It’s been high season around the Coachella Valley, so the last few months have left me with little energy to explore cocktail programs in the area. I did manage to squeeze in a brief trip to San Diego, where I checked in at an old favorite and a new one: Polite Provisions in North Park, and the Sycamore Den in Normal Heights, respectively. Be sure to add those to your San Diego list.
Since I don’t have a lot of local imbibing to discuss, I’ll tackle one of the most frequent topics people ask me about—the setup of home cocktail bars. I know from experience how daunting and expensive it can be to try to replicate the cocktail-bar experience at home, so I put some serious thought into how to make drinks like a pro at home … without breaking the bank.
My wheelhouse is classic and modern-classic cocktails, so while I might down the road give advice on setting up, say, a tiki bar, I will call in some experts for that one. That being said, even if you are a tiki enthusiast, I recommend starting with a classic cocktail setup first. If you can’t balance a drink with four ingredients, I have little hope you can do so with seven or more!
Also … forgive me for not covering tequila and mezcal this time around; that is another can of worms (no pun intended) I will save for another time.
The first purchase I suggest might be surprising to some, but hear me out: Invest in some nice glassware. I am not saying you need to run around to estate sales and thrift stores or anything, but what you put your drinks into is nearly as important as what you put into your drinks. This isn’t just Instagram culture talking here; if you don’t appreciate proper glassware, you need to ask yourself whether you’re a cocktail lover, or simply a drunk. (No judgment here, though.)
There is a proper glass for every drink—sometimes more than one: Nice, double old-fashioned buckets, Collins glasses for highballs and such, classic stemmed coupes for daisies and sours, the “martini glass” (everyone’s favorite), and some Nick and Nora glasses for extra credit would be an excellent start. If you decide to hit thrift shops and don’t care about matching sets, you can do this on the cheap. Some smaller liquor stores will sell branded glasses that came in unsold gift packs rather cheaply. I’m unsure of the ethicality of this, but some of that stuff is pretty nice, and you can walk away with them at a couple of bucks each.
Next, you’ll need some equipment—and if you don’t have a well-stocked shop nearby, you might need to go online. While this isn’t a paid endorsement (I wish!), I generally use Cocktail Kingdom (cocktailkingdom.com) for my stuff. You’ll want a couple of sets of shaker tins—Japanese-made tins are used by most craft people I know. Thinking about purchasing some very mid-century-modern-looking three-piece jobs? Those aren’t very functional. If you want to procure some and have the cash to burn, go ahead; just leave them as decoration.
You will want to get a couple of nice jiggers, though. I recommend 2-ounce and 3/4-ounce Japanese-style (tall conical) ones, although Leopolds look cool and generally have all the quarter-ounce steps on the 2-ounce jigger if you don’t want to buy two. I find the Japanese ones more precise in my experience, though. Remember, 2 ounces is all the way to the edge—no cheating! Be sure to invest in quality Hawthorne strainers and a nice weighted spoon for stirring; you’ll thank me later. Feel free to skip the julep strainers; I never use them, to be honest. A fine strainer for sours and other shaken cocktails is a must-have for cocktail-bar-quality drinks.
Lastly, equipment-wise, you can use Pyrex lab beakers as cocktail pitchers. They are cheap online and look nerdy-chic. This also prevents lost friendships that result from the breaking or theft of faceted crystal pitchers; trust me, at least one of those two things will happen at some point. If you have that kind of scratch, though, they look incredible.
Consider one more set of tools, depending on your level of commitment: An ice pick lets you raise your ice game by chiseling block ice into glorious, clear, glassy magic. A Lewis bag and mallet will let you smash ice into powder, but that’s really a personal choice, as crushed ice is fun, but rarely called for in classics.
I nearly forgot the juicer! Unless you want to use store-bought juice—and you don’t—get yourself a hinged hand juicer for lemons and limes, and something no-frills for grapefruits and oranges. This will open up a world of delicious daiquiris, sours and other citrusy delights. You can squeeze to order at home—and that’s a luxury we don’t have at a busy bar. You likely already have a usable peeler.
So … why all of this before discussing spirits? Aren’t great spirits the key to great cocktails? Well … not really. Good spirits help, but there is rarely a reason to go over $30 on a base spirit (London dry gin, bourbon, cognac, rye, etc.). Pick up one each of those, and if you must, vodka. That will get the ball rolling. Save money in the budget for good “sweet” and “dry” vermouth, and for Pete’s sake, refrigerate when not using. Triple sec, curaçao and bitters are next in importance; get good ones (Combier/Cointreau, Grand Marnier/Pierre Ferrand, Campari/Gran Classico are respective examples of quality ones). You’ll need Angostura bitters as well, and might want orange and Peychaud’s too.
Now we can make some serious drinks—negronis and all the variations; old fashioneds; martinis and manhattans; sidecars; daisies; and sours, just to name a few.
Soon, though, you or your friends will start wanting Last Words, or Paper Planes, maybe Corpse Revivers or even Mezcal Corpse Revivers (perish the thought), and you will need to start stocking the various amari, cordials and fortified wines. One by one, you can add Aperol, Averna, Fernet, the Chartreuse green and yellow, Lillet and Suze, and …
Wait. This was supposed to be “how to set up a home bar on the cheap.” While you can make a ton of cocktails quite well at home after a basic investment in equipment and supplies, chances are you will catch the bug and end up dropping a ton of money on this project as you go—which is not the worst way to spend disposable income if you have the passion.
Of course, if this seems daunting, you can always come and see me. A $12 cocktail sounds a little more reasonable now, no?
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at email@example.com.