If you're reading this because you'd like to have a cocktail right now, we can relate. We also have good news: you probably already have most of the stuff you need to throw a good drink together. The only true cocktail essentials (other than your liquor of choice and plain white sugar) are in the first section below titled What You Need If You Just Want To Make A Drink.
Ideally, you want to enjoy a properly shaken cocktail and make exact measurements. In order to do so, you need a cocktail shaker and a jigger. A Hawthorne strainer is also invaluable, and a proper bar spoon will take you by the hand and teach you how to stir a drink right. These are the necessities for a perfectly respectable bartending tool kit, and they’re exactly what you’ll find in the section labeled What You Need For A Real Bar Setup At Home.
When you see a piece of lint on someone’s coat, do you pick it off? Do you make your bed every morning? Is your mise en place always on point? Or do you actually work in a cocktail bar? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you'll want every tool listed in the section below called What You Need If You Want To Get Professional About This. This is for the perfectionists, and, if you go this route, know that you have our deepest respect.
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WHAT YOU NEED if you just want to make a drink
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s obvious.” But nine times out of ten, people don’t have enough ice when they’re making drinks. You need ice for stirring, ice for shaking, and, often, ice for your finished cocktails. That adds up. Quickly. So fill your freezer with ice, and freeze some extra-large cubes for your Negronis and Old Fashioneds.
Perfect Cocktail Ice is also a thing, and we can teach you how to make that, too. Get our ice guide right here.
Lemons & Limes
There’s no real substitute for fresh lemons and limes. Before you even start thinking about what drinks you can throw together at home, get a bag of each. It’ll expand the range of what you’re able to make by about 90%.
WHAT YOU NEED FOR A real BAR SETUP AT HOME
Shakers come in all shapes and sizes, and they mostly all work fine. Pros tend to use metal Boston shakers - the type that looks like two metal cups - because they’re easier to clean and they hold more volume. But if you bought a different kind because you thought it would look nice on your bar cart, that’ll work just fine as well. All of that said, you could probably make your own low-budget Boston shaker with stuff you have right now. Just look for a big plastic cup, turn it upside down, and press it on top of a sturdy, smaller glass cup until it forms a seal. Voila. Boston shaker.
We recommend this shaker. (Yes, we’re telling you to buy it in bronze, because A) the stainless version is sold out and B) copper is fresh.)
If you want to spend a little less money, we also like this one.
You’ll recognize this as the type of strainer with a tightly coiled metal spring. It’s traditionally used for shaken cocktails - but it works for anything. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to use a big fork or maybe even a whisk for straining your drink through the ice that you used to make it. Not ideal, but it works.
You need to measure your ingredients, and, by far, the easiest way to do that is with a jigger. Bartenders can be pretty particular about which types of jiggers they use, but we suggest you go with one that has a 2-ounce end and a 1-ounce end, with hash marks delineating smaller measurements inside.
You can easily stir a cocktail with a straw or a butter knife - but it feels kind of weird, and it doesn’t look right. So get yourself a bar spoon. It should have a long, thin, twisted handle (like a screw) that facilitates stirring, and it should feel comfortable in your hand.
what you need if you want to get professional about this
In order to make a stirred cocktail, you have to use a mixing glass. So why isn’t this an absolute necessity? Because if you get a Boston shaker, you can stir your drink in the smaller half. It makes almost literally no difference. And if you happen to have a pint glass in your cupboard, that’s perfect too.
Julep strainers look like giant perforated spoons with tiny handles, and you’ll see them at every single cocktail bar. But, as we mentioned earlier, a Hawthorne strainer can do just about anything. So this is by no means a necessity, but it’s nice to have, if only for psychological reasons.
When you shake something, you create all sorts of tiny ice particles. These change the consistency of your cocktail, and, as they melt, your beverage becomes slightly more diluted. And, honestly, this isn’t a huge deal. But if you’re a perfectionist, use a fine strainer. If you’re wondering what that looks like, picture the round mesh tool with a long handle that you use to strain pasta when you can’t find a colander. A fine strainer will also come in handy if you ever shake with herbs or berries (unless you enjoy having mint in your teeth).
You can cut your twists with a knife and occasionally mess up, or you can buy a Y-shaped vegetable peeler and cut perfect twists every time. The choice is yours.
Ready to make some cocktails? Great. Let’s do it.