Entertaining Cocktails

home bar essentials

How to Stock Your Home Bar Strategically

Save money stocking a home bar on a budget, only buying cocktail essentials you’ll use. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Cocktails & Dreams

I had an unshakeable dream.

I’d invite one or two (thirsty) friends over on a whim. I’d casually pluck some choice liquor bottles off my bar cart, expertly mix them (never missing a beat in the conversation), and serve up a round of brilliantly mixed drinks in delicate coupe glasses on a vintage tray. 

My friends would sip and remark it was just like being at a cocktail bar. I’d be a glorious host. 

But the reality was, for a long time, I had no clue how to even make a cocktail that tasted decent. Every time I tried, the liquor taste was overwhelming. 

My liquor shelf consisted of a bottle of whiskey and three randomly purchased super-sweet liqueurs. None of them even made a single recipe. Unless you count whiskey on the rocks.

I didn’t know where to start. The whole process seemed overwhelming. Not to mention, a costly hobby for someone clueless about cocktails. 

But slowly, I figured it out. I now have a well-stocked home bar. With essential liquors. But also unique cocktail spirits that I get excited to explore. I’m organized, have the right bar tools, and always have cocktail recipes (or 30) I’m dying to make. I can pick the perfect impromptu recipe – for a relaxing afternoon with my husband in our backyard or a last-minute cocktail hour with our neighbors. 

Want to know how I did it? 

I’ll show you step by step.

01 / The Strategy

why you need more than just a checklist of basic alcohols to create a home bar you’ll actually use

01 / The Strategy

why you need more than just a checklist of basic alcohols to create a home bar you’ll actually use

The Problem with Every Other Guide

Try opening up a Google search for “how to stock a home bar,” I bet you’ll find 126 versions of a checklist of alcohols you should buy. 

Now, that list is convenient.  And it’s easy. 

But you’ll spend a lot of money on this random list. Cause alcohol ain’t cheap. And you won’t really know what you’re buying or how to use it.  

You won’t even know if you’re going to like it. Maybe even setting it out at parties, praying someone will just please drink it so you have the bar space to buy something you love.

For example, want to know one item that will be on every one of those checklists?  Vodka. 

Before my cocktailing journey, I’d look for the vodka drink every time I scanned a menu at a bar. It was easy. Predictable. 

And now? I’ve realized I don’t like vodka – and prefer other spirits. I was only ordering it because it was easy and familiar.

And if I’d followed that generic checklist, I’d be stuck with a bottle of vodka that I would never use.

Bottom line: A checklist is generic. It covers the bases for the general public. But you aren’t generic. And your cocktail journey and preferences will be very different than anyone else.  So, ditch the checklist.

But what do you do instead?

How to Stock a Bar for YOU

This guide will help you keep your bar stocked by helping you discover your own tastes and preferences. You’ll understand what you do and don’t like, and only buy things you know you will enjoy. 

That means buying slowly and deliberately. And not wasting money on alcohol you aren’t going to use. 

In this guide, I recommend some bar tools with affiliate links. If you decide to buy, then I’ll get a small commission, at no cost to you.

Let’s get started.


time to start sampling. the best homework assignment you’ll ever have.

Discover What You Love

Your first step along your cocktail journey is to delve into what you love. Take a minute and think about your favorite drinks, spirits, or tastes. 

Are you fascinated by dark rum? Adore coffee liqueur? Do you love bold boozy drinks? Are you a fan of drinks with citrus fruits? Do you go for bitter cocktails and want to dive into Amaro drinks?

What’s your favorite drink? What is it about that drink that you love so much? The sweetness? That you can relax with it on a sunny afternoon?

Homework assignment: Write down everything that inspires you about your favorite drinks.

Still trying to figure out where to start? Read up on the 6 types of basic cocktails and pick one that sounds delicious. Then head to a bar, order, drink, and take notes.

helpful resources to find your taste

What Are The 6 Basic Cocktails

Learn the types of cocktails or cocktail families to understand for formulas behind classic cocktails.

Best Cocktail Descriptors

Learn the words to describe cocktails by understanding different cocktail flavors to discover what you like (and don’t like).

Tasting Notes Template

Use this printable to keep track of your tasting notes.

pro tip!

If you take this homework assignment to a bar, go at a less busy time and sit at the bar. You can talk with the bartender and ask questions about the drinks.

03 / Build Your Bar Basics

Let’s start stocking that bar. Oh boy, this is going to be good.

Buy Your First Home Bar Liquor for Cocktails

Now you should know at least one drink or flavor profile you like. It’s time to start stocking your bar!

To do this, read your tasting notes and pick 1-2 cocktail recipes. If you don’t have a recipe yet, think of a liqueur or ingredient you’re interested in. Then find a recipe that uses it.

For me, my cocktail journey (and the start of stocking my home bar essentials) began when I ordered The Erin at Long Island Bar in Brooklyn one night. I was seated at the end of the bar and was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with the bartender. 

I fell in love with the drink. I couldn’t identify any of the flavors (my favorite challenge). But it tasted magical. Spirit-forward but citrusy and herbal. The bartender told me the bitter orange taste was from the Bigallet china china (pronounced “sheena sheena”) – an Amer liqueur.  

I became obsessed with finding a bottle of Bigallet. I went on a mission to own it. My friends got sick of hearing me say, “sheena sheena.” Then, I finally sourced it, bought it, and put it in the center of a shelf I cleared in my living room that would become my bar. 

My prize. But I had no idea what to do with it.  So I started researching recipes. I decided to recreate The Erin at home. Happily discovered the recipe online. And then bought all of the supplies to make it.

Now it’s your turn to do the same.  Pick out a recipe or two you want to start with. Buy the ingredients to make it. Easy.

Preferably, pick recipes that don’t have a ton of obscure items in them. And even better if it includes at least 1 base spirit and either a sweet or dry vermouth. These are essential liquors for a home bar that you’ll get a lot of use.

Bar Tools & Home Bar Essentials List

To make your first drink, you’re going to need some supplies.  If you don’t have any yet, there is no shame in using a pint glass and stirring with a butter knife as a bar spoon until you figure out if you want to fully invest in a home bar. Below I’ve included the bare bones essentials you’ll need to get started.

Bar must haves including a strainer, cocktail shaker and jigger

Things you absolutely need:

A way to measure in ounces (I prefer a jigger like this)

A cocktail shaker (which you can also mix drinks in). I also have a mixing glass like this and love it

A strainer (though, don’t tell anyone I used a spatula with a slit for way too long before getting a proper strainer)

Something to stir with, like a bar spoon. But seriously, you can use a spoon you already have ’til you figure this thing out.

Ice. You can use the ice your freezer makes or from standard ice trays. For serving, I love this size of square cubes (but totally not necessary)

Something to serve it in. (like a rocks glass–or an old fashioned glass–or a coupe glass)

A Note on Non-Alcoholic Mixers & Fresh Fruit

Your recipe will have more items than alcohol, like fresh fruit, fruit juice, and other things you can find at the grocery store. Here are some tips for those supplies.

Make your own simple syrup, don’t buy it.

Buy orange juice and cranberry juice, but squeeze your own lemon juice and lime juice fresh.

I love to find special ginger ale or tonic at specialty stores to elevate my drink.

Time To Make Your First Mixed Drink

You gathered your supplies. You’ve picked your recipe.  The time is here. 

Mix up your first cocktail.

Sip, enjoy, and observe.

Notes to take as you sip and observe:

Do you like it?

Does it taste like you expected it to?

Why or why not?

Anything you need to change about your process or the recipe?

What do you like about it? Anything new?

What don’t you like about it?

Would you want to make it again?

Do you want to keep exploring drinks similar to this one?

04 / Explore & Expand

Keep practicing, adding and experimenting to grow your home bar.

Now that you’ve made a drink or two, it’s time to evaluate where you’d like to head next. Do you like the path you’re on? Do you want to switch to a different direction?

Step 1. Keep Researching and Adding

If you like the path you’re on, research new recipes that include at least one of the ingredients you already own. Pick a new recipe and buy those ingredients. Mix up those cocktails. 

Rinse and repeat. Soon you’ll have built up a bar of must-haves based on YOU. Where every single item is something you can actually use.

Step 2. Get Adventurous

Once you build your home bar with step 1, you’ll probably start niching down on a particular drink.

For me, that was buying 13 types of Amaros and generally making a ton of spirit-forward bitter cocktails. Don’t get me wrong, I love this path. I chose it. But I started to want to try something new. 

So I challenged myself. What kinds of drinks do I gravitate away from? And why?

For me, I never made fruity drinks. Except for daiquiris. Yum.

I had the thought that fruity drinks weren’t “real” drinks. And that it wouldn’t be sophisticated. 

And then I read the Death & Co book Modern Classics. Out of all of my cocktail books, this is the one that I love the most. I came across it at the right point in my cocktail journey. I had my essential liquors and refined my path.  But I was ready for something new but needed to figure out where to go next.

I remember making Cinnamon Girl, a drink by Brad Farran from the Modern Classics book. This one is shaken with orange and lime and includes both tequila reposado AND rum. None of these things were usual ingredients for me (and what drink has tequila and rum in it?). Trusting the bartenders on this one, I made it. And it was delicious.

I don’t think this book is for beginners.  But it is the perfect intermediate book to build on an established bar. To look for new and exciting.  For me, it was branching out into creating sophisticated drinks with fruit. And I found out that I absolutely adore them.

So, your challenge at this level is looking for inspiration outside your typical path. Read cocktail books or blogs and try a different recipe from someone whose taste you trust.

Then repeat the same process as step 1 – but with a new direction.

ideas for getting creative:

  • Try a different base spirit. Never use tequila? Try a tequila drink
  • Experiment with fruit-based vs. boozy drinks. 
  • Only drink tropical drinks? Try a Negroni
  • Try a different flavor profile 
  • Experiment with a new combination, like banana + chocolate liqueur
  • Only use classic London dry gin? Try Old Tom
  • Sample a new drink at a bar before you commit to buying the supplies
  • Make something with pineapple juice or tomato juice
  • Explore drinks where crème de cacao is a minor ingredient
  • Look for drinks that combine multiple base spirits like light rum and mezcal
  • Mix a drink that uses an orange liqueur like triple sec or Grand Marnier
  • Whip up some tiki drinks
  • Read a cocktail book beyond classic cocktails, like Modern Classics to get inspiration
  • Ask a friend what their favorite drink is and make it

raise a glass


If you’ve come this far, congratulations, and time to celebrate with a cocktail from your perfectly you curated home bar.

If you’re just starting, remember that stocking your home bar is a marathon, not a sprint.

Savor the process.

Take the first step of ordering a drink and noting what you love. It’ll all fall into place from there.

Cheers to that!