In this edition of "Cocktails with Carolyn," discover the final elements you need to complete your home bar.
Article & Photos by @CarolinaVerbena
“Shake, shake, shake, Senora,
Shake your body line
Shake, shake, shake, Senora,
Shake it all the time...”
― Harry Belafonte
Alright, so perhaps Harry wasn’t singing about shaking cocktails, but much like dancing, cocktails wouldn’t be the same without a good, solid shake. In this final article of my “Cocktails with Carolyn” fundamentals series, I’ll wrap up the home bar setup with just what “finals” to have on hand in order to create the perfect happy hour experience from the comfort of your own home.
With your liquor stocked, your assorted additions like liqueurs and Vermouths on hand, and a great glass to put it in, we’re in the home stretch! Now it's time to focus on tools, mixers, and flourish (I’m talking garnish of course). But, surely you weren’t thinking we’d be mixing drinks in an old tumbler or mason jar (both of which I’ve used in a pinch, so no judgement from me), so let's start with there.
First things first, you’ll need a sturdy and reliable shaker. If you’re anything like me, you might already have a cocktail shaker left over from a cheap bar set from college. But unless you really love it, let me just say it *might* (ok, definitely) be time to improve your shaker situation.
There are a few options, and it is important to find one you're comfortable with. I’m talking, physically comfortable holding, shaking, and pouring from, because hopefully you’ll be using it to mix up delicious cocktails frequently. There are three main options: a Boston shaker, a Cobbler style, or a Tin on Tin. Personally, I started my cocktail making adventures with a classic Boston shaker (the metal tin and pint glass combo) and almost immediately realized I didn’t like it. It worked, but the glass was heavy, got slippery with condensation, and could break. The Cobbler shaker isn’t much better in my opinion. With three pieces consisting of a bottom tin, a built in strainer in the “lid,” and a little shot glass-sized cap, the Cobbler shaker is the best choice for someone who a) loves being frustrated by a cocktail shaker freezing shut b) enjoys wasting part of your drink that inevitably ends up dripping down the side and c) doesn't mind that the holes in the lid are too large to catch ice chips (which I hope is not you). This leaves us with the Tin on Tin, which is my favorite and what I use at home to make all my drinks. This shaker might not be as pretty to look at as a Cobbler style, but it is functional and most importantly, reliable. The two metal tins (one larger than the other) nest together and seal perfectly, giving you the ability to shake a cocktail with ease. Because the metal is flexible, you can unseal your frosty, shaken cocktail and strain it without fighting your shaker first. (I “may” have lost a wrestling match with a Cobbler shaker over a batch of frothy Gin Sours in front of company before.) You also have enough volume between the two tins to shake up more than one drink at a time, and they will never break if you shake too hard.
Pros: Will. Not. Break. Seals reliably. Easy to clean and store.
Cons: Not the prettiest option. Takes a bit of practice to be confident using it (but worth it).
You can pick up a shaker at almost any store, but for a Tin on Tin, I recommend looking online. I got mine from Amazon for under $20 and it has never let me down.
Next up is a strainer. This seems like it might be a one-and-done category, but no! You have options. Most of us will recognize the Hawthorne strainer, even if the name isn’t familiar. It's the flat, slotted paddle with the spiral wire to catch ice, fruit, and any other extra bits that are part of the mixing process and the first (and most important) strainer you should have. Get one that has a nice, sturdy metal coil and that doesn’t feel too light. You want it to feel solid in your hand since you’ll be using it to hold back the ice for practically all of your drinks .
Personally, I think you can skip a Julep strainer completely. (You know, the large slotted spoon touted as a cocktail strainer.) I have one...and have never used it in all the cocktails I’ve ever made. Mint Juleps included. However, if you are particular about presentation and perfection, you should definitely get a fine mesh strainer. When making a drink with egg white (that glorious foam!), muddled fruit or herbs, or even just a drink you don’t want any rogue ice crystals floating around in, the fine mesh strainer is your friend. A lot of cocktail recipes will include “fine strain” or “double strain” in the instructions, and this is the tool for the job. You use your Hawthorne strainer to keep most of the riffraff out of your cocktail, and the fine mesh strainer to catch any final, errant ice chips or floaty bits. They are cheap (mine was about $5), worth it, and will also double as a great little tool for dusting your next cake with powdered sugar (yes, I raid my bar for kitchen needs, too).
Since we aren’t Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” we also need something to measure our recipes with! I recommend you get a simple Japanese-style jigger. A classic double-sided jigger (shaped like a little hourglass) will give you a simple and reliable way to measure your cocktails, but the Japanese-style jigger is taller, which helps reduce the possibility of spilling your precious ingredients before you can pour them into the shaker. Each side has a different total volume, plus measurement lines on the inside to give you smaller measurements (need ¾ of an ounce for your cocktail...easy, it’s already there to guide you!). A basic version of this style will cost you $5 - $10 and will never fail you. But you can of course use a traditional jigger, cute little measuring cup, or even a shot glass in a pinch.
Extras: A barspoon and a Y-shaped peeler are also great to have in your home bar repertoire. Sure, you can absolutely use a regular spoon (or spare chopstick if you’re getting creative) to stir your batch of Manhattans, but a long-handled, well-balanced barspoon will not only be functional, but will make your drink making experience more pleasant. Stirring your cocktail becomes a rhythmic twirl vs. clunking your soup spoon around in the glass. It also helps get down into jars, since it is slim and sleek. A Y-shaped peeler is also (in my humble opinion) the best option for slicing a perfect strip of lemon or orange zest off the fruit. Unlike a regular peeler, the Y-shape helps balance and distribute the pressure, giving you nice, neat peels and better control. Neither of these are essential, but if you’re looking to include all the “extras” for a great home bar, add them to the list.
No, no, no. I’m not talking about those mixers. I’m talking about well-crafted, thoughtfully-balanced, “elevate your simple cocktails to something special” kind of mixers. Sure, you can technically call Diet Coke a cocktail mixer if you glug it into a cup with some Whiskey, but that’s not what we’re here for. And if you have a great bottle of Rum and you’re craving a Dark ‘N Stormy, you don’t want to use a basic ginger ale. First, that wouldn't be right anyway since you have to use ginger beer for this particular drink, but also because the right mixer can take a drink from “hmm, this isn’t bad” to “this is the best version of XX drink I’ve ever had!” Your mixer isn’t just to dilute a cocktail, but also to enhance flavors, elevate the experience, and overall increase your enjoyment!
In the “bubbles” category of mixers, my must-haves are good tonic water, ginger beer, and club soda. These will give you a whole host of simple, but delicious cocktail options like a Gin & Tonic, Vodka & Soda, or Dark ‘N Stormy. You’ll also want ginger beer on hand for mixing with Whiskey/Bourbon, topping off a fun and festive fall or holiday cocktail, and making Moscow Mules. And club soda is not only an essential part of a Spritz, but you’ll also want it on hand if you decide to make “fizz-style" cocktails like a Ramos Gin Fizz. Brands I Use and Love: Q Mixers, Fever Tree, Regatta.
For non-bubbles, you should have a few fruit juices on hand. Personally, I buy some juices and then juice my own fruit for others. Absolutely essential to keep in stock for a variety of reasons are limes and lemons. First, you’ll see them pop up again and again in the garnish category. Second, there is simply no substitute for real lime or lemon juice in everything from a Margarita to a Gimlet. (If you are even remotely thinking “Oh, I can buy those little plastic lime and lemon juices at the store,” NO. Just no.) A bag of limes or lemons will last a looooong time in your fridge, give you loads of fresh juice, and are worth the little bit of effort to juice for a fresh, delicious cocktail.
Grapefruit juice is another important ingredient to have on hand, and this one I don’t bother juicing myself. Grapefruit juice -- and I'm talking the fresh kind you get in the refrigerator section at the grocery store, like Natalie’s or Uncle Matt’s, not that bitter white grapefruit in a can...or worse, the sugary, pink grapefruit juice in plastic bottles on the shelf -- adds a beautiful bitter/sweet punch of flavor that is best when fresh. You’ll use it in drinks like a Greyhound or Salty Dog, a Paloma, or a Eureka. Also, add splashes of zingy grapefruit to a Gin & Tonic or your next Negroni. Thank me later.
Extra (not essential, but good to have): Cranberry and Pineapple. Cranberry juice is delicious splashed into a Vodka & Soda, in a classic Cosmopolitan, and in any of your “Breeze” cocktails (Sea Breeze, Bay Breeze, etc.). Pineapple is a must for tiki drinks, so stock it seasonally for tropical drinks, or all year round for pineapple lovers like me!
While not really a “mixer,” you’ll absolutely need simple syrup on hand as well if you’ll be mixing up cocktails in your home bar. Called simple syrup because...well...it’s simple to make and you can make it yourself with nothing more than plain sugar and water. Your classic version is a 1:1 ratio (equal parts sugar and water). I like to pop on the tea kettle and add my boiling water to sugar in a jar or bottle, but you can also microwave it or heat it up on the stove top. Most importantly, you want to heat it until your sugar is dissolved fully and then store it in the fridge. You can also be creative and make a rich dark simple syrup (amazing in fall and winter drinks) using brown sugar or a honey simple syrup (hello, Bee’s Knees). If you really hate the idea of making your own, you can absolutely buy it.
A cocktail garnish isn’t just a pretty flourish on top of your drink, they also serve a purpose! That Gin & Tonic that has such a bright, refreshing zing? The squeeze of lime from your garnish did that. That beautiful, sweet, citrusy aroma you get when you take a sip of that Old Fashioned? Thank the orange peel squeezed over the drink to release those orange oils. A garnish not only looks great, but enhances your drink with scent and flavor.
In addition to giving you fresh juice, it is great to keep a few pieces of fresh fruit on hand for garnishes as well. A couple of limes and lemons tucked into your produce drawer in the fridge will last longer than you expect and give you a wonderful fresh garnish for your next happy hour. My constant supply includes lemons, limes, and an orange or two (you’ll want it for garnishing a Negroni or an Old Fashioned on short notice). If they start to look a little worse for wear, juice them and either use the juice or freeze it in a small ice cube tray for easy storage and use later!
Not fresh, but also in the fruit category is the cherry. Can you buy a jar of those electric red Maraschino cherries from the store and have a good drink? Yes, absolutely! But if you’re looking to improve your drink and make it the best it can be, spring for a jar of Amarena cherries. The Amarena cherry is a small, dark, sour cherry from Italy, that in cocktail garnish form, is pure perfection. They are sweet, a little tart, and beautifully flavorful, and the syrup is a velvety, garnet-colored elixir that you can add a spoonful of to your next Manhattan (a personal favorite). They aren’t cheap, but are worth every penny! Favorite brands include Luxardo, Fabbri, and Toschi.
Whew! We made it! If you’ve read all the previous articles in this series, you have now reached your final destination...your very own home bar! You’re ready to mix up a batch of fresh and delicious cocktails all without ever having to change out of your pajamas or leave the house. I want to thank you for reading along, and hopefully you’ve gained something along the way (because I sure had fun writing for you!).
So now that you’re locked and loaded with a fully stocked and functional home bar, you can find inspiration for delicious and easy to make happy hour sips here on Parched, or you can head over to my Instagram page for recipes galore! Just remember to tag @CarolinaVerbena and @ParchedAroundtheWorld whenever you whip up any tasty concoctions so that we can share in your cocktail making fun!
Carolyn is a self-taught home bar and cocktail enthusiast. She enjoys a drink on the porch in the evening and is a strong believer that you can never have too many glassware options. She is the creator and curator of @CarolinaVerbena, featuring the cocktails she mixes up at home with her husband and two cats. Carolyn lives in Atlanta, GA, but is a nomad at heart who loves to explore the world one sip (or bite) at a time.