The 5 Bottle Bar

How to build a home bar without going bust


It's not just a Mad Men fantasy. It can happen to you, too: The home bar that's so well stocked, so neatly curated that cocktail hour becomes casual. After-work drinking (or, if it's truly a Mad Men fantasy, during-work drinking) turns elegant.  No plastic bottles crammed in cabinets, no guests stuck with beer from the fridge. But how do you do it without a bank-account-wrecking, bottle-buying binge?

"Nobody wants to go out and drop $1500 on a bar set-up," says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, mixologist at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. "And if you're trying to go all out, $1500 won't even get you very far. Focus on maximizing a couple hundred bucks through the essentials."
Once you start naming essentials, you'll start a debate, of course, so focus on your own taste, first, and then aim for ingredients that will create a diversity of cocktails that you can offer friends.

The Spirits

“Part of the trick is knowing which brands to buy,” says Morgenthaler. “There are things that are really good and really inexpensive.”

You can acquire top-shelf vodka - Grey Goose, Ketel One - for under $30.

“I’m a Beefeater guy. For the price, it’s amazing.”

Because someone will one day ask you for a cosmo! Don't go for cheap triple sec or orange liqueur.

“There are so many favorites, but we love Buffalo Trace; it’s great and well-priced.” Other great values that will get you started: Evan Williams Single Barrel, Old Bardstown Estate.

“You can get really nice aged rum for next to nothing,” says Morgenthaler.

The Mixers

You’ll have to top these items off more often than the spirits, but keep them on your regular shopping list, and you'll always have something on hand for a great array of cocktails.

Simple Syrup
You can make a batch of this whenever you're out. Use it in lieu of dry sugar (which may not dissolve properly in your drinks, leaving a gritty finish.) Combine one cup sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and store for up to a month in a jar or other air tight container.

Lemon & Lime Juice

Tonic & Soda

The Tools

The shaker
To get a uniformly cold, well-incorporated, frothy cocktail, you’ll need a shaker and a sturdy arm. Morgenthaler's suggestion: “Shake the living daylights out of it.”

The bar spoon
“The thing about a stir that’s good, it doesn’t introduce any airbubbles into the drink, and doesn’t break up bits of ice," Morgenthaler says. "So you’re left with a super cold, velvety texture on the drink."

The jigger
For flawless measuring – one of the keys to nailing the perfect cocktail.

The strainer
"You don't want any additional ice shards in the drink, I don't like that sort of layer of ice floating on top of a cocktail, so we double strain all of our cocktails," says Morgenthaler.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    Good tips. Haven't tried Buffalo Trace yet, but I will seek it out.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 12:47 PM

  • Snooth User: Kyle Graynor
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    455797 7,460

    I'll get right on this. They also make shakers with recipe instructions built in.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 10:46 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,546

    I'm a fan of New Orleans rum myself, and it is priced next to nothing as Morgenthaler says.

    Jun 11, 2010 at 12:28 PM

  • Snooth User: nvansicklen
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    211788 552

    Al the way on Beefeater...that should be a standard in everyones spirit collection

    Jun 11, 2010 at 2:50 PM

  • Snooth User: liuliuliu
    490536 14

    awesome list! some things i would add: a solid ice-cube tray to make large, dense ice cubes for shaking and for 'rocks.' and it's just as easy to stock lemons and limes (versus lemon and lime juice) -- with a hand-held juicer, the freshly squeezed stuff will make all the difference. cheers, christine

    Jun 13, 2010 at 11:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Apart
    500004 2

    I really don't like it when there's a bunch of slivers of ice on top of my drink. Triple strain it, I say!

    Jun 15, 2010 at 4:47 PM

  • Snooth User: DHalbouty
    163141 1

    Try New Amsterdam Gin. I like it better than Beefeater, and it's usually even cheaper.

    Jun 15, 2010 at 5:34 PM

  • When I see a flavored vodka on sale -- I snatch it up. Those are always nice on the rocks.

    Jun 15, 2010 at 5:56 PM

  • Snooth User: fishback
    314227 2

    My lady's drink is a gin martini using Bombay Sapphire in a shaker with lots of ice, shaken 'til the ice is "fractured" and poored over 3 olives. BTW the gin is so cold it's gray and forget the vermouth.

    Jun 15, 2010 at 5:56 PM

  • Snooth User: fritzj
    220362 3

    Citronge orange Liqueur (made by Patron) is very good and about half the price of Cointreau. Also, if you don't like ice slivers, try stirring. Vigorous shaking is quicker but also makes the ice cubes chip and sliver, and waters down your drink. It really should be reserved for high volume bars. At home take the time to stir. The idea is to move the ice around the glass as one mass so the liquid flows around it and the cubes don't smash together. Lets remember that Bond had to ask for his drink shaken.

    Jun 15, 2010 at 6:01 PM

  • Snooth User: fg
    468543 1


    Jun 23, 2010 at 12:22 PM

  • Well, while we're talking about gin, my vote goes to Hendrick's in a martini. The botanicals are clean but not sharp, and the gin is strained through cucumber at the distillery (which is in Scotland, BTW). As for the martini, just add a quarter-cap of Noilly Prat for every two jiggers of Hendrick's, and two dashes of orange bitters (Fee Brothers is best), shake, and then drink heaven here on earth. Time for my pre-prandial now. . .

    Jun 28, 2010 at 7:24 PM

  • I really like Magellan as far as gin goes. Has a nice herbal finish without tasting like turpentine. For my martini, just a dash of vermouth swished in a frozen glass then dumped, stirred and a little dirty with two olives. They say, happiness is finding an extra olive in your martini when you're hungry. Magellan makes a fantastic gin and tonic too.

    Jul 07, 2010 at 2:28 AM

  • I am lucky, living in South America, I like Havana Club for my rum. Good stuff.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 1:19 PM

  • If you like Potato Vodka then Luksusowa is a less expensive alternative to Chopin.

    Sep 01, 2010 at 3:01 PM

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