Drink Like a Bartender: What bar tools do I need?
Expert Boston bartenders share exactly which bar tools, liquors, and garnishes you need to start off your in-home bar right.
This post may contain affiliate links. United By Pop received a complementary copy of ‘Drink Like a Bartender’ to facilitate this review.
When you move into your first place in your twenties, (jumping to conclusions here, but) you’re probably going to have alcohol around. Whether it’s for yourself after a brutal week at your first post-school job or you’re a good sharer and like to have friends around to drink slash commiserate—we’re not judging.
Rather than keeping random half empty bottles of booze jammed into a kitchen cabinet somewhere, though, you can easily level up your sophistication factor by investing in a cheap bar cart. Most are only around $100, and they’ll seriously make drinking feel like an Official Adult Activity—not just something you do as quick as possible before going out.
Now, if you’re a budding bartender or just really want to impress your house party guests, your bar cart is going to need to be stocked with a few important tools. Sure, we’re all capable of pouring vodka in a shot glass, but it’s not hard to wow your friends by pulling out a cocktail shaker.
To help you properly stock your in-home bar, we’ve consulted the experts: Thea Engst and Lauren Vigdor, Boston-area bartenders and authors of the fabulous book ‘Drink Like a Bartender.’ In the excerpt from their book below, you’ll read about their bar tool must-haves, as well as which liquors and garnishes you should always have on hand.
Excerpted from ‘Drink Like a Bartender’ by Thea Engst and Lauren Vigdor. Copyright © 2017 Adams Media, a division of Simon and Schuster. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
“My biggest tip for home bar is to not think about what bottles or liquors you should buy, but what it is you like to drink. If you start with a cocktail that you like, get those ingredients so you can make that cocktail. Then do that for another cocktail and see where they overlap. Don’t start with ‘what bottles do I buy,’ start with what you want to drink.”
—Max Toste, Co-Owner, Deep Ellum, Lone Star
Allston and Cambridge
STOCK YOUR BAR
You too can be like Thea and Lauren. Here are some tools to keep on hand for when it’s your moment to impress your friends and family:
Boston Shaker: Those tins you see us mixing drinks in. Glass is popular to stir in, too, but it’s more expensive (and albeit prettier). You choose!
Bar Spoon: Those long spoons you see us stirring with. Lauren stirs with her spoon in the drink, Thea stirs with the spoon upside down, like a damn animal. Deal with it. It’s about preference and you should do whatever makes more sense to you.
Strainer: Once you shake or stir the cocktail, if you don’t want to use dirty ice, you need to strain without your fingers (don’t be gross), so invest in one or all of these:
Hawthorne Strainer: The strainer with the coils. It essentially looks like it has a slinky on it. This is a pretty universal strainer, so you can’t really go wrong with it.
Julep Strainer: The strainer that looks like a big spoon with a small handle and big holes in it. It’s more commonly used for stirred cocktails, as there won’t be huge ice chunks to strain out of a stirred cocktail. (If there is, you’ve made a mistake.)
Tea Strainer: A cone-shaped mesh strainer very often used to double-strain egg white drinks or shaken drinks as well. Some people want to get the ice chunks out of a shaken drink and will use the Hawthorne strainer as well as the tea strainer. That’s about preference. This is a good tool to get mint bits out of a drink, too!
Jigger: Measuring device for fluid ounces. Again, choose the style you want—they come in all shapes and sizes and even with copper or gold plating!
Muddler: A muddler is a wooden (but sometimes metal) tool you’ll see behind the bar nowadays. It looks kind of like a tiny baseball bat with one end (meant for the muddling) that is flatter than the other. Of course, this changes based on the brand. It is used to help you crush ingredients (like mint leaves to release the flavors. In this way, it gives you the opportunity to amp up the freshness of your drink.
If your cocktail has juice in it, you shake it. That’s the rule. Don’t think twice about it. If it’s straight spirit, stir. That’s the rule. Don’t think twice about it. Got it? Good. Now we’re going to tell you that every rule has exceptions and this one does too. Sometimes the creator just wants the straight spirit cocktail to be shaken. Crazier things have happened! They will say so explicitly in their recipe.
THE GOOD STUFF
Just like Ocean’s Eleven or any other stupid heist movie, when it comes to drink making, you have key characters doing things that are apparently important. We got the explosive expert, the tech person, the driver, and the dude who gets everyone together and somehow gets all the credit. Your home bar components are just like a bad movie:
Simple Syrup: Don’t you dare buy this! You can make it at home in a few easy steps. It’s equal parts hot water and sugar, stirred until the sugar dissolves. So, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup hot water, stir and stir. You can even add more sugar for a richer syrup, and in the winter, a brown sugar simple is nice to have around! This is a common ingredient in cocktails, especially gimlets. It’s a good idea to keep some in the fridge at all times. You can impress your friends by making some gimlets on the fly (because of course you have those limes, too). Just like sugar, simple doesn’t expire. In fact, we use it in our coffee instead of sugar packets.
Sweet and/or Dry Vermouth: Thea’s Nana raised her to always be able to make her guests a Martini or Manhattan. Sweet vermouth goes in a Manhattan, dry vermouth in a Martini. But if you have both you can also make a Perfect Manhattan or a Perfect Martini, which uses a half ounce of each vermouth and will really impress your friends.
Angostura Bitters: The original: get it, have it, love it. (Also great in soda water to cure a hangover.) Now made in Trinidad, Angostura bitters was created by a German doctor who moved to Venezuela in 1824 to be surgeon general of the army. Once there, he capitalized on the plethora of natural resources the country offered. Angostura bitters was named for the maritime trading town it was sold in. Translating to “the narrows,” Angostura is known for its clove and cinnamon notes, secret recipe, and oversized label. The label was supposedly a silly misprint in the early days of printing, but became a signature that is still used in packaging today.
Peychaud’s Bitters: This is lighter than Angostura, with more cherry and fewer warm notes. Peychaud’s has deep roots in American cocktail history. It was created by a pharmacist in New Orleans, Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant who used family recipes with his own well-versed knowledge of herbs to create what we now know as Peychaud’s bitters. In 1838 he began selling his bitters in the French Quarter. Peychaud’s is famous for its role in the classic cocktail the Sazerac, which is also credited as being America’s first cocktail.
Campari: An amaro with strong orange notes. Campari is good to have in your bar because you can make anything from a low-alcohol, stomach-calming highball (Campari & soda), or classics like a Negroni for your gin-drinking guests and a Boulevardier for your whiskey-drinking guests.
Averna, Fernet, and/or Montenegro: Lauren’s mom used to hand out cordials or digestifs after a dinner party. We still do the same, but prefer Averna or Montenegro over Drambuie or Sambuca. Not only are they great to mix with (like a Black Manhattan), but they are also nice to shoot or sip after a big meal. Host a big dinner, hand out one of these after, and blow some minds.
Basic Booze: Gin, bourbon, rye, tequila, and/or mezcal. You choose! Or have one of each—no judgment.
Citrus: Lime and/or lemon to juice, or pre-juiced juice (say that three times fast!), whatever you want. There’s not much that can top a daiquiri with fresh lime juice, and if you have lemon juice, gin, and soda water, you have a Tom Collins. Voilà!
Beer and Wine: You’ll also want to stock some kind of craft beer you’re into. Why not? Sometimes a person just wants to come home to a nice saison. Is that so much to ask? In the same vein, keep a bottle of wine on hand. It doesn’t have to be expensive—it just has to be something you like. You’re an adult, dammit, act like one!
When you’re trying to decide what garnish to use for a drink, whether it’s a classic or your own recipe, just take a minute to think about the ingredients. For example: when Thea first started bartending, she kept mixing up her Sazerac and Negroni garnishes. She would always second-guess herself and look in her trusty recipe notebook to confirm before she would garnish either drink. Then one day it dawned on her: there is Campari in a Negroni. Campari is an amaro with orange notes. After that, it always made sense to her that the Negroni would have an orange peel. Why would you introduce lemon to a cocktail with no lemon notes in it? So when you’re making something at home and you have to decide what to garnish it with, think about what matches the ingredients and what will enhance the flavors you’ve already put in the drink.
Sidebar: Also invest in Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. They’re expensive, but damn they are delicious.
Now you know exactly what bar tools, liquors, and garnish your beginner in-home bar needs—and how to use all of them properly. It might seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll build it up over time, and then you’ll be blowing your friends’ minds as their own personal bartender. Just make sure they tip properly.
A great way to get started is by investing in an all-in-one bar tools kit (bonus points: everything will match!).
Keep your home bar on trend with this gold bar tools set:
Or try this steel set that comes in a box so it’s perfectly giftable (housewarming gift, dear friends, hint hint):
Your bar cart will stay perfectly neat with this set of tools that comes with its own wooden stand:
And if you want to take your newfound bartending skills on the go, try this tool set that comes in a mini suitcase:
To learn more about drinking like a bartender from the experts—exactly what to order, how to order it, and where—pick up Thea and Lauren’s book ‘Drink Like a Bartender’ now.