How To Create Your Own Home Bar
Putting together a home bar may be intimidating. There is such a myriad of spirits and tools available these days it can become so overwhelming that you choose to put it off altogether. As social distancing becomes the protocol, this is as good a time as any to start building and experimenting in the comfort of your own home.
Before we get into the nitty gritty below, a quick suggestion to also consider ordering take-away cocktails from your local bars (if they are offering any) to support them during this pandemic. A few bars offering this include The Old Man, Tell Camellia, The Wise King, and Shady Acres.
1/5 The Bar Space
The first step is to establish a bar space. Square footage in Hong Kong may be a limiting factor, so if you are not amongst the lucky few who can dedicate a whole area to be a home bar, consider a trolley, a countertop area on a console, or simply a tray (just be aware that as your keenness for making a home tipple grows, so will your bar space!). This will give your bottles and tools a home so you won’t be discouraged from making a drink by the thought of rummaging through your cabinets and utensils drawer for the mise en place.
2/5 The Bottles
Now for the main event – what bottles of spirits do you really need? While it is tempting to nab an array of colourful liqueurs and beautiful bottles to make your bar look aesthetically pleasing, chances are if you don’t think this part through, you will end up with a whole lot more spirits gathering dust than you will have spirits in cocktails.
The bottles suggested below are the staples of most bars. Below each one is a list of classic cocktails that feature that spirit and can be made using only the bottles within this list alongside a few pantry items. If the corresponding cocktails are not your favourite, eliminate those bottles from your initial collection.
When selecting the brand of your spirits (you’ll find a few recommended ones below), be sure to buy ones that you are happy to sip neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of mixer in a highball. A cocktail can only be as good as its ingredients, and there may be days when you don’t want to go through the motions or shaking or stirring to get to your reward at the end of a long day.
One final pro tip would be to find yourself a signature cocktails – perhaps something from your favourite bar that you have learnt to replicate, or a product of your mixology experiments. Keep the ingredients for that one cocktail on hand for both your own indulgence, as well as to impress guests with the next time you throw a dinner party.
If you are a gin & tonic fan, have a range of bottles with different flavour profiles on hand to suit every mood such as a classic juniper-forward London Dry gin, one with more unusual botanicals, and a barrel-aged gin.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Gin & Tonic, Martini, Negroni, Gimlet, Tom Collins, White Lady
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Two Moons Signature Dry Gin (HK Brand), Perfume Tree (HK Brand)
Always ready for tropical cocktails and at-home holiday vibes. Try muddling some basil into your daiquiri or ginger into your mojito.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Daiquiri, Mojito, Pina Colada
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Diplomatico Planas
Not only for tiki cocktails. A good dark rum can easily substitute whisky both in recipes and for sipping.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Dark & Stormy, Rum Old Fashioned, Jungle Bird
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Plantation Single Island Series
Be sure to look for the 100% agave indication on the label. This will ensure you are getting sipping quality (not shooting quality!) tequila!
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Margarita, Paloma
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Ocho Blanco
Whisk(e)y lovers may have personal preferences on the regions they prefer – Scotland, American, Japanese etc. Each have their own merits. As a generalisation, for lighter and more delicate flavours, Japanese; for more smokiness, an Islay Scotch; for more sweetness and full-bodied, an American Bourbon. If you are a beginner, blended Scotches and bourbons are a versatile way to start for cocktails.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Whisky Highball, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Boulevardier, Mint Julep
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Michter’s Bourbon
A necessary component for a few classics. Also works beautifully on its own on the rocks or with a splash of soda or tonic water. Be sure to refrigerate once opened to preserve its freshness.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Negroni, Manhattan, Boulevardier, Americano, Vermouth & Tonic/Soda
BRAND(S) TO TRY: La Quintinye Vermouth Rouge
This comes in most handy if you like a classic martini. Less of a home bar must-have if you don’t. Be sure to refrigerate once opened to preserve its freshness.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Martini
BRAND(S) TO TRY: Mancino Secco Vermouth
This is an orange flavoured liqueur that is most popularly seen in Margaritas and Cosmopolitans. It is by no means a bar essential (a Tommy’s Margarita is made without it) but comes down to personal Marg-preferences.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Margarita, White Lady
The bitter flavour profile may be an acquired taste, but there is no arguing its starring role in a classic Negroni.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Americano, Negroni, Girabaldi
This is a concentrated solution of infused herbs and spices – big flavours in a tiny drop. A few dashes can be used to elevate a variety of cocktails, but most notably the classic Old Fashioned.
CLASSIC COCKTAILS: Old Fashioned
3/5 The Pantry
Just like cooking a nice meal, you will have to think and prepare ahead a little to make more varieties of cocktails with perishables like fruits and herbs. Items such as mint and olives that are often recommended for beginner bars are often times impractical to always have on hand (mint wilts very quickly, and olives are only really applicable if you like them in martinis).
The few staples that have a long shelf life and apply to most classics mentioned above are:
1. Sugar – usually in the form of a simple syrups solution which involves boiling water with granulated sugar on a 1:1 ratio. Feel free to experiment with other sugar types like demerara, or substituting with agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup.
2. Lemon – the juice is always used to provide the sour balance to cocktails, and the peels are a great way to garnish and provide a zest of fresh essential oils to finish. Just be sure to cut away the pith (the white spongey part of the peels) to prevent an excess bitterness.
3. Tonic and soda water – for simple highball-style cocktails when you don’t want to shake or stir.
4/5 The Tools
Here are a few key tools to complete your bar set-up. They are worth investing in to ease along the cocktail-making process and make it that much more enticing to make your own drinks! In a pinch, an old jam or pasta sauce jar with its lid can always be used a shaker, a small spoon (preferably with a long handle) as a stirrer, and tea strainer as a… well, strainer. Many of the below products can be found on specialist stores like The Bottle Shop.
Shaker – 3-piece shakers are the easiest to use if you are new to mixology. For a more designer look (at the sacrifice of being a little less ergonomic), try Tom Dixon, Indigo Living, or Georg Jensen
Jigger – to measure your pours
Ice tray / mould – for good quality ice that won’t dilute your well made drink too quickly
Muddler – for incorporating fruits and herbs into cocktails
Bar spoon – for stirred drinks
Mixing glass – for stirred drinks. You can always use the tin of your shaker instead, but it certainly looks more beautiful done in a glass!
Strainer – for pouring from the mixing glass and if using a 2-piece shaker
Fine strainer – to catch bits of pulp if using juices etc.
Citrus press – so you don’t have to take out your juicer just for a tiny portion of juice
Cocktail picks – a nice bonus to have for garnishing your drinks
Ice tongs and ice bucket – a set of bonus items that can be statement piece on its own
5/5 The Glassware
Now that you have the ingredients and tool to your cocktails, the final step is what to serve them in. No one is there to judge you should you want to serve up your home cocktail in a wine glass or your coffee mug, but to complete the home bar look, here are a few of the most versatile pieces you can stock.
4. Glencairn (for sipping spirits neat)
A few notes on caring for your glassware:
- Always handwash
- Fill sink with warm water
- Line sink with towels to prevent chipping and breakages
- Add a dash of white vinegar to the water to prevent water spots and make them shine
- Dry them with a linen dish towel to avoid bits of fuzz sticking to the surface