How to Stock a Home Bar on a Budget: What You Need & What You Don’t
For those setting up house or party people getting ready for the holidays, making mixed drinks at home can be an expensive endeavor. While it’s undoubtedly cheaper to fill your cup at home instead of hitting the bar, keeping the liquor on hand to be your own mixologist can be costly.
Professional bartenders say the trick to saving money on your own home bar is to make a plan before you load up on hundreds of dollars worth of bottles. Like going to the grocery store hungry, strolling the aisles at the liquor store without a list can be a liability to your budget.
How Much Does It Cost to Stock a Home Bar?
The cost of building a well-stocked home bar varies widely depending on what you already have on hand. If you’re starting from scratch, a basic home bar setup should set you back somewhere in the $250 to $500 range depending on your taste in liquor.
How does that compare to the average cocktail budget in most cities? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey says consumers spent an average of $478 on alcohol in 2020, down $100 from 2019. This cost rises dramatically during the holidays and for younger people who raise a glass more often than others.
Elliott Clark, the founder of Apartment Bartender, reassures cocktail enthusiasts that many cocktails can be made at home with anywhere from three to five ingredients.
“The most expensive part is the spirit, and that doesn’t have to be expensive at all,” says Clark. “Spirits ranging in the $20-$35 range are great for home cocktails.”
How to Stock a Home Bar on a Budget
Beginning with the end in mind is helpful when deciding what to buy for your home bar and what to leave on the shelf. There are two basic approaches to stocking a home bar on a budget.
If you’re new to making mixed drinks at home …
It’s best to sample and try a few different cocktails before you settle on what you want to invest in for your home bar.
“There are a few different ways you can go about stocking a home bar,” Clark advises. “The easiest — and most cost-effective way — is to stock your home bar with what you enjoy imbibing.”
If gin and tonics are your vibe, you’ll need a few types of gin, some quality tonic water and some herbs or citrus for garnish. If you’re an old-fashioned enthusiast, a selection of aromatic bitters, bourbon and rye whiskey, and some sugar cubes or simple syrup is a great place to start.
If you’re stocking (or restocking) a home bar for a party …
Grab a selection of liquors that cover the bases for a handful of classic cocktails. If you want to be on trend, Liquor.com says the most popular cocktails in the United States are the bourbon-based old-fashioned, the Manhattan, margaritas of all types, Long Island iced teas and various versions of martinis.
Stock Your Home Bar in 5 Easy Steps
Need a blueprint for starting the perfect home bar or filling your bar cart ahead of the next party? Follow these steps recommended by professional bartenders.
Step 1: Start With the Right Tools for the Job
“Having the right tools of the trade makes crafting cocktails at home a lot easier,” says Clark. These are the home bar tools professional bartenders recommend to mix up cocktails at home.
“As someone who has worked behind the bar for 10 years and has had experience using all types of cocktail shakers, I always recommend the metal-on-metal Boston shaker,” House insists. “This shaker is tried and true, and there is a reason why all working bartenders use them.”
Don’t have a shaker? A mason jar or a protein shaker bottle will do in a pinch. Just don’t forget to secure the lid before you start shaking.
This type of strainer fits across the top of a cocktail shaker (or a glass) and filters out ice, herbs, pulp, and any other bits you don’t want in your cup. Hawthorne strainers have tight coils that make the work of filtering easier.
If your shaker already has one built-in, you could skip the Hawthorne strainer. However, it’s an excellent long-term investment for your home bar or bar cart.
There are many things your home bar setup can do without, but House warns that a cocktail jigger isn’t one of them.
“There is a reason why cocktail recipes have exact measurements,” he explains. “Every cocktail recipe is balanced, and if you want to maintain the integrity of that balanced cocktail, you need to measure the ingredients appropriately.”
If you can’t locate a jigger and are desperate, a tablespoon is a ½ ounce. The small pour on a jigger is 1 ounce, while the tall pour is usually a 2-ounce measurement.
The long-handled spoons in bar sets are very handy for mixing and muddling ingredients. And since they’re inexpensive, there’s no good reason not to have one.
If you’re stocking a home bar on the fly, choose an alternative to a muddler lying around your kitchen, like a wooden spoon or a rolling pin.
Want to get the tools of the trade for cheaper? You can buy a good bar set for around $35 or less. They also make great gifts for home bartenders.
Step 2: Buy These Home Bar Essential Liquors
Stocking a home bar or bar cart from scratch? House recommends beginning with one bottle of each of the following seven liquors:
- Gin (London Dry Gin or other)
- Rum (dark rum, light rum or white rum)
- Single-malt scotch
Suppose you want to pare down the selection a bit further. In that case, Clark of Apartment Bartender advises choosing four to five bottles divided evenly between aged spirits, like bourbon and reposado tequila, and unaged spirits, like gin and vodka.
How much should you spend per bottle for these base spirits?
“I’d say a $150 to $200 investment (total) is a great start here,” Clark clarifies.
That’s a modest budget of around $30 to $50 per bottle.
Step 3: Mix in the Essentials
Sipping tequila straight isn’t for everyone. The good news is you can mix plenty of flavor into your favorite cocktails with just a few simple ingredients from your fridge.
- Simple syrup
- Lemon juice and lime juice
- Fresh juice (apple, orange or tomato juice)
- Club soda or tonic water
- Soda (ginger beer, Coca-cola, etc.)
- Sparkling wine (optional)
Remember that simple syrup, one of the most essential mixers, is just sugar and water. Most bars infuse simple syrup with herbs and other flavors for fun variations on popular cocktails.
Bitters are another must-have that might cost a little upfront but should last a long, long time. House suggests having the three main bitter varieties on hand: Peychaud’s, Angostura and orange bitters.
Step 4: Garnish From the Garden
Garnishes play an outsized role in the flavor profile of any good cocktail. Fortunately, most of what you’ll float in your drinks is edible, cheap and readily available.
Some common garnishes to keep on hand include citrus fruits (limes, lemons, oranges) and sprigs of herbs like rosemary or mint. Cinnamon sticks and nutmeg are also popular garnishes for seasonal cocktails.
Remember to keep some salt and sugar on hand for rimming glasses. You can also upgrade your home bar setup with a small cutting board, knife and juicer to feel like a real professional.
Step 5: Stock a Few Liqueurs or Aperitifs (Optional)
With a little extra room in your budget, you can expand your home bar selection into a pretty sweet setup. House advises branching out into a few basic liqueurs or aperitifs when you’re ready.
“I suggest stocking a Cointreau, Campari, Aperol, an Amaro and absinthe of your choice,” he says. “Feel free to get seasonal by adding an all-spice dram, elderflower or melon liqueur when the time is right.”
Take a look at your favorite alcoholic drink and invest in one bottle of the featured spirit such as Triple Sec, Grand Marnier or even something seasonal like Peppermint Schnapps.
A Word About Bar Glasses
While it’s nice to have a full bar with complimentary glassware, you don’t need martini glasses or Collins glasses for most cocktails. Home bars focused on mixing drinks usually need basic wine glasses, a highball glass for slightly taller cocktails and a few rocks or lowball glasses.
Stock Your Home Bar on a Budget With This Money-Saving Tip
Thirsty for a deep bench of the best bottles but don’t have the budget yet? Don’t worry. When stocking a home bar, House advises finding a balance between saving and splurging with two bottles.
“My advice on how to balance cost with quality is this: Splurge more on the things you enjoy drinking for your home bar,” House explains. “For me, I usually stock two of every core spirit. One is dedicated to cocktails (my call bottles), while the other is to sipping neat or on the rocks (my top shelf bottles). When entertaining and making cocktails for your guests, use your call bottles. If you like your guest, let them sip from your top-shelf stash.”
So next time company calls, don’t fall back on that reliable bottle of red wine. As you build a deeper bench of spirits in your home bar setup over time, you’ll naturally find an approach that satisfies your guests and your budget.
Kaz Weida is a senior writer with The Penny Hoarder.