This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a commission on these links at no cost to you.
Building an at-home bar can seem like a steep investment. There’s thousands of options for liquors, bitters, simple syrups, and cocktail equipment. In all honesty, there are only a few essential pieces you need to build your at-home bar.
As time comes along, there are always more liquors, bitters, syrups, and equipment you can buy. There will never be an end to fun bar items, and I will include some nice-to-have items at the end!
ABSOLUTE ESSENTIALS for an at-home bar
#1: 1-3 LIQUORS
When first stocking my at-home bar, I had: one tequila, one vodka, and one rum. As I began to experiment more with creating cocktail recipes, I added one mezcal, one bourbon, and one gin.
If I were to only stock my bar with 5 liquors: Vodka, Mezcal, Tequila, Cointreau, and Gin. This gives me the most basic at-home bar versatile enough to make plenty of drinks recipes. (My 6th add would be Elderflower Liquor, because I’m a HUGE fan)
While many cocktail recipes call for a specific liquor, you can switch it up for whatever you have at home. I’ve run out of tequila and instead made margaritas with mezcal. I forgot vodka while making Moscow Mules – that’s fine, there’s tequila and/or mezcal!
TOP TIP: think of cocktails and drinks you want to make most. Start out with purchasing one bottle and add as your budget allows.
Do you like margaritas? Buy one good-quality tequila and orange liquor like Cointreau or Triple Sec (usually cheaper).
Do you like gin-based drinks? Buy one higher-quality bottle.
If you’re all about the vodka drinks only – there’s your answer! If you wanted to experiment on top of the vodka, you can try liqueurs instead.
Okay, what’s a jigger?!
A jigger is the MOST IMPORTANT bartender tool you need for making drinks. It is how you measure the amount of alcohol, and it also helps measure out ingredients like juices. Even if you have no other tools, this will help ensure balanced drinks.
Not every jigger is the same – some are 2 ounces on one side, and 0.5-1 ounces on the other side. Typical cocktail recipes go for 2 OZ for liquors & 0.5-1 OZ for juices or other add on’s.
Cheapest Option: Use your liquid measuring cups! They usually measure as low as 1 OZ!
Budget Friendly: Jigger with measured ticks
#3: COCKTAIL SHAKER
RULE: use a shaker for drinks that mix liquor with a fresh fruit juice, egg, dairy, creamy liquor, sour mix, or simple syrup. Summary: shake the drink when the liquor needs to mix with other ingredients. NOTE: Never shake with carbonated beverage.
(Rules are often broken – it does not make a drink “bad” if you don’t shake it, but it will change the flavor)
A strainer helps ‘strain’ the muddled fruit or herbs in drinks. It also ensures a smooth sip!
Budget Friendly: Use a small strainer you already own. It may not cover the shaker, but it will work!
Convenience Friendly: Buy a cocktail strainer that fits a cocktail shaker. Even better, buy a shaker with a built-in strainer top!
Budget Friendly: Use the bottom of a clean cooking spoon!
#6: BASIC SIMPLE SYRUP
Making a simple syrup is the cheapest way to stock your at-home bar. It only takes water and sugar, and there are thousands of ways to customize per drink. This means less waste and lower costs!
You can find the basics for making a simple syrup here.
There are three typical sizes of cocktail glasses: cocktail/coupe, lowball and highball.
Cocktail glasses (a.k.a. coupe glasses) look like an upside down cone. Use for cold drinks served without ice: Martinis, Cosmo’s, or champagne-based cocktails. The design has a long stem to prevent your hands from touching the drink and warming the cocktail.
The Lowball or Old Fashioned glasses are shorter and are for almost every drink. Lowball glasses are the classic option and can also use for neat drinks (without ice), or on the rocks (with an ice cube).
Highball glasses are taller and hold more. Use the highball glasses for drinks that topped with non-alcoholic mixers like soda or ginger beer. Typical uses are: Bloody Mary, Mojito.
Budget Friendly: Start by using your everyday cups. Nobody will refuse a margarita served in the “wrong” glass!
UPGRADES for an at-home bar cart
Before having my current bar cart, I would either leave my bottles on a bookshelf or in a cardboard crate! Bar carts can be expensive, but they don’t have to be! Be creative – bookshelves can always work!
Budget Friendly: 3-Tier Rolling Metal Bookshelf
A bar spoon is helpful for stirring and also for making expert-level cocktail recipes. Some recipes may say “bar spoon of” X ingredient. It is a smaller spoon perfect for stirring and measuring this small amount. If you make many stirred drinks, then this will be a must. For the entry-level at-home bartender, you can always use a regular spoon.
NICE-TO-HAVES for an at-home bar cart
FLAVORED SIMPLE SYRUPS
Having fun, flavored simple syrups is great for being creative with cocktails. When I’m in a time-crunch, I don’t want to make my own simple syrup, so I do have a stock of some favorite pre-made options!
- ORGEAT. A must have for Mai Tai and other tiki-style drinks.
- GRENADINE. This is often used in many classic drinks. It’s also a fun way to spruce up a prosecco cocktail or mix with your favorite liquor for an easy drink.
- GINGER. This is my favorite way to add an extra spice to some of my favorite drinks. Try a dash in a Dark n Stormy or Moscow Mule.
Garnishing your glass takes the drink to the next level. We use our eyes first and a better looking drink is fun (& doesn’t have to cost a lot!)
Great garnish options:
- FRESH CITRUS. Cut a wheel or wedge of whatever citrus you’re using in the drink.
- FRESH HERBS. Throw in a rosemary sprig, basil, mint, or even cilantro.
- DEHYDRATED FRUIT. I have an amazing set of dehydrated fruit from the Cocktail Garnish (women-owned business local to Los Angeles). I use for making professional looking drinks. My favorites are the dried oranges, lemons, and pineapple!
- FRESH FRUIT. Slice a pear or apple and add a slit to sit on the glass, or lay it inside. Cucumber ribbons are fun too!
- PARTY PICKS & COCKTAIL PICKS. To help balance your garnishes. Buy a pack of party picks or reusable metal picks!
Bitters are alcohol infused with botanicals like fruit, spices, leaves, roots, and herbs. Soak alcohol in botanicals of choice for specific flavorings. Bitters do have alcohol and most are generally 35-45% alcohol.
Bitters got their name because, well they are bitter! If you do not like the sweet or sour aspects of a cocktail, the bitterness can balance the drink. It also adds an extra level to the depth of flavor in your drink. Because bitters are concentrated, you only need a dash (⅛ of a teaspoon, or 6-8 drops from the bottle).
The most common drinks with bitters: Manhattans, Negronis, martinis, Sazeracs, and Old Fashioned. The most common type of bitters needed are orange bitters.
Angostura Bitters – for the classic Old Fashioned (and other classic drinks)
Infuse Bitters – for infused bitters with options like Mole and Cardamom
Peychaud’s Bitters – for the classic Sazerac
Scrappy’s Bitters – for fun flavor options
Questions for an at-home bar cart?
Have any questions or other looking for tips? Let me know in the comments and always feel free to contact me here or on Instagram!