How to build the essential home bar (without spending a fortune)

So you want a home bar? Fair enough, they are damn cool. They give your place a very Mad Men, executive sort of vibe.

There is something delightful about offering guests a wide selection of tipples, rather than whatever you've got in the fridge. You feel like a most excellent host. People will be impressed.

They are also, like all the best hobbies, a fantastic way to sink a lot of cash. And it's addictive – the western world is in the middle of a cocktail boom and new craft spirits and bitters are being released all the time.

The first step is a mis-step

My first move in building a home bar was to wander down to my local bottle-o and select an interesting liquor. I went for a large bottle of – for no other reason than because I had just had a delicious Mexican meal.

This proved to be a major mistake. You can make a range of interesting cocktails with Tequila, but each needs a complex array of mixers or other spirits. As a novice home-bar-man, I did not have these to hand. I was left with pouring Tequila on the rocks or making Tequila Fizz. I learned that I do not like Tequila straight up.

Keep it simple

Let's go to the experts.

The key to a good home bar, says Michael Madrusan, founder of Melbourne cocktail palace the Everleigh, is simplicity.

"You don't want too many tools, too much mess. You don't want to over-think it. Especially if you're entertaining, you don't want to be making a complicated drink that you might screw up."

Mr Madrusan uses a root and branch technique when teaching cocktails – the same can be applied to building a home bar.


The starting point are the "mother cocktails". Tom Collins, Negronis, Old Fashioneds, Martinis, Manhattans, Daiquiri, Gin and tonics.

Mother ship

These cocktails are the most well-known because they are so good. Anyone wanting a home bar needs to start there, Mr Madrusan says.

That list of mother cocktails should guide the first liquors you purchase: Gin (Tom Collins, Negroni, Martini), Whiskey (Old Fashioned, Manhattan), Rum (Daiquiri). These cocktails are elegant, delicious, and a joy to watch being made, Mr Madrusan said.

Above all they are simple.

"That's why it's important to buy nicer quality stuff. If there's only going to be a couple of ingredients in there, you're going to taste every ingredient."

You're buying fewer bottles, so you can afford to buy better, Mr Madrusan says. Make sure the gin is at worst a , he says.

To that Mr Madrusan suggests adding basic mixers that are reusable in lots of different drinks: soda, tonic water and ginger beer (my tip: buy craft brands like Capi or Fever Tree, the difference is very noticeable), fresh citrus.

With just a small outlay – three liquors and a few mixers – you have an immediate functioning home bar.


The author's home bar - Whiskey, Vermouth, Tequila, Gin, Baileys, Rum Photo: Supplied

The upgrade picks

But the value of a home bar grows exponentially with each mixer and liquor you add to it. This is part of what makes it such an expensive hobby. So even if your initial forays do not turn you into the drink-serving professional of your dreams, you need to persevere and continue to invest.

From a mother cocktail, a drink can be taken in a multitude of directions depending on what is added, says Mr Madrusan.

"Do I want to spice it up with a dash of Absinthe? Do I want to add some Maraschino?

"It's a great way to start to learn, especially if you don't have a lot of experience. Let's make a Martini first, and see if we like it – then branch out. The options are boundless, there's so many things we can add to mother cocktails, you can constantly keep it interesting.

Vermouth victory

The purchase that really kicked my bar up a notch was one I had resisted a long time – Vermouth. I had always been rather sceptical of Vermouth, because it's a mixer, not a main. With a limited budget, could I afford to add a mixer to my cabinet?

I went with a bottle of , and suddenly discovered a whole world of Martini and Negronis – drinks that were delightful and complex and unlike anything I had drunk before. Drinks I never would have ordered in a bar, but am now proudly able to serve at home.

This illustrates another fundamental point of a good home bar: the mixers are just as important as the liquors. If you've got a bunch of spirits that you drink alone, it's a liquor cabinet not a home bar. Cocktails are about mixing, and mixing needs mixers.

What are your home bar essentials? Let us know in the Comments section.