At-Home Bar Essentials
My favourite alcoholic beverage is hands down, a beautifully crafted cocktail. I love a restaurant or bar known for a creative house cocktail list, yet despite this, I could never figure out (or quite frankly, never invested the time into learning) how to make a great cocktail at home.
Over the last year, I’ve set out to curate a better at-home-bar and learn a few staple cocktails.
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Step One: Curating the Bar
To make a decent cocktail, you do not need to shell out a ton of money on fancy tools. The right tools help take your skill up a notch, but are by no means necessary. I do suggest that if you end up purchasing tools in piecemeal over time, try to keep them within the same style so that your collection looks cohesive.
Here is a list of my favourite bar tools and other accessories, as well as their respective household substitutions.
Hanging Bar Tools
I love a hanging bar tool set – it looks great perched on top of your bar and keeps your tools organized. I was most excited to use my Hawthorne strainer, so that I could finally avoid having ice come crashing out as I poured a drink.
Hanging Bar Tools
There are a dizzying number of bar tool sets, with various tools included. I’d recommend looking for a set that has the following:
- A Hawthorn Strainer for straining your cocktails – especially helpful for keeping the post-shake shards of ice out of your beverage. Note: a Hawthorn Strainer is not needed if you are using a Cobbler Shaker, since it has a built-in strainer.
- A jigger for measuring ounces
Favourites: I am partial to a hanging set, rather than purchasing individual tools. Granted, you can buy each element separately if preferred. Mine is from London, but you can find similar sets below.
- Pottery Barn – Brass
- Crate and Barrel – Stainless steel with a wood base
- Cocktail Emporium – Copper with a marble stand
Tip: Cocktail Emporium is a great local Toronto cocktail goods shop!
At Home Substitute
As long as you have a shot glass, you can measure ounces.
As for straining, get creative and use the back of a wide spoon or a pasta strainer.
Ice is arguably one of the most important elements of a cocktail, as it helps to both cool and dilute your beverage (dilution, by the way, is not a bad thing!). The size and shape of your ice impacts how quickly it melts and transforms your cocktail.
Here’s a quick run-down of what type of ice to use when:
- Big Cubes or Spheres for spirit-forward drinks (keeps the temperature and dilution consistent for a longer period of time)
- Collins Spears for highball cocktails (similar to above, but for cocktails in a highball – tall – glass)
- Crushed or Small Pebbled Ice for your typical hot-climate drinks that are heavy on juice & syrups (the smaller format ice will help dilute the spirit-forward cocktail, balance the sugary elements and keep the drink cold)
Pro Tip: Be sure to store your ice in a sealed bag or container, or change your ice out frequently. Ice picks up surrounding flavours, and it would be a shame to have your expensive alcohol start to taste like frozen lasagna!
Favourites: Generally, I find silicone molds make it easier to dislodge the ice out once frozen.
I love the Peak Collection by W&P. Their products are easy to use – just make sure you seal the halves before filling – and they have an ice mold for every purpose.
Shop the Peak Collection at:
At Home Substitute
Literally any ice will do as a starting point!
A general rule of thumb is spirit-only cocktails are meant to be stirred. Everything else, including cocktails with juice (eg. lemon or lime), simple syrup, cream, egg whites or other dairy products, are typically meant to be shaken – hard! Essentially shake a cocktail if you want the ingredients to be thoroughly integrated together. Shaking breaks down more ice and adds more dilution to a drink – it helps to chill your cocktail and properly balance the flavours.
- Cobbler: a three-piece shaker comprised of a metal tin, cap and built in strainer. Typically these are easier to use, but can have a tendency to get stuck or leak and are harder to clean. Be sure to read reviews before buying.
- Pro Tip: The cap typically measures 1oz, which saves you from needing a jigger.
- Boston: has a metal shaking tin and a mixing tin, and no strainer (you’ll likely want a Hawthorn strainer – read above!). Boston shakers are generally used by bartenders, and are loved for the speed of use and ease of cleaning.
Favourites: Many people find Boston shakers tricky to master, so I’d recommend a Cobbler shaker if you are new to the at-home cocktail game.
- Pottery Barn – Rose Gold Finish
- Pottery Barn – Glass
- Crate & Barrel – Hammered Gunmetal
- Crate & Barrel – Graphite
- Cocktail Emporium – Stainless Steel
- Cocktail Emporium – Gunmetal
- West Elm – Gold
- West Elm – Polished Nickel
At Home Substitute
I used a cup and lid that came with my NutriBullet for longer than I should probably admit. That or large Tupperware will do.
You just need to have enough room for the ice to be able to shake around, and a lid secure enough that you won’t end up with a cocktail backsplash.
My hand-held lemon juicer is one of my favourite kitchen tools – I use it multiple times a week for cooking or cocktails. It makes juicing much easier and I wish I purchased one years earlier.
At Home Substitute
The simple fork trick will do you wonders – cut the lemon (or other citrus fruit) in half lengthwise and stick a fork into the centre. Twist the fork and lemon against each other as you squeeze.
Just watch for seeds!
For cocktails that are meant to be stirred, a spoon with a long handle is incredibly useful.
There are several types of bar spoons – Japanese, European and American – and all are meant to hold 5mL (or a teaspoon) of liquid.
Favourites: I am partial to the European style, as the tip doubles as a muddler (see photo).
At Home Substitute
For mixing, use the handle of any lengthy cooking utensil.
The not-necessary, but nice-to-have Tools
Mixing glasses are beautiful and will certainly make you look more sophisticated. But really, any large glass or vessel will do if you are not ready to make the leap. Either way, a Hawthorn strainer will help you pour.
Sure, you can use your regular glassware, but having cocktail glasses will surely elevate your presentation. There could be an entire post dedicated to which glasses to use with each cocktail, but for now – here are some of my favourite stores for glassware:
- Crate & Barrel – classic options in every style. They are generally affordable, so you won’t be upset when someone inevitably breaks a wine glass
- Cocktail Emporium – one of my local Toronto go-tos for everything related to cocktails
- VdeV – one of my favourite local Toronto shops for vintage-inspired glassware
- The Crafty Bartender – Canadian online cocktail supply store with a huge selection
- CB2 – good selection of funky options
Historically, spirit decanters were often used for advertising, showing off the colour and clarity of the liquor. Today, they are still popular for their aesthetics and have become a staple in many homes.
When purchasing a decanter look for ones that: are the right size for your alcohol, have a good seal, and are lead crystal free.
- Crate & Barrel – Traditional
- Crate & Barrel – Textured
- Crate & Barrel – Hand blown
- West Elm – Modern
A quick note on wine: decanting wine has much more purpose. Decanting ‘opens up’ the wine by exposing it to oxygen. This helps to enhance the aromatic characteristics by softening tannins and bringing fruit-flavours forward – especially helpful for younger wines. It also helps remove sediment (which is often bitter) – especially helpful for older wines. If you pour the wine slowly and at a 45 degree angle into the decanter, the sediment separates from the wine and will remain in the bottle. Most red wines should be decanted for at least 30 minutes before drinking. White wines don’t typically have sediment, which is why you rarely see them being decanted.
While we are on the topic of wine, it’s worth noting that wine savers are fantastic for helping preserve partially consumed bottles of wine. You’ll no longer feel forced to finish the whole bottle, but by all means, please don’t let this stop you.
- Vacu Wine Saver – for non-sparkling wine. It helps remove air from the bottle and slow down the oxidation process.
- Champagne – to keep the bubbles fresh
- Heart-shaped budget version – I purchased these as prize favours for a friend’s engagement party and I now use one frequently. It does the job, for when you can no longer fit the cork back into the bottle, and looks cute. Just don’t leave the wine for longer than a couple of days, as there is still oxygen in the bottle.
I spent quite some time searching for the perfect booze home. I wanted a piece of furniture that could stand the test of time and needed it to have closed shelving – the thought of open shelving clutter gives me anxiety.
So, I landed on this beautiful walnut piece from Article and couldn’t be happier (link below photo). There are 16 dedicated slots for bottles at the bottom, plus we currently have 35+ additional bottles on the middle shelves (with room for a few more), and the top shelves house our bitters, stir sticks, cocktail napkins, shot glasses, and more!
Here are some more bar cabinets / carts that caught my eye:
- Crate & Barrel – white oak statement piece
- Crate & Barrel – recycled teak & mango wood with a marble top
- Crate & Barrel – walnut veneer with room for hanging wine glasses
- Crate & Barrel – open bar cart, brass-plated finish
- Crate & Barrel – open bar cart, black powdercoat or brass finish with white concrete shelves
- Pottery Barn – open bar cart, polished nickel or brass
- West Elm – textured front, retro-inspired
- West Elm – sleek, modern walnut-veneer
More to Explore