How to Build An Epic Home Bar
This piece originally appeared on Fix.com.
Back in the old days, it was enough to have a shaker and a few martini glasses to impress your guests. Today’s cocktail scene has stepped up with a push for classic cocktails and complex drinks that benefit from a wide range of tools.
These tools, though, don’t cost much. Depending on the types of drinks you want to make, a careful selection of tools will help you make tastier and more visually appealing cocktails.
Unless you’re going somewhere that’s happy with lemon wedges, most proper cocktail bars will top off the drink with freshly peeled citrus. The initial aromatic effects of citrus on the right drink are critical to rounding out a cocktail. Most bartenders will peel some citrus, rub the edge of the glass, and/or twist the citrus over the drink before dropping the citrus into the glass.
This is not just for show. All this extra work promotes those light zesty notes that make the first few sips when the drink is judged critically (love at first sip?). Peeling fresh citrus in front of your guest is bound to impress your audience! Manhattans often include a maraschino cherry, but the drink comes to life with an orange peel twist.
If you’re making cocktails that require citrus, a citrus press is essential. Gone are the days when sliced limes and lemons were sufficient. A citrus juicer adds that extra element of class, and it’ll be a handy tool in your kitchen regardless.
The whiskey sour is an example of a cocktail that comes to life with freshly squeezed lemon juice. For the best variation of this cocktail, you’ll need fresh lemon juice and an orange crescent using the citrus peeler.
The strainer’s sole job is to keep ice out of the glass. When mixing any cocktail, even when pouring over ice, it’s best to pour over fresh ice. A basic strainer will work with almost any mixer or shaker, and you can use it with almost any type of glass.
Unlike cooking, where ingredients can be eyeballed, mixing drinks is more like baking – the correct measurement is crucial. The classic shot glass measures out 1 fluid ounce, but most cocktails recipes call for quarter and half measurements. The shot glass won’t suffice.
Bartenders will use a fancy steel (or gold!) double jigger that measures up to an ounce on one side, and up to an ounce and a half on the other. These jiggers are great for experienced bar staff, but a plastic jigger with easy-to-see measurements on top is crucial.
Shaken or Stirred?
In the cocktail community, the debate between shaken and stirred cocktails can get fierce. Some people even believe that brown spirits (rum, whiskey) get bruised when shaken. While that’s likely taking the science too far, both shaken and stirred cocktails have their place in the bar.
As a general rule, if the cocktail has citrus or other non-spirit ingredients, or if the cocktail needs to be served extremely cold (such as martinis), the cocktail benefits from shaking. Shaking the cocktail with ice allows faster dilution of the alcohol, and also frosts some additives such as lime. Otherwise, if it’s all spirits, or if you muddle the drink (more on that later), it’s best to stir.
The cobbler shaker is popular among home bar kits, but most bars use the Boston shaker. There is a steeper learning curve, but making cocktails will be more fun and cleanup will be a breeze. The Boston shaker consists of a mixing glass inside a larger metal shaker. When ice is added, the expanded metal locks the shaker in place. Shaking the cocktail is quick and easy. When done, you’ll need to whack the metal to jar the mixing glass, and then you’ll need a strainer when pouring.
I can taste the difference between a shaken and stirred Manhattan, and the latter is better if you like a boozy drink. Shaken classic cocktails remove some of the edgier flavors I appreciate in the classics.
With a mixing glass, you can either go practical or classic, but you’ll need a strainer either way. The practical mixing glass doubles as a measuring cup, with measurements along the side or top. This is great for parties, especially when mixing more than two drinks at a time. The classic cocktail glass is thick, and looks good, but you’ll lose the convenience of measuring your drinks in the same glassware.
A muddler is the pestle of cocktails. It’s used to mash fruits, herbs, sugars, and spice to the bottom of the glass. Recipes that benefit from a muddler include mojitos, old fashioneds, and mint juleps. You can make a mojito without a muddler, but with a muddler you’ll get a release of additional flavor as you freshly squeeze out flavor from the ingredients.
I have a friend who always has a bottle opener in his pocket. Be that friend for your friends. Sure, those large “easy to open” bottle openers make for excellent gifts, but the waiter’s corkscrew is best for parties. Once you get the hang of opening bottles with the corkscrew, you’ll be able to open bottles far quicker. Be sure to check for corked wine – if the cork has wine along the edge to the top, it’s best to pour the wine down the sink. It’s important to always have a sip before serving.
Fresh Sprigs, Fresh Fruits, Bitters, and Lots of Citrus
Bitters bind classic cocktails together. Citrus adds those summery zesty notes to a summer drink. Fresh sprigs of mint are perfect for an aromatic start to any cocktail. Dropping a cut strawberry into any cocktail will add a beautiful visual appeal. When entertaining a crowd with cocktails, these small touches make the difference between the usual cocktail and a heightened experience. They will provide a memorable experience to your guests.
Where’s Your Ice Game At?
Want to go the extra mile? Use non-standard ice cubes. Molds for square and spherical ice are cheap, and you can make them in large quantities in advance and wrap them in tin foil to keep them clean. There are even ice kits that make clear ice or help you with chipped ice. Some drinks call for regular ice, but when serving classic cocktails, large and interesting ice cubes add that visual appeal that many of today’s cocktail bars offer.
This part is simple. For large parties, go ahead and use plastic cups! This is my default when hosting large parties where I know I’ll run out of glassware. For classic cocktails, use the champagne coupe. It’s perfect for a wide range of drinks that you wouldn’t have on ice. And, of course, have rocks glasses for drinks that are served on ice.
The cocktail scene is changing. When hosting parties, these special touches help improve the experience. But more importantly, they make cocktails more enjoyable to make. When making drinks even just for yourself, taking this extra time will give you a better appreciation of the spirit and the drink you’re mixing.