How to Build a Home Bar
A sense of style and an open mind are key ingredients
By Laurel Miller
I am not a bartender.
Despite working in the food and beverage industry for 30 years, the one position that’s eluded me is making drinks. I’ve worked in distilleries, but my innate clumsiness and learning disability-induced mathematical incompetence don’t lend themselves to bartending professionally. I do, however, find fulfillment in watching skilled bartenders work; every move is fluid and efficient, a succinct ballet culminating in the placement of cocktail upon coaster.
We can still help Austin’s food and beverage industry by ordering meals and drinks (including cocktails) to go. Some establishments, like Hestia, are even selling cocktail kits. Being quarantined, however, has increased my appreciation for the home bar, as virtual and socially distanced happy hours become our new conduits to building community and taking a much-needed moment to unwind.
In less fraught times, a basic bar can make houseguests feel at home or enliven a dinner party, whether it’s located on a cart, countertop (tip: place bottles on a vintage tray) or repurposed nightstand. My bar is a thrifted, 1930s glass-fronted cabinet, embellished with my great-grandmother’s sterling barware, a pair of 1970s tiki salt-and-pepper shakers my parents bought in Hawaii and a monkey carved from a coconut, a souvenir from my 2019 trip to Cuba.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or merely want to expand your current selection, the following tips will enable you to build a home bar to fit your budget and lifestyle.
As a former cheesemonger, my job was to sell products to customers who often had no idea what they liked. By asking them to name their likes and dislikes based on flavor and texture, we were able to provide them with samples of compatible cheeses. Spirits are much the same: if you’re a bourbon drinker (a type of whiskey notable for its notes of caramel, coffee, vanilla, wood and leather) you’ll likely enjoy a quality añejo sipping rum. If you despise gin because you liken it to drinking a Christmas tree, you’ll want to avoid certain styles like London Dry, in which juniper is the dominant flavor.
Find a trusted bartender or liquor store employee to provide suggestions – and perhaps tastings – of spirits based on your preferences and aversions. It’s also helpful to read online tasting notes from a respected source like Wine Enthusiast.
Even if you think you loathe a certain category of spirit, I promise there’s something out there for you if you keep an open mind. Not all mezcals are “smokey,” nor is all gin juniper-forward. Tequila doesn’t have to made you shudder, and many amari (bitter, botanical spirits like Aperol, Fernet and vermouth) do not taste like cough syrup. Some of my favorite libations are from categories I previously dismissed, but it’s also a great way to work a couple of more esoteric, playful selections into your bar – just be sure you’ll actually use them. Liquor does go bad, so leave the novelty booze in the souvenir shop.
Remember that you get what you pay for: resist the temptation to buy bottom-shelf spirits, which are often adulterated with additives and likely to contain certain compounds leftover from the distillation process that will invoke the mother of all hangovers. Being on a budget is fine, but it’s about quality, not quantity.
It’s never been more important to support local breweries and distilleries, especially if they’re using Texas-grown ingredients. For a more general approach, I asked Sarah Rahl, lead bartender at Goldie’s at the Proper Hotel, for her advice on creating a basic home bar. “I’d recommend a good vodka, gin, bourbon and a silver (blanco) tequila as a starting point,” she says. “Then master a couple of ‘two-touch’ cocktails, like gin-and-tonic or whiskey-ginger.”
Once you’re comfortable with basic drinks, Rahl suggests making infused simple syrups for more creative cocktails. Ginger syrup is easy to make and “great with everything,” she says, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other botanicals. Try sourcing them at the farmers market or farm stand. “It might seem like science but just think about what flavors you like in food and bring that to your drinks,” says Rahl. “That lemon-and-thyme roasted chicken you love? Make a thyme syrup, juice some lemons and add vodka. Finish it with a little Topo Chico, if you’re wanting a lighter version.”
Don’t forget the modifiers and mixers: even the most basic classic cocktails call for ingredients (alcoholic and non-) like aromatic bitters (not to be confused with the spirit category, these are added to cocktails in minute quantities to add depth or balance flavors; Angostura and Peychaud’s are the most ubiquitous). The aforementioned simple syrups should be stored in the refrigerator, as should fortified spirits like vermouth. The latter category is essential, but, says Travis Tober, co-owner of Nickel City, “You really only need three: Dolin Dry for martinis, a sweet vermouth like Cocchi di Torino for Negronis and other boozy stirred cocktails and Lillet Blanc for a light, refreshing, fruit-forward fortified wine that’s great on ice or in cocktails.” Store a couple of mixers in your pantry or refrigerator, and remember that glass bottles are more sustainable, shelf-stable and won’t impart off-flavors.
Don’t waste your money on fancy cocktail kits and equipment; all you really need is a commercial-quality shaker, Hawthorne strainer and jigger and a mixing glass and bar spoon, available through any restaurant or bar supply website. You can also buy glassware on the cheap, but I prefer to find vintage pieces at flea markets, yard sales and my parents’ house. These are also great places to find ice buckets, punch bowls, coasters trays and retro bar ephemera.
Ice matters. Sure, you can buy a bag at the store, but making your own looks better. Silicone trays are durable and enable you to make two-inch block cubes or spheres, which cause less dilution. Use distilled water to avoid off-flavors; it will also give you crystalline cubes.
Get into the kitchen; take advantage of seasonal produce by making brandied cherries, pickled green beans or other cocktail garnishes to have on hand. If you prefer to buy, skip the neon Maraschinos and try chemical-free Amarena or Luxardo cherries, widely available in stores and online.
Travis Tober’s Pre-bottled Martini
The co-owner of Nickel City and seasoned bartender says his favorite home hack is pre-bottling martinis and chilling them in the freezer – perfect for backyard barbecues and happy hours (virtual or not).
Combine three-parts gin (Tober uses Waterloo Old Yaupon) with one-part Dolin Dry and one-part filtered water in container and transfer to a clean bottle using a funnel. Place in freezer for several hours. Add several dashes of orange bitters to a pre-chilled martini glass and add martini. Garnish with orange twist.
Have fun with it. And, as always, drink responsibly.