HOME IS WHERE THE BAR IS
Nothing says welcome to my home like a "Welcome to My Home" welcome mat. But beyond that, how else can you ensure your guests feel comfortable, relaxed, and conversational? Have a fully loaded bar with all the requisite spirits and barware that'll make you look like a full fledged mixologist (mustache and suspenders optional, of course). For less than $300, you should be able to find everything you need to put company in the proper spirits, so to speak.
Having a bourbon in your spirits collection is a necessity. Not only is it something you can have neat or on the rocks, but it's the bedrock of drinks like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and mint julep. A common misconception is that inexpensive bourbon means lesser quality, but this surely isn't the case. For a whiskey you can easily take from rocks to cocktail, check out the award-winning Benchmark No. 8 for just $11.
Here we have bourbon's brother, rye. It's similar to a bourbon in taste, but made using 51% rye (which closely resembles barley). This means rye is a much more spicy liquor, great for mixing into cocktails -- or enjoying on the rocks if you like a bit of a kick. For something delicious and under $20, consider the versatile Old Overholt for $18.
Scotch is undoubtedly the most intimidating of spirits. It's often portrayed as the cliched drink of multi-millionaires sitting in smoking rooms debating the merits of the free market. It's an acquired taste, a taste that will certainly be described as "peaty" ... although many will say "rubbery." Because of this, you'll want to start with something entry level and similar to your favorite whiskey. We like The Famous Grouse ($22). Not only can it punch above its weight as a Scotch neat, it works well in cocktails, too.
VODKA (OR GIN)
There will eventually come a time when you'll want to experiment with bloody marys. And when it happens, you'll need vodka or gin. Once you've mastered your own bloody mary recipe, feel free to add a bit of class to your repertoire and move on to martinis. A good entry vodka that won't drain your wallet is Tito's, which is available for $20 for a 750ml bottle. And if gin is more in your wheelhouse (Negronis, gin and tonics, etc.), pick up a bottle of Beefeater for around $22.
Don't be scared of blanco tequila! It's an extremely versatile spirit that can be incorporated into everything from margaritas and tequila sunrises to fantastical takes on old-fashioneds and bloody marias. Although there are cheap ones out there which evoke visions of hangovers, stick to something like Olmeca Altos, a delicious and refreshing tequila that clocks in around $24.
This should be a no brainer. Need a party punch in a quick pinch? Light rum. Looking to spice things up with something a little more tropical and fruity? Light rum. Heading to a Jimmy Buffett concert and can't wait to play air steel drums? Light rum can help with that. For the most versatile one out there, you'll want to go with Appleton's, especially for the price ($20).
Vermouth is a fortified wine that you'll need specifically for two major cocktails: The Manhattan and the Negroni. One requires bourbon (the Manhattan), the other gin (the Negroni). You likely won't be going through bottles of vermouth regularly, so get something that can sit in the refrigerator for a while and still taste great in a few months. We like Carpano Antica, an Italian import that costs just $19.
If you want to master the martini, you'll want to start with a solid dry vermouth (and an aforementioned gin or vodka, of course). Like sweet vermouth, dry vermouth is something you likely won't go through that often, so opt for something affordable yet tasty. A classic that won't let you down is Martini and Rossi Extra Dry for $8.
You'll absolutely need a nice bottle of bitters to round out Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, martinis, and Manhattans. Bitters are traditionally botanical tasting (albeit, bitter), boast high alcohol by volume, and can actually be mixed with soda water for a great hangover cure. Pick up a 4-ounce bottle of Angostura from Walmart for $5.
Once you've got your liquor covered, it's time to move on to barware. The first purchase you'd be wise to make is a sophisticated shaker set. You can get each item individually, but a set will give your bar a look of cohesiveness that simply can't be beat. In this $20 set from Amazon, you'll get a shaker, Hawthorne strainer, jigger, and a stirring spoon. This will allow you to make almost any cocktail your heart desires and channel Tom Cruise in the 1988 bartending movie: "Cocktail."
HAWTHORNE OR JULEP STRAINER
A Hawthorne strainer is the more ubiquitous of the two. It's the small, flat metal utensil with a coil that's most often associated with a shaker. A julep strainer is perforated and more spoon-like, allowing you to pour your cocktail into a glass after stirring it, often leaving out any ice or spices (namely mint) from your cocktail. Most of the times, a shaker will come with a Hawthorne strainer (see above), but if not, you can pick one up for under $7 on Amazon. A julep strainer is less expensive and can be purchased for under $4.
Ah, the muddler. This tool is used to grind fruit, herbs, and spices into your drink. Most of us associate this miniature baseball bat with mojitos, but you'll also want to employ it for mint juleps, caipirinhas, and even old-fashioneds (muddle the sugar, bitters, orange, cherry, and a dash of soda). And at $1, you can't afford to not have one.
Little known fact: Coupe glasses were originally used for champagne ... and they still can be. In recent years, the coupe glass made a comeback for craft cocktails, namely for its ability to prevent spillage, but also because of the presentation. For your sake, you can use them for martinis, champagne, French 75s, daiquiris, or any cocktail involving just two to four ingredients. Nab a set of four on Amazon for $17.
These glasses are particularly good for a few cocktails: bloody marys, Tom Collins, mojitos, and practically any frozen drink you can concoct in your blender. Also, if you're into experimenting with different ingredients, Collins glasses will give you more room to add/subtract your liquids. Pick some up on Amazon for $25.
If you and your guests prefer your drinks neat or on the rocks, please forgo plastic cups. Not only will rocks glasses keep your drink cooler and the taste/profile in tact, they add a level of timeless sophistication. Like a tuxedo for your Scotch. Amazon offers a set of four for a mere $14.
This is likely the most overlooked item of any home bar. Let's first answer the "why." If you want to make good cocktails, you'll need them to be cold. A shaker does the trick but also doesn't allow you to see the cocktail being diluted by the ice and will often times add in small chips that will water down your drink. A mixing glass also transfers less heat into the cocktail, which changes the consistency and makeup. Crate and Barrel offers a simple, elegant solution for $15 ... but if you have a French press, you can easily use that in its place.
Of course, once you amass a collection of bottles and barware that even the best bartenders would be jealous of, you'll need something to put it all on. The term "bar cart" is very loose, since you could ostensibly put your booze in a filing cabinet and call that a bar cart. But you'll likely want to show off your lovely spirits. To do so in an elegant way, and for under $30, opt for Ikea's Sunnersta Utility Cart. As a bonus, this cart can be easily painted, so customization isn't out of the question.