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Build a Better Home Bar With 50 Tips From Boston Bartenders

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Perhaps you've always dreamt of creating your own bar at home, whether it's a leather-filled den for silently sipping martinis alone or a lively tiki-themed lounge for entertaining friends. It's time to get started. Here, many of Boston's finest bartenders provide a plethora of tips on what to read, what to buy, and how to learn. Heed their advice, and you'll be well on your way. And don't forget to stock up on plenty of ice.

Patrick Gaggiano"Build your home bar; offer it up to all your buddies. You’ll have more friends that way." —Patrick Gaggiano, bar manager at Viale

Patrick Sullivan"Start with an Old Fashioned. Get to know it. Make sweet, sweet love to it. Spirit - Sugar - Bitters - Ice. Use bagged ice, not freezer ice. Measure. In this case, the internet is your friend. Buy quality products — life's too short to drink poorly made spirits. Stir and shake longer than you think you should. Fresh squeezed juice or death." —Patrick Sullivan, executive director of bar operations for Legal Sea Foods

Start with an Old Fashioned. Get to know it. Make sweet, sweet love to it.

Paulo Pereira"Start with the classics. Get in the habit of learning to make a proper Manhattan, Old Fashioned, daiquiri, and anything else on the IBA classics list. There are many great websites out there and books to guide bartenders, both novice and pro alike. I myself am a big fan of The Savoy Cocktail Book." —Paulo Pereira, beverage director at Brass Union

Greg Neises"Stick with fresh seasonal ingredients for inspiration. Boston Shaker in Davis Square is a great resource for cocktail books and supplies." —Greg Neises, bartender at Tico

Nick Giannotti"For me, classics are classics for a reason. When you can nail down a perfect Manhattan or Last Word, you can begin to build off of those ideas. I think many of the bar managers and bartenders start with a classic and tweak it to their own tastes. Most of the menus I write come from that model." —Nick Giannotti, bar manager of The Tip Tap Room

Rob Haberek"Get yourself a mixing glass and a barspoon, David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, and go nuts. Remember that recipes are only guidelines, and don't be afraid to get creative." —Rob Haberek, bartender at Forum

Remember that recipes are only guidelines, and don't be afraid to get creative.

Ky Nguyen

"I would say think about it like food. You want to create a balance of flavors. If you’re going for something sweet, counteract the sweetness with something acidic, like lemon or grapefruit juice. Instead of using simple syrup, try using different types of sweeteners, like honey. You can also use sweet herbs in place of sugar. To add a savory factor to something sweet, you can add things like rosemary, which is great to pair or use with tequila cocktails. Asian cooking is a great example of that delicate balance between sweet and savory, and you can use the same approach to create a cocktail." —Ky Nguyen, owner of SA PA

Katie Mae Dell Isola"Buy some small bottles of different liquors (St-Germain, peach schnapps, Chambord)—a little goes a long way and you can make so many more creations." —Katie Mae Dell Isola, bar manager at Haru

Dan Greenough"Start basic. Use base spirits that you are familiar with and mix them with your favorite juices, herbs, spices, etc. Read up on history and flavor profiles. The Drunken Botanist is a favorite of mine. Then start to get crazy and see what works." —Dan Greenough, food & beverage manager of all Burtons Grill locations

Kevin Murphy"Be adventurous, be balanced, be bold, make terrible drinks, remember the great drinks. Get a set of bar tools, read cocktail books, don’t go to bartending school." —Kevin Murphy, operations manager of Deuxave

Be adventurous, be balanced, be bold, make terrible drinks, remember the great drinks.

Vikram Hegde"A couple good books (Imbibe! by David Wondrich, The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale Degroff, and Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh are my favorites); a good set of bar spoons and shakers; a hand juicer; and an account with The Boston Shaker and Cocktail Kingdom. Beyond that, the only real secret to making great cocktails is to use fresh juice. Fresh juices trump masterful technique every single time." —Vikram Hegde, bartender at Sarma

Kaitlena Cash"My mom asks me this question all the time. She loves yummy drinks and is always looking for ways to be a ‘mixologist’ at home. This is also coming from a woman who legitimately thinks that diet Orange Crush and Pinnacle whipped is an actual cocktail. I always suggest to have some simple syrup on hand. Make some, and it can last in the fridge for about two weeks. Buy a cocktail shaker. You can get them at Target. And they're cute! Other than that... Google can be your friend. If you like a certain liquor, look it up! See what recipes our friend the internet suggests, and go from there." —Kaitlena Cash, bartender at Anthem Kitchen + Bar

Sal Gesamondo"There are plenty of resources out there — the internet is definitely the best one. But as far as what they should have: fresh ingredients." —Sal Gesamondo, operations manager of Tavern in the Square

Giulio Favuzza"I would recommend that they get a basic cocktail book that talks about the art of making drinks. This will help them in their quest of making cocktails at home. Also, when they are out, ask the bartender to make them a drink using a specific alcohol like bourbon or vodka. Have a conversation with the bartender about the cocktail and why he/she decided to use those ingredients. Basic tools needed are: a large shaker glass to mix cocktails in, a paring knife for cutting fruit, a stirring spoon, and a willingness to be creative. Not everything is going to work, but you'll have fun trying! When making cocktails that have juices in them, they should be shaken for 30-45 seconds. When making cocktails that have no juices (like a Manhattan), they should be poured into a glass and stirred." —Giulio Favuzza, beverage manager of Red Heat Tavern

Lauren Hayes"Definitely pick up the essentials at The Boston Shaker. Don't get sucked into gimmicky barware; go for clean and simple. Always mind your ice, make sure to use enough and that it's not too wet. The correct garnish is essential. And remember, in general, mo’ bitters = mo’ better." —Lauren Hayes, head bartender at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain

And remember, in general, mo’ bitters = mo’ better.

Molly Woodhouse"I think that trial and error can produce some great learning experiences — just as people tend to tweak food recipes they find online, I encourage cocktail enthusiasts to do the same. Use measuring devices, take notes, and experiment. I try to look for seasonal produce that looks at its best to include and use that as a starting point, next thinking about when will the cocktail be served — with food or without? Are there other cocktails being served as well? The important part is that it is fun." —Molly Woodhouse, general manager and beverage director of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth (and an alum of The Butcher Shop and Menton)

Ian Nal "Keep it simple. Make cocktails that are max of four ingredients. Measure out ingredients with a jigger. Leave the free pour to the professionals. Use fresh ingredients that are in season. [Good supplies:] a bar kit — jiggers, pourers, strainers. [Good resource:] Boston Shaker." —Ian Nal, general manager and beverage director of Fish Restaurant & Wine Bar in Marlborough

Jenna Pollock"Home bars should always include a solid two-piece shaker, a tall bar spoon, a muddler, a jigger, and a citrus press. You can pretty much make something for everyone and doctor them up just right. I love reading old "how to entertain" books from the 50s and 60s. They always have classic recipes and different spins on drinks you thought you already knew. A squeeze container full of simple syrup always comes in handy too. I feel it is most important to balance the citrus into a drink and play with the ‘right’ amount of sweetness. I would encourage any cocktail novice to ask questions when they go out to a cocktail bar. Ask what tools they are using and what the ingredients are that you don’t recognize. It may just turn out to be your favorite liquor ever. I also love bitters. It’s a great way to infuse a different flavor into a cocktail that reads through subtlety. I like using scotch as a rinse on a glass or in a spritzer bottle to create a layer of smokiness or peat flavor into a citrusy concoction." —Jenna Pollock, bar director at Nebo

Augusto Lino "Invest in trays that make larger ice cubes. Keep extra cubes stored in a plastic container and stay on top of it. Your friends will be more impressed with your collection of small batch bitters if some of the stuff goes in a cold drink." —Augusto Lino, bartender at Hungry Mother

Brian Mantz "Get a good two-piece shaker, a jigger, some strainers, a stirring spoon, and a few cocktail books. The Joy of Mixology is a great starting point for an enthusiast. All of these things are for sale at Boston Shaker in Davis Square, and the staff there is more than happy to give you any advice you might want." —Brian Mantz, bar manager at Wink & Nod

Colin Kiley "In terms of getting creative at home, I always think that you should walk before you run. Get familiar with very basic classics. For me, it was getting to know classic proportions of things e.g. the Sour formula of 1 1/2 spirit, 3/4 sour, 3/4 sweet. From there, you're off and running with the Sidecar, the Margarita, the Gimlet, the Daiquiri. Once you're comfortable with those, then you can start riffing: using an unusual component to serve as the sweet element, add bitters, grill the citrus before juicing it...things like that. I guess the important rule of any craft is ‘know the rules before you start bending them.’ In terms of resources, I've always had a fondness for Harry Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book. I think it still remains very accessible to this day in terms of its simplicity, and I think the artwork is really cool. Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails is a great beginner book, and his is also a great resource to prowl though when looking for inspiration." —Colin Kiley, bartender at Puritan & Company

I guess the important rule of any craft is ‘know the rules before you start bending them.’

Libby Spencer "Boston Shaker Co. in Davis Square is an incredible resource. Their tool & bitters selection is awesome. I think having jiggers, a bar spoon, mixing glass, and strainers are all key for a home bar. People don't understand how important measuring is until they actually do it! In a pinch I've used a shot glass to measure & a chopstick (or finger) to stir, but it's nice to have the right tools." —Libby Spencer, bar manager at Deep Ellum

Tom Tellier "You should have a basic bottle of everything (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey/bourbon/scotch, tequila etc.), a shaker set, strainers, double hinged cork-screw, muddler, zester, peeler, knife, cutting board, a good bloody mix and some sort of bitters." —Tom Tellier, beverage director for Restaurant dante and both locations of il Casale

Tyler Wolters "I would say the best thing to have if you are going to invent cocktails at home is a large vinyl record collection. Home bartenders struggle the most with naming their creations, and about 60% of all professional cocktail names come from vintage songs or album titles. Also, classic cocktails were often named after neighborhoods. Who will be the first to invent the East Somerville or the Davis Square?" —Tyler Wolters, bartender at Firebrand Saints and Brick & Mortar

I would say the best thing to have if you are going to invent cocktails at home is a large vinyl record collection.

Davide Crusoe "Start with fresh produce and flavors that you like, and try interesting spirits. Be sure to balance sour and sweet, and never forget we smell more than we taste, so focus on the aroma of beverage and garnish." —Davide Crusoe, general manager at Chopps in Burlington

Christine Kerow "Don’t mix too many liquors, and use fresh ingredients." —Christine Gerow, director of restaurant & bar at the Westin Waltham-Boston's Seventy at Third Avenue

Sam Treadway "Boston Shaker...go there and you'll find everything you need." —Sam Treadway, bar manager at Backbar

Todd Lipman "Start simple. Understand the basics of balance and accept the fact you will make some things that taste absolutely horrible. All you need is a boston shaker and mixing glass (tempered and weighted), a muddler, a bar spoon, a hawthorne strainer, a double mesh strainer, maybe a julep strainer, and definitely a jigger or two (I personally swear by graduated jiggers for recipe creation.) Oh yeah…and some bottles of booze. Make a few of the classics, and then make your own interpretations. In this way, making cocktails is no different than cooking. Remember, bitters are fun, interesting, and arguably somewhat important to have on hand, but you don’t need to rush out and grab every flavor under the sun on day one." —Todd Lipman, head sommelier at Bistro du Midi

Understand the basics of balance and accept the fact you will make some things that taste absolutely horrible.

Seth Freidus "Buy books, lots of books. Buy as much of the liquor and liqueurs in these books as possible, read the books, taste the liquors/liqueurs, make the drinks, taste the drinks. To know where something is going, you need to understand how it started. So start at the beginning of alcohol history to the beginning of cocktail history and follow the literature." —Seth Freidus, beverage director at Alden & Harlow

Sean Woods"Build a strong foundation with tried and true recipes. Once you understand how and why those centuries-old cocktails work, it’s a lot easier to start experimenting with stuff." —Sean Woods, bar manager at Ribelle

Naomi Levy "Get yourself one great mixing set. I suggest heading to the Boston Shaker, where they can help you get all the basics (jigger, shaker, mixing glass, spoon, strainers). Good tools really do help make great drinks. After you've mastered making your own simple syrup (it really is simple!), you can have some fun by adding different herbs and spices or even tea and make different flavors. Simple syrups keep for up to a month in the fridge, and a flavored syrup is a great way to get creative at home without breaking the bank. The Joy of Mixology is a great place to start when looking for classic recipes, but for some fun new ideas check out Imbibe magazine's blog." —Naomi Levy, bar manager at Eastern Standard

Katie Emmerson"Get more ice. Think you have enough? Get more. I always run out of ice. Larger format cocktails like punches and pitchers of things like Pimm's Cups will keep you prepping ahead of time but leave you free to enjoy more of your party when it's self-serve." —Katie Emmerson, bar manager at The Hawthorne

Get more ice. Think you have enough? Get more.

Ezra Star "When creating a bar at home, I think it is best to start with a single cocktail. Buy everything you need to make it. Learn how to make it really well, then look for drinks that have some of the same ingredients and pick another one. Buy the additional ingredients and learn to make that one really well. Keep doing this for a while and you not only know how to make some really good drinks but your supply of cordials will be large enough for you to improvise." —Ezra Star, general manager at Drink

Paul Manzelli"Go to the Boston Shaker and get a couple things. The staff there will help immensely. Keep it simple; don't try to go overboard with crazy equipment or drinks right at first, and above all, splurge on quality ingredients." —Paul Manzelli, bartender at Bergamot

Jared Sadoian"Start with the classics! ​This is how I started! And please, take things one step at a time. For me, it was gin. I ended up with close to 20 gins of wildly differing styles on a shelf in my apartment. Read about them. Taste them on their own. Try them with tonic. You might find some will taste better than others in different settings. Now make a classic martini. You'll need vermouth. Wow! Now try it in different ratios. Buy a bottle of orange bitters and see how that changes the flavor. What else can we do with gin? Oh, there's a bunch of cocktails that use gin. What's the best brand of orange liqueur to purchase?...For general resources, I love the 12 Bottle Bar blog. A great place to get lots of drink ideas without shelling out big bucks for a huge home bar. If you're past the basics, go to a farmers market. Smell everything. Make lots of infused syrups (they're cheaper than infusing booze!)" —Jared Sadoian, head bartender and beverage director of Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

Jonathan Mendez"Spend the money to get high-quality and beautiful tools. It will be a slightly incremental difference, but you get what you pay for. And you should care about aesthetics. Beautiful cocktails deserve care in the assembly and presentation." —Jonathan Mendez, beverage director and bartender at TRADE

Ryan Lotz"Ask questions while you're out! Most bartenders are happy to help and answer questions and point you in the right direction. Also, go to the Boston Shaker. It's a toy store for cocktails." —Ryan Lotz, bar manager at No. 9 Park

Jake Kress"To each his own. First, find a good cocktail book at the bookstore, and find out which type of bartender/host/cocktail mixer you want to be." —Jake Kress, bar manager at Grill 23 & Bar

Michael Cottens"Freshness is your best friend. If you use fresh-squeezed juices to brighten your cocktails or freshly muddled herbs to complement them, it makes a huge difference." —Michael Cottens, bartender at The Merchant

Freshness is your best friend.

Tenzin Samdo"Start with few good cocktail books and basic barware — muddler, jigger, cocktail shaker, strainer, and ice cube tray. Also a bottle of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and whiskey." —Tenzin Konchok Samdo, head barman at TRADE

Michael Florence"Find quality, but not expensive products; ask a bartender or salesperson you trust at a quality store to guide your selections. Always use fresh juices and herbs for the best results. Follow your instincts and have fun." — Michael Florence, bar manager at Ole

Ryan McGrale "Good bar tools, good ice. It’s all what you make of it." —Ryan McGrale, beverage director at Tavern Road

"Don't let the ‘lingo’ scare you. Things like simple syrup, shrub, tincture sound complicated, but they're not more difficult than making a marinara sauce or baking a muffin." —Lara Egger, co-owner of Estragon Tapas Bar, and Sahil Mehta, bartender and server

"Ice!! Always make sure you have enough ice. And a shaker!!" —Tom Dargon, assistant general manager of BOKX 109

"Read a lot of the well-established literature. By well established, I mean books. There are a lot of cocktail blogs out there — almost all of them good — but a great many of them assume foundational knowledge with a wide variety of products that the home-tender may not have. Consequently, they can be intimidating. Pick and choose your online sources carefully. Finally, go out and sit at craft cocktail bars. Frequently. Just sit and watch them — how they work, the order in which they do things, how they pour spirits, how often they taste. And if the bartender is not terribly busy taking care of multiple guests, take the opportunity to ask pointed questions. For most of us, enthusiasm is infectious, and it allows us to relax a bit while we are working and forge a relationship with you." —Ashish Mitra, bar manager at Russell House Tavern

"Always have an array of fresh fruit, bitters, and simple syrup and you are all set!" —Erica Petersiel, general manager at No. 8 Kitchen & Spirits

"Keep it simple and basic, then build from there. A drink should not have 10 ingredients in it. The classic cocktails have withstood the test of time because they are good drinks, well-balanced, and usually contain three to five ingredients." —Taso Papatsoris, bartender at Casa B

"Find a classic you like and make one small change. Don't swap everything out. Try a Manhattan with dry vermouth instead of sweet. Or a Margarita with a spiced liquor instead of triple sec. The problem most people have is they get too ambitious and end up with a 15-ingredient cocktail that tastes like nothing. Also, make syrups. Start with a simple sour — a daiquiri, for example — and find a fresh flavor to make it unique. There are a dozen great books at the Boston Shaker about syrups, but don't get distracted by all the bitters and fancy tools. Remember: keep it simple!" —Tyler Wang, bartender at Audubon

"If you want to learn about cocktails at home, then start with what you like to drink. Make your favorites at home first and then expand to things you have never tried. In Davis Square there is bar supply shop called the Boston Shaker. They have everything you could possibly need to start building your bar. Buy the bare essentials and maybe a book or two for reference and then head to the liquor store for the ingredients. There are also tons of websites and blogs to read. The more the better. There is never too much information about how to mix drinks." —Rob Dunn, bar manager at Lineage

["The best way to get crazy with cocktails at home is to stock a basic bar with the essentials (a well rye whiskey, gin, bourbon, some bitters, etc.) and simple tools (a way to measure everything, a mixing glass, a bar spoon, a shaker), a good cocktail book (like Dale DeGroff's The Essential Cocktail) and then spend some time learning the classics and what makes them timeless. With that foundation in place, the possibilities are endless for experimentation, and when you find a cool new ingredient to use you'll have a good understanding of how to integrate it into your drinks. Also, remember to write everything down. Any time I work on a new idea, I treat it like a science experiment and write it all in a notebook so I can duplicate it later." —Alex Howell, bar manager of Bondir]

Main Image: Shutterstock/Olaf Speier

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