoon will easily fit into all sizes of containers. The spoon is also the perfect teaspoon size for measuring.

Jigger – A jigger is dual-sided and is used for measuring your liquor. One side is 1.5 ounces, and the other is ¾ of an ounce. If you’re not a professional bartender, this can be a big help when it comes to being consistent.

Muddler – A cocktail muddler is like a pestle, which you will use to mash fresh ingredients to release the essence.

Blender – If you plan on making frozen drinks, you will definitely need a strong, high-quality blender that can crush up ice with ease.

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Classic Cocktail Recipes to Master

Creating a good mixed drink is all about balance. Out of all the thousands of recipes and variations for cocktails, you’ll discover that they are all built around getting the right balance of all the flavors. 

Related: 5 Cocktail Recipes You Have to Try Over the Holidays

You’ve got to crawl before you walk, right? The best way to get started with crafting cocktails is to master the basics. Think of it as a foundation for future creative creations. Following recipes and mixing up the classics will help you understand flavor, balance, and proper ratios.

Once you’ve got these down, you’ll find it easy to move into making your own cocktail creations!

Old Fashioned

  • 1.5 oz Bourbon or Rye Whiskey
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 2 Dashes Bitters
  • Splash of Water
  • Orange Peel or Cherry for Garnish

Add sugar, bitters, and water into a mixing glass, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Fill the mixing glass with ice, add bourbon, and stir until chilled. Strain into a glass over one large ice cube, and add garnish.

Gin Martini

  • 2.5 oz Gin
  • ½ oz Vermouth
  • 1 Dash Bitters (Optional)
  • Lemon Twist or Olives for Garnish

Pour ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, and stir until very cold. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish.

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Margarita

  • 2 oz Tequila
  • ½ oz Triple Sec
  • 1 oz Lime Juice
  • Salt for Rim of Glass
  • Lime Wedge for Garnish (Optional)

Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and strain into a glass with a salted rim.

Mojito

  • 2 oz White Rum
  • ½ oz Simple Syrup
  • ¾ oz Lime Juice
  • 6 Mint Leaves
  • Club Soda, to Top
  • Lime Wedge and Mint Spring for Garnish

Muddle mint leaves with simple syrup in a shaker. Add rum, lime juice, and ice to the shaker, give it a shake, and then strain into a glass with fresh ice. Top with club soda and garnish.

White Russian

  • 2 oz Vodka
  • 1 oz Kahlúa
  • 1 Splash of Heavy Cream

Fill a rocks glass with ice, and add the vodka and Kahlúa. Top with heavy cream and stir.

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