Summer Entertaining: How to Build a Basic Bar

Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

Maybe you’ve been known to make the occasional Gin and Tonic at home, but leave the Mojitos, Caipirinhas, and Margaritas to the pro bartenders to mix up. Or maybe you’re already a master of half a dozen recipes, but haven’t yet tried that incredibly refreshing-looking one that just caught your eye because you’re short a bar staple or two.

Here’s how, by stocking up on some basic ingredients and a minimum of specialized tools, you can start building your own home bar for entertaining this Fourth of July weekend - and keep things shaking and stirring for months to come.

While it can be prohibitively expensive to out and buy a whole liquor cabinet at once, my personal bar-building strategy has been to start out by stocking up on several favorites, and then to slowly and strategically add to my collection before those initial few bottles get used up. (After that, maintenance is pretty easy.) Everyone has different tastes - and different priorities - but here are some “pantry” basics to consider building on this summer:

FIRST, STOCK UP ON BASE SPIRITS
Start with some sturdy foundations:

AND INVEST IN SOME OTHER BOOZY BASICS
I think of these as the supporting players in a cocktail. They are used in smaller quantities than the base spirits and so tend to go a very long way:

  • Sweet vermouth (for Manhattans, Negronis, Americanos, etc., or even just sipped alone as an aperitif)
  • Dry vermouth (for Martinis, Gibsons, Bronxes, and others – or as an aperitif)
  • Bitters (For the Manhattan, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, Champagne Cocktail, and others. A wide variety of flavors and brands are available, but if Angostura is a good, versatile one to start out with. Because most recipes call for only a few drops at a time, a small bottle goes a very long way.)
  • Cointreau or triple sec (Essential ingredient for Margaritas, Cosmopolitans, and others.)

TRY OUT SOME LIQUEURS, CORDIALS, APERITIFS, ETC.
If you're looking for extra flavor and range in your cocktail recipes, there are many special extras to consider. The possibilities are nearly endless, but here are a few favorite picks:

TAKE THESE FROM THE KITCHEN

  • Fresh limes and lemons (for juicing and garnishes)
  • Fresh, seasonal fruit (watermelon, berries, plums, nectarines, etc.)
  • Fresh herbs (mint, lemon verbena, basil, shiso, thyme, all play well in cocktails)
  • Sugar (add water and some heat, you can whip up a batch of simple syrup in minutes)
  • Fresh Egg Whites (for the adventurous)
  • Ice
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ADD SOME MIXERS...

AND CONSIDER YOUR TOOLS
While stylish, ergonomically designed cocktail gear can add a lot of ease and enjoyment to the drink-making experience, many bar tools can be improvised from basic kitchen gear in a pinch:

  • Muddler (or substitute a wooden pestle or a long wooden spoon)
  • Citrus Reamer (or simply squeeze by hand.)
  • Cocktail Shaker (best to use the real thing here. Shakers can be purchased quite inexpensively from restaurant supply stores.)
  • Paring Knife (for cutting fruit)
  • Bar Spoon (for mixing stirred cocktails – or substitute a regular kitchen spoon)
  • Corkscrew/Bottle Opener (this one’s hard to fake)
  • Jigger (comes in a variety of sizes for measuring bar ingredients. Regular kitchen measures can be used instead.)

Do you keep a well-stocked bar at home or do you prefer to buy ingredients as you need them? What are your desert-island cocktail essentials?

Related: Summer Cocktails! The Full Roundup

(Images: Nora Maynard)

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