What could be more fun right now than a beginners bar cart guide?! I am here to help you start enjoying delicious, high-quality cocktails at home.
Cocktails used to be intimidating to me, so I would only enjoy them out at restaurants and I would order like this, “I like something strong, with a little sweetness and I like citrus. Thank you.” I did not even know enough about alcohol or liquor to know what to ask for by name.
Then Jeremy and I moved to Southern California. We went to a local restaurant for happy hour and the cocktails were $15 a piece. This was on happy hour. So, we decided to make our own drinks. Then, naturally, we started hosting cocktail parties!
In fact, this was our cocktail menu for our goodbye party:
Not only is it much cheaper to make your own drinks at home, but a lot of restaurants use syrupy mixers and lower-quality alcohol to make their money. It makes good business sense for the restaurant (I used to work in several restaurants, from high-end to chain, and the money is made on alcohol sales). We still enjoy cocktails out from time to time. but learning to make them at home has been very helpful to our budget. : )
Let’s begin, shall we?!
The Beginners Bar Cart
- High-quality alcohol is worth it. I promise you will tell the difference in your drink. (A margarita made with low-quality tequila can taste like burning as it goes down. A margarita made with high-quality tequila is smooth and has beautiful notes of agave).
- This is an investment, but one that lasts. A $40 bottle of Rye might seem extreme, but remember, we’re just using ounces at a time. And alcohol has a very long shelf life.
- Build over time. You do not have to go out and get all the tools and alcohol today. Start with what piques your interest. Also, it’s not really possible right now due to COVID, but the best way to find out what you like without spending money on a whole bottle of alcohol is to try drinks at restaurants known for their cocktails. Sit at the bar when the restaurant is slow and make friends with your bartender. Tell them what you like and don’t like. It is the best education!
A note from me: I actually like the taste of alcohol. You will not see me making a rum punch or a piña colada. These drinks mask the taste of alcohol with a lot of sugar. If I want something fruity, I’ll make a smoothie. In that regard, I tend to stay away from liquor that is mostly used for fruity drinks (I’m looking at you, rum).
Honestly, you probably have what you need in your kitchen right now to make drinks. Anything that you can close up to shake and pour from works. A wooden spoon to muddle. A tall glass jar to mix in. But the below are items that we really like using and have in our bar cart!
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A Shaker: shaking in a stainless steel container filled with ice makes the drink extra cold, which is why I will always opt for a stainless steel shaker over a glass one. Sometimes this means it will take a little toying with the lid after shaking because the metal contracts once it is cold. But we have never had so much trouble that it bothered us. Shakers also generally come with strainers, which help to keep the ice, or muddled ingredients, from going into the glass when pouring!
Ounce Measurer: Recipes often call for alcohol to be measured in ounces, so it helps to have a smaller measurer. Lots of people like cocktail jiggers (that is what they are called!), but I do not. They can be messy to pour from. I like this little Oxo Grips ounce measurer. I also like that it is angled, so you can easily see what you are pouring! Hot tip: 1 shot is usually 1 – 1 1/2 ounces. Half a shot is 3/4 ounce. Measuring in ounces is much easier.
Muddler: This is great for muddling fresh herbs, citrus, or other fruit to extract their flavors into your drink!
Large Sphere Ice Cube Mold: These are amazing! This is an ice cube tray that can make large ice cubes in spheres. This large ice cube will keep your drink cool, but will melt very slowly and not water down your drink.
This is really all you need! But, if you want to get real fancy:
Cocktail Mixer with long spoon and strainer: This is perfect for drinks that are stirred, not shaken. Like martinis, manhattans, or a negroni.
Cocktail Picks: I love these picks for drinks that call for a garnish, like cherries or olives!
Bottle Opener: If you don’t already have one, these are great – and magnetic!
You can serve your drink in whatever glass you want, to be honest. But there are some glasses that make the experience of enjoying the cocktail next-level for me!
Old Fashion Fortessa Glasses: We actually were eating at a Mexican restaurant several months ago in DC and they served their margaritas in these! I immediately went on the hunt and found them. We like to serve margaritas and any kind of bourbon drink in these beauties!
The Coupe: These are so adorable, I cannot get over it! We like to serve martinis in these, as well as champagne.
Scandal Red Wine Glass: Ok, this is not for cocktails, but it is my favorite wine glass! And, yes, it is the same wine glass Olivia Pope drinks out of in the TV show Scandal (I did the research).
Moscow Mule Mugs: These serve a purpose besides being fun to look at. They keep your drink super-cold thanks to the copper. Perfect for any kind of mule!
I used to only like wine, and then I realized it’s because I only ever had drinks with cheap alcohol. Like mentioned above, this is when quality really matters.
Below are the top mixing alcohols have on our bar cart. I list two for each, depending on your price range and store availability! The first one listed, in most cases, is higher-end and also my favorite.
Vodka basically takes on the flavor of whatever drink you make! People like using vodka to put with juice (like orange or cranberry juice). It’s really versatile.
Gold Star: Russian Standard Vodka. Maybe the smoothest vodka I’ve ever tried.
Runner-Up: Tito’s Vodka (it has a cult following)
Bad whiskey is very bad. It basically tastes like burning. I could write a whole eBook on whiskey, but I won’t. For the beginner, here is what you need to know: there is Bourbon and there is Rye. That is all we are going to focus on. I like Rye and always go for Rye when making or ordering a whiskey drink (unless it is an Old Fashioned, and then I like Bourbon).
Rye tends to be a little more savory and has subtle spice notes. Bourbon can be a touch more on the sweet side.
Because we are mixing drinks here, we do not buy the most expensive whiskey. Expensive whiskey is for sipping alone. But the below whiskeys are still great quality and perfect for mixing drinks.
Gold Star: Bulleit Rye and/or Bulleit Bourbon
Runner-Up: Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Some people love gin and some people hate it. Gin is traditionally made with juniper berries, so it definitely has a pine-like taste to it. My second favorite cocktail is made with gin. If you are unsure about gin, maybe wait until you can try it at a restaurant or friend’s house.
Gold Star: Gray Whale Gin. Unfortunately you need to order this online, or, if you live in California, you can find it in stores that sell gin. It is my all time favorite!
Runner-Up: Hendrick’s Gin (also has a cult following)
Runner, Runner-Up: Aviation. This one is from Ryan Reynolds, so that is fun.
It took me a long time to like tequila, and I think that is because, when I got a margarita in a restaurant, it was filled with store-bought sweet-and-sour mix and low-quality tequila. Since discovering amazing tequila, I am forever changed. Now, I almost never order margaritas from a restaurant unless they are known for their margaritas.
Gold Star: Don Julio Blanco or Añejo (right now I love Añejo)
Runners-Up: Patron Silver or Casamigos (this one is from George Clooney). Apparently The Rock has a tequila out that is affordable and I heard is delicious. But we have not found it in our liquor store. It is called Teremana.
As mentioned above, we do not have dark rum because that is generally for sweeter and fruitier cocktails. But I do like light rum for Mojitos!
Gold Star: Cruz Aged Light Rum
To be fair, I do not drink that much rum, so I know the least about it. But this is the one I enjoy.
This gets tricky. Liqueurs are technically liquor, but they stand out because they have sugars or fruits added to them for their taste. I like just a few of these!
This is the perfect float for a margarita. People also use this to top other drinks, or even in champagne!
Gold Star: Grand Marnier
This liqueur is known for it’s floral notes! It also has a hint of grapefruit! Fun fact, it is distilled in a St. Germain, France.
Gold Star: Saint Germain (this is the only one I have tried and the most widely available)
This liqueur has an intense raspberry taste which is delightful!
Gold Star: Chambord, made in France. You only need the little bottle of this, because a little goes a long way.
This is usually mistaken as a liqueur, but is actually a fortified wine. It can be sipped by itself, but it is usually used in cocktails.
There are two types of vermouth. Sweet Vermouth is used in Manhattans and Negronis (I like Manhattans so we always have this on hand). Dry Vermouth is very versatile, but I generally use it in Vodka martinis.
Gold Star: Noilly Prat (for both Dry and Sweet). For people who sip on vermouths, there are higher-quality options. But because I mix mine in cocktails, I stick to the above brand.
If you like Negroni’s or any kind of cocktail with a pleasant bitterness and hints of citrus, this is a must liqueur. It is also a fun red color which can make your cocktails look summer-ready!
Gold Star: Aperol. This one is much more favored because it is not as intense with the bitter notes.
Runner Up: Campari. This one ages longer and has a deeper color which also means the bitterness really comes out swinging.
To Be Considered
Cocktail Cherries: the absolute best cocktail cherries are soaked in bourbon! These are what you get when you go to a fancy cocktail bar. A bit pricey, but worth every penny.
Bitters: It’s always a good idea to have different bitters on hand, such as aromatic, cherry, and orange bitters. Just a few drops greatly enhance a drink! I like cherry bitters in my Manhattan, and orange or aromatic bitters in my Old Fashion.
Honey Simple Syrup: I rarely use white sugar, or white sugar simple syrup, in my drinks because I just never have it on hand. I like using honey simple syrup. This is just equal parts honey and equal parts water. I generally do 1 cup of each, then let the mix come to a simmer on the stovetop on medium heat. Once simmering, just turn to low and continue cooking until the honey and water are incorporated. Add to a container with a lid. Will last in the refrigerator up to three weeks! (You can even infuse your simple syrup with mint or rosemary or orange and clove…the options are endless!).
Fresh is Next Level: It’s always a good idea to use fresh ingredients when making cocktails! Fresh citrus, fresh herbs, fresh fruit. It is a game changer!
Fun Trick: When using fresh citrus, be sure to slice off a bit of the peel. Twist it in your finger to release the oils and rub it around the rim of the glass! Level-up!
Some of these recipes are classic recipes with a little twist from me! You can obviously google any cocktail in the world, or any alcohol, to find a delicious drink recipe.
The Best Margarita Recipe! This one is so good it has it’s own post.
- 2 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce maple syrup
- Sprig of rosemary
In a shaker, add a few rosemary leaves. If you have a muddler, muddle rosemary to release it’s fragrant oil, or twist the leaves. Add ice to shaker, then all the liquids. Shake. Strain into glass with a large sphere ice cube.
This drink is one of my all-time-favorites forever and ever!
Summer in a Cup
(We also call it our “quarantini”, because that’s when we started making it)
- 2 oz. vodka or gin or tequila
- 1 oz fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
- 1 oz St. Germaine
In a shaker filled with ice, shake all ingredients. Pour into a glass! (We like pouring into the coupe glass!)
Moscow / Kentucky Mule
- 2 oz vodka or whiskey
- 1 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1 ounce honey simple syrup
- Can of ginger beer (ginger beer is non-alcoholic)
(We actually made cranberry simple syrup over the holidays to make this drink! Just add equal parts honey, water and 1/2 cup fresh cranberries to a sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 8 minutes, or until cranberries start to burst. Strain cranberries out and pour simple syrup into an airtight jar!).
In a moscow mule mug, add vodka or whiskey, lime juice and honey simple syrup. Mix. Fill cup with ice. Top off with ginger beer.
This is my current favorite drink for pizza night.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes cherry bitters
- 3 dashes aromatic bitters
- Garnish with bourbon soaked cherries
In a glass jar filled with ice, add everything but the cherries Stir. Pour into a coupe glass. Place 1-2 cherries on a cocktail stick and add to glass.
Classic Gin and Tonic
- 2 ounces gin
- Tonic water or Sparkling Water (we use lime sparkling water)
- 3-5 wedges of lime (the more limes the better!)
Add gin to a moscow mule mug filled with ice. Add water of choice. Squeeze the juice of several limes into cup. Stir. I like to add the lime wedges into my cup too for extra flavor!
This drink is amazing at the pool or beach!
- 6 ounces IPA beer
- 2 ounces Rye whiskey
- 2 ounces fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
- 1 ounce honey simple syrup
In shaker filled with ice, add whisky grapefruit juice, and honey. Shake. Strain into a 6 ounce glass. Top off with IPA beer.
- 1 1/2 ounces gin
- 1 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- Orange peel (optional)
In a glass jar filled with ice add all the liquid. Stir for several seconds. Take the orange peel and twist to release its oil. Run the peel around the rim of a coupe or glass you will drink from. Add large ice sphere ice cube. Pour Negroni into your glass.
(My friend in Hermosa created this drink for me!)
- 1 ounce St. Germain
- 1 Ounce Gin
- 1 ounce lemon
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice add the St. Germain, Gin and lemon. Shake. Add to a champagne glass or coupe. Top off with champagne.
Wow, we made it! I hope this is something you can return to again and again! Cocktails can be very approachable. It’s fun to experiment and find out what you love. Cheers, my friends!