Since I can remember, my best friend Meggie has been ordering a rum and Coke. She’ll peruse the fancy cocktail menu in detail, ask some questions about whatever elaborate concoctions are on there, and feign enthusiasm. Sometimes she even pulls the trigger if it sounds really intriguing. But at the end of the night, regardless of what she’s eating, you know she’s going to relapse to a rum and Coke. If we’re somewhere dressy, she will sheepishly order a Cuba Libre, something we will tease her relentlessly for.
For her birthday in quarantine, we sent everyone mini rum and coke cocktail kits. A little mini coke can and a nip of Baccardi rum with a whole party kit. She requested the theme: Happiness and Joy. I think it was the first time in a decade I’d actually drank one, and candidly, I regret teasing her so much. There’s a reason the ole R+C is so many people’s first drinks—they’re delicious.
Growing up, neither of my parents really drank. My dad would occasionally order a supremely embarrassing Kahlua and cream on a Big Night Out and be happily warm and buzzed two sips in at (picture it) Outback Steakhouse. You wouldn’t think of ordering a milk-based cocktail with a Blooming Onion, but is there something there? Reader, I leave you to make your own decision as I left dairy behind with the Bump-It in 2011.
My mother discovered the joys of alcohol in her 50s, but remains firmly in the Aperol Spritz and white chocolate mocha martini camp. #Goals. She, in fact, has a palace of a home bar in her farm in Pennsylvania, and it horrifies my more bibulous friends to see her shelves stocked with largely Malibu. You can have a great time with Frangelico, but it’s not my poison of choice. Love you, Mom, mean it.
Suffice it to say that while I have learned so much about entertaining from my family, the imbibing piece has been largely self-taught.
It was a delight to go out into the world and discover not only great bars (let’s skip the college scene, shall we?), but friends who are truly great cocktail aficionados. Housewarming parties with barrel aged negroni by Will! Martinis parties in the snow with Anoop! Roasted Pineapple Mezcal with Jeremy! Palo Santo infused tequila Old Fashioned by Andrew! Riverside Spicy Bloody Mary’s by David! Some more dubious efforts by my friend Liz resulted in the invention of a cocktail called the Sneaky Slizzard which will go down in infamy as the drink most likely to be the thing that kills me. Andrew in our early years also innovated a truly dark cocktail called the Snap 240 which involves some combination of brown sugar, sour mix, and a rigorous round of mutual face slapping. Let’s leave that in 2007.
Can I give you a little advice? The trick to having a great bar at home is not elaborate. Most people don’t want to make fancy cocktails at home. People make classic simple things with great ingredients, great spirits, and timeless tools.
Honestly, Meg is onto something. Cuba Libre, indeed.
I’m not saying that you have to just make Rum and Coke. But I am a lazy home bartender, not into the bells and whistles, but into classics and easy hacks. My trick? Learn from the best bars. They focus on batching cocktails before guests arrive so it’s easy to serve. Easy prep of ingredients and garnishes. Pretty signature presentations. Great tools.
Here are the five things that are always in my bar
- Great Timeless spirits: Always Tequila, Always Vodka, Always Gin, Always Whiskey. Everything else is extra. You can make it work with just these. I also like to have a great all purpose French Red wine, a great Italian White, and a nice Champagne on hand at all times too. You never know. Pro-tip—I like to keep baby nips of Fireball hidden in my freezer. For the afterparty.
- Basic Mixers: I love Fever Tree Tonic, Pellegrino, and Jack Rudy Bitters. You can find the bitters that works for you as you start to experiment with cocktails. Dry and Sweet Vermouth help you make everything from martinis to negronis. Spend a couple extra bucks here—it makes all the difference. Get your favorite juices and sodas. This is personal…drink what you like to drink! I like to have a few aperitifs on hand so I can make a spritz. Fruits, aromatics, garnishes, I pull directly from my fridge to see what’s in season.
- Tools: Wine key, Jigger, a mixing glass and a spoon…I prefer a mixing glass to a shaker, but that’s because I’m all about performance. I keep a small cutting board and knife on my bar for garnishes, and my husband Andrew loves a peeler for his Negroni oranges.
- Must-have Glassware: If I’m cutting it down to the bare minimum, I like a Rocks glass and a coupe. I can make every single cocktail I want in these. I like heavy cut crystal or cut glass, something that’s a pleasure to hold. The next one I would add would be a highball. I don’t like a martini glass, but that’s just my personal preference, because I talk with my hands and ALWAYS spill. Also, my most favorite wine glass is a larger white wine glass. Wine people everywhere are going to be upset about this, but I like it for red, white, and champagne. It’s universal. If I were only going to buy one wine glass, it would be a generous white.
- Ice Bucket: I am a huge ice person, but I love that it can double for wine or water presentation. If I’m really in a pinch, I fill it up with lemons or limes or style it with flowers. Invest in a great ice cube tray. Ice is the unsung hero of all cocktail bars.
Also! Instagram has convinced us that you need to have a huge built in bar or a dedicated barcart in order to have a home bar. My friends, let me disabuse you of this idea. Do you have a window ledge? A mantle? A nook on your book shelf where you can fit a tray? A little corner of your counter where you can tuck your essentials? I like to corral my favorite spirits, my tools, and a mixers onto one little contained surface—could be a tray, could be a book, could be a cutting board that you later use for garnishes. Helps you know where everything is. If you have room for a little ice bucket and some glasses, even better.
Not sure how to start your at home bar? We’ve taken the guess work out with our The Scene: No Bar Like Home which includes our tried-and-true bar cart heroes. The Scene includes everything from a silver Compote bowl which can be used to store lemons and limes, display your favorite bubbles, or be stacked high with the champagne of beers and Fireball nips, to Double Old Fashion tumblers, to Embroidered Caviar napkins and more. Leaving you with the only one question: where to set up your bar.