When it comes to happy hour, my friends know me as the cheap date—the nurser who never finishes her frothy, fruity, $14 elixir. That’s mostly because my tolerance is nonexistent and I turn beet-red after a few sips. But having lived in NYC, influential for its modern revival of cocktail culture, and Spain, the land of Cava, sidra, and sherry, for nearly a decade combined, I certainly know how to appreciate many forms of libations.
When my husband and I were packing for our big move to California, however, I realized how little I knew about stocking a thoughtful home bar. Our collection consisted of a giant bottle of Jack, a box (yes, a box) of rum, pear liqueur from Austria, and generic gin. Entertaining guests with a spirit served neat was out of the question; enjoying a potent night cap, just the two of us, was also an unappealing prospect.
I’ve witnessed, though, how a well-considered and delicious drink can forge great connections among an intimate pair or a lively group. So I reached out to Kelly Nyikes, Market Manager of KOVAL distillery—and resident cocktail/bar aficionado—for his thoughts on the dilemma facing every amateur bartender about stocking their home bar: Where do I begin?
“The central challenge remains the same,” Nyikes says. “What is most important to your home bar?” Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you favor a certain set of cocktails? Manhattan variations? Daiquiris? Martinis?
- How do you like your drinks: shaken, light, and frothy, or stirred and spirit forward?
- Do you have a go-to base liquor? Do you love following recipes, or do you like to freely experiment?
Nyikes then advises breaking your spirits out by cocktail category: base spirits, aperitif wines, liqueurs, and modifiers. Whether you’re just starting out, developing your collection, or stocking a rail to rival those of the craft cocktail movement, here are an expert’s tips to stocking a three-bottle, five-bottle, or full bar.
The Three-Bottle Bar
“If you’re starting with a three-bottle bar, the focus will need to be on the base spirit with a little room for something extra,” says Nyikes. “I’d recommend a bourbon or rye whiskey, a dry gin, and a liqueur such as KOVAL’s Ginger Liqueur—it works really well in summer drinks with bourbon and lemonade, as well as in festive bubbly drinks with gin, like a French 75.”
Any of these spirits could stand alone, either neat or with ice cubes. But they can also create many classic drinks like a Gin & Tonic (ice, 1:2 ratio of gin:tonic, lime juice) or fresh Mint Julep (bourbon over ice, simple syrup, fresh mint). Or put your liqueur to use in a sweet and sour Millet Ginger Rush. All you need is whiskey, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, and maple syrup. The Verily editors guarantee: One taste, and it will be your next dinner party favorite.
The Five-Bottle Bar
Building on your three base spirits but adding some ingredients for more versatility, the five-bottle bar will allow you to showcase truly memorable homemade pours.
“For your fourth bottle, we’d add an aperitif wine (a digestif served before meals) such as a vermouth,” says Nyikes. “Vermouth is a required cornerstone for a Manhattan, martini, negroni, and most other classic cocktails.”
When choosing what vermouth to buy, Nyikes says to avoid the cheap stuff. “While there are many variations, they can be broken down into three essential styles: sweet (red/rosso), dry, and blanc (white/bianco). If you are a whiskey lover, go with a good sweet vermouth like Carpano Antica or Dolin Rosso. If martinis are your 5 p.m. tipple, get a good dry vermouth and a nice bianco; Dolin Dry makes a lovely dry, vodka martini,” he says.
For the fifth component, Nyikes recommends adding a modifier in the form of an herbal liqueur or signature bitters. These can be sweet, sour, or, true to their namesake, bitter. With less alcohol than base spirits, they serve to take the edge off potent ingredients and bring zing to a cocktail. Liqueurs in general have added sugar or other sweetener, but they can range from bitter to sweet. Herbal liqueurs contain botanical notes like sage, thyme, or rosemary. Signature bitters tie all the flavors together the way salt and pepper finish a dish. Start by purchasing a modifier used in your favorite drink, and experiment with creating new cocktails from there.
The Nine-Bottle (Full) Bar
If you’re ready to be a bonafide home mixologist, take your five bottles and kick it up another notch.
“Aside from adding more base spirits (vodka, rum, etc.),” Nyikes notes, “a full bar should also extend its scope of modifiers and liqueurs. Any good rail includes an orange liqueur like Cointreau or Dry Curaçao (this will make a juicy Cosmopolitan).” A good home bar also needs a few bitters. Aside from the specialty bitters mentioned above, Nyikes believes a classic bitter such as Campari is a must. If this is too potent, however, go with Aperol. Either can be served on the rocks with a wedge of orange or blended into a number of mixed drinks. “The gold standard is Angostura Aromatics,” Nyikes adds, “but also orange bitters or Peychaud’s.”
Garnishes are important for a well-stocked bar, too. A nice jar of olives goes a long way. You should also always have fresh lemons, limes, and oranges for fresh juice mixers and garnishes. Simple syrup and sugar cubes are also critical additions, Nyikes says.
As for tools, KOVAL’s experts recommend having a shaker, strainer, mixing glass, bar spoon, strainer, jigger, channel knife (for perfect peels), and a hand-held juicer. For glassware, start with a coupe (a stemmed glass with a shallow bowl, perfect for cocktails served straight-up or for Gatsby-worthy Champagne toasts), a highball (a tall glass ideal for sparkly tonics), and a lowball (a short glass traditionally used for spirits served neat or on rocks). Other standard additions would include a martini glass, a copper mule mug, and a margarita glass.
Nyikes’ final words? The expert has spoken, saying, “Ultimately, let your tastes be the guide. There is no one right answer, so focus on those cocktails and styles that make you happiest.” We’ll toast to that.
Photo Credit: Nadine Ruiz