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What You Need to Create an Elegant Cocktail Bar at Home

Updated on February 15, 2011

"At the end of a really long day - or any day, really - it's ok to spend more time mixing yourself a drink than making dinner." /Wayne Curtis

If there is a dark side to today's cocktail lounge renaissance, it's the cultish devotion to obscure products, elaborate techniques, and showy drinks crafted in the high temples. I won't kid you: these drinks are good, and often great. But all this high-priest necromancy can make the craft of mixology seem out of reach for mugs like you and me.

After all, some of the greatest drinks are the simplest drinks. But know this: you can't learn while leaning on the bar and watching great bartenders at work. You need to take up the jigger and shaker yourself, and you need the right tools.

The perfect home bar should be like one of those pre-liability era home chemistry kits, containing just enough equipment and dangerous chemicals to allow satisfying and fun experimentation, but not enough to cause explosions that result in lost fingers.

Five Rules to Drink By

1) Have a go-to. Every man should know how to make three drinks very very well. Master the classic martini, the old-fashioned, then pick one that suits your style.

2) Don't show off. The only things that should ever be on display in your home bar are a few of your best bottles, a bitter or two, and a vintage cocktail shaker. Keep the rest hidden away.

3) Set the mood. Mel Tormé singing "A Shine on your Shoes" in the background makes every drink taste better.

4) Take control. Don't ask guests what they'd like to drink: pinch them the great pre-Prohibition cocktails you've already batched up. Enthusiasm will sway the most determined skeptic.

5) Never forget the garnish. The simple aesthetics and aromatics of a nicely peeled twist of lemon can turn a simple cocktail into an occasion.

Stocking Up for a Cocktail Party - All the Booze, Bitters and Garnish You Need

For the Home Bar

1) Vodka: Vodka is all about versatility, which is why it's the most popular spirit sold in the U.S. And why guests will often request it. Tito's Handmade blends the clarity of a mountain stream with a nice slightly vicious consistency that eludes lesser vodkas.

2) Rum: Drink rum for merriment. Admiral Rodney is ideal for sipping straight, coming at you from every direction - caramel, citrus, vanilla and a hint of the barrel. Float a teaspoon atop a mojito for extra kick.

3) Tequila: Always stock tequila for margaritas, but just check to be sure the label says 100 percent agave. Casa Noble Reposado is made from all blue agave, then aged for a year in French white oak. That ritual of lime and salt to knock it down? Suitable for the cheap stuff, but this deserves more respect.

Zwack Unicum Next
Zwack Unicum Next

4) Digestif: Every bar needs something to settle the stomach after a good meal. Zwack Unicum is a slightly sweet Hungarian bitter liqueur made from a complex amalgam of herbs, best consumed neat. It also bridges the gender gap - women tend to like it as much as men.

5) Scotch: Scotch will be your biggest investment, but a classic single malt is essential for moments of quiet celebration. Lagavulin is a classic Islay scotch, full of that typical smoky flavor. Remember: Scotch is a loner that generally prefers only the company of ice.

6) Bourbon: If drinking had a food pyramid, bourbon would be its base - great on the rocks and plays well with others. Woodford Reserve always hits the spot, putting every taste bud on high alert with the first sip, then comforting them with a lingering sweetness.

7) Gin: Forget gin's arranged marriage to tonic and lime. Hendrick's recaptures the fun of early London gins, layered with complicated botanicals and flavors like cucumber and rose. Try a classic Hendrick's martini and you'll forsake the vodka version forever.

8) Bitters: Bitters are concentrated infusions of barks, herbs, and roots, and just a few drops will elevate a simple drink into a refined cocktail. Angostura has earned its longevity through quality.

9) OrangeLiqueur: Essential in margaritas and cosmopolitans, Cointreau and Grand Marnier are common examples. There is also a smooth rum-based liqueur called Rhum Clément Créole Shrubb.

10) Mixers: Buy a 10 ounce bottle of tonic, club soda and ginger ale, so you open one fresh every time. Try one of the new intensely flavored mixers like Fever Tree's outstanding tonic or ginger ale.

For the Fridge

1) Citrus: stock fresh lemons, limes and oranges, and look for fruits with thin smooth skins.

2) Vermouth: A long time partner to gin in the martini, a dollop or two of vermouth can soften a sharp drink with a gentle mustiness. Stock one sweet (usually red, usually Italian) and one dry (white, French). Dolin vermouths stand head and shoulder above grocery-store varieties.

3) Mint: For mojitos and juleps store fresh spear-mint (not peppermint) in a ziploc bag with a dampened paper towel and it will keep for up to a week.

4) Olives: Have a jar of marble-size pimento-stuffed olives on hand for martinis.

5) SimpleSyrup: Granulated sugar dissolves imperfectly in cold drinks, leaving a sludge on the bottom. Simple syrup, on the other hand, will dilute evenly.

3 Piece Boston Cocktail Shaker Kit

Tovolo Perfect Cube Silicone Ice Cube Tray

OXO Steel Double Jigger

Essentials - Because It Turns Out Making a Great Drink is an Exact Science

1) Cocktail Shaker: Pros prefer a two-part Boston shaker (often just a shaker and a pint glass), but a three-piece could be more handy. Avoid rubber seals, a cheap fix for lousy engineering.

2) Ice Trays: Tovolo trays produce huge 1-1/4 -square-inch cubes, which melt slower and dilute your drink with the appropriate languor. Keep cocktail ice sealed up so it won't pick up food tastes.

3) Jigger: Pros use the Oxo double jigger for its quarter-ounce measures, which most jiggers lack. Don't get cocky and eyeball - you're not seeking strong, but balanced. Keep your crayon inside the lines.

4) Guidance:

5) Glassware: Bigger is not better. Two small cocktails that stay cold to the final sip are preferable to one large drink that's warm and watery at the bottom. The perfect shape and weight are entirely subjective, but just three simple styles will take you everywhere you need to go.

  • Highball: For tall drinks like mojitos and gin and tonics; should hold about 15 ounces.
  • Rocks: Avoid double-rocks size and you'll never end up with a watery drink.
  • Martini: Hold the stem not the bowl and keep your clammy fingers off the ice-cold drink.

Some Special Cocktails Recipes:

  1. The 'I Just Got Home From Work' Drink

    A simple variation on the vintage martini.

    1-1/2 oz gin, 1-1/2 oz dry vermouth, dash orange bitters, stir over ice and serve up in a martini glass.

  2. The 'I'm Hungover' Drink

    A gentle slap in the face for your taste buds.

    5 oz beef bouillon, 1 oz vodka, dash lemon juice, 1/4 tsp celery salt, Worcestershire sauce to taste, Tabasco to taste, shake over ice, strain into ice-filled highball glass, garnish with black pepper or lime.

  3. The 'A Few Friends Are Dropping By' Drink

    An easy-to-batch drink served in the '70s in the Jamaica's Bay Rock hotel.

    1-1/2 oz dark rum, 1-1/2 oz secret mix (see below), 1-1/2 cups crushed ice, blend for 10 seconds, pour into highball glass, garnish with orange slice or cherry.

    secret mix: 1 cup lime juice, 1 cup sugar, Angostura bitters 8-10 dashes or to taste, freshly grated nutmeg 1/4 tsp or to taste, stir and let steep in the fridge for two hours.

How To Learn to Mix a Great Cocktail

Go to your liquor cabinet and select one bottle - a darker spirit like a bourbon or an aged rum.

Pour a couple of fingers into a rock glass and add one ice cube. Sip.

What do you taste? Think back to when you first watched football as a kid. You saw a mass of large men running crazily into one another.

Then you gradually came to understand how each of these men have a specific role, and that how ell they work together determines the team's success. So it is with spirits.

In bourbon you are tasting corn, a bit of the barrel, charred wood. You're also tasting the passage of time. Listen to what it tells you.

Now you can think about mixing in something else. Good cocktails are built upon the essence of the spirit respectfully adding other elements (bitters, fruit, mixers) that accent rather than hide.

There is a name for those who think the purpose of a cocktail is to mask the taste of liquor: schoolboys. A real cocktail - the sort that men think - embraces the whole spirit. Now go make one.

BACARDI Cocktails & Shows Video


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    • profile image

      Jeanette 3 years ago

      It's a real plurseae to find someone who can think like that

    • profile image

      Fanny 3 years ago

      Great inithgs. Relieved I'm on the same side as you.

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 7 years ago from USA

      Great hub, Haunty! I'm partial to gin & tonics, scotch & sodas and Rusty Nails. Yum!