"Put it in your freezer," a friend and drinking mentor said as she handed me a bottle of boutique vodka she'd been sent as a gift. "One should always have a good vodka in the freezer, just in case."
I'm not a vodka drinker, but enough people are that my bottle in the freezer has come in handy on a regular basis. The home bar is all about being prepared, and it doesn't take a huge investment to add the tools and ingredients that will allow for the simple pleasure of whipping up drinks on the fly.
The tools of home mixology can have a mad-scientist feel, and the right ones make it easy to assemble fast cocktails with flourishes.
Stocking a home bar that's fun, impressive, built for spontaneity and yet (relatively) affordable is easier than you might think. Treat it like stocking a pantry. Start with the staples that you use most often, throw in the base ingredients for a few recipes you've been meaning to try, and set yourself up with a few well-made tools. The art of mixing drinks becomes far less intimidating.
The Kitchen Gallery is a paradise for those with a passionate palate. This downtown shop is known for its high-end cookware, but it's no slouch with bar tools, either. The classic Boston shaker is your mixing bowl, and a fine wooden muddler will break up herbs and other ingredients without extracting too much bitterness.
A juicer is perfect for squeezing lime, orange, grapefruit and other common additions into your drinks. Select a long-handled spoon that feels good in your hand; you'll use this to delicately blend spirits in non-juice drinks (yes, that includes martinis, Bond fans).
Kessenich's, a restaurant and bar supplier that's open to the public, sells jiggers, shot glasses and strainers, which are also considered staples. Unless you've been bartending for a very long time, "eyeballing" amounts in drinks isn't a great idea. Mixology is more like baking than cooking, and precision pays off.
Other shops with good stock include Orange Tree Imports and Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply.
Depending on how fancy you want to get and how much space you have, shopping for the basement bar or kitchen-addition minibar can continue for a lifetime. Restaurant suppliers are a great place to find bar toys, and Kessenich's has been fitting that bill for 80 years. Bar towels are fun and convenient, as are decorative signs, mats and games. They can also set you up with bar stools, if you're really redecorating.
There's a time and a place for Solo cups, and no drink ever tasted bad in a Mason jar, but otherwise stemware is crucial to a great home bar.
Here, again, the sky is the limit, so you'll want to start by focusing on what you drink most often rather than trying to accommodate every drink style. Wine glass collections can be basic (Bordeaux-style or tasting glasses are flexible) or elaborate. I love stemless glasses for casual drinking.
Square Wine Co. and Steve's can also set you up with good glassware. For beer, you'll want a set of good, sloped pint glasses, and maybe goblets or tulip glasses if you enjoy stouts, Belgian-style beers or other stronger styles.
For cocktails, I like versatile rocks glasses plus whatever best suits your own standard drink. If you love martinis, by all means get martini glasses, and give them the beautifully carved lemon twists they deserve.
A pitcher is nice for sangria, punch or serving beer from a kegerator (come to think of it, a kegerator is also nice if you're a beer geek). An ice bucket is helpful for cooling wine quickly, though there are plenty of hacks for that if you're only an occasional chilled-wine drinker. Laziest chilled-wine life hack: Wrap a dampened paper towel around the bottle and stick it in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Stock your liquor cabinet the way you'd stock your movie collection. Start with the classics you can't live without, add a few gifts or fun splurges you've been meaning to try, and make sure you have options for both a party setting and a quiet night for one or two.
Some of my friends keep a "well" and a "top shelf" version of one or two spirits they drink regularly, while others keep middle-shelf versions of a variety of spirits that can suffice alone or in drinks. My ideal home bar is closer to the latter and stocks rye and bourbon (Journeyman, out of Three Oaks, Mich., makes a nice rye), gin (Death's Door, of course), tequila (I love Illinois distiller Tailwinds' agave-based products, but for the real deal Milagro Silver will do the trick for margaritas, and Espolon is lovely), rum (Old Sugar's Cane and Abe is great), and vodka (Death's Door, again, makes a good one, but Tito's is great for a base). These base spirits will allow you to make the vast majority of cocktails but can also be enjoyed on their own.
Bitters are the "salt and pepper to taste" of the mixing world, and one can get as deep into bitters as artisan salts. I keep Peychaud's and Angostura bitters, the most commonly used flavors, but the delightful Bittercube Bitters of Milwaukee offers more options. Experimenting with flavored bitters like mint, orange and walnut is a lot of fun.
Liqueurs, likewise, can be an afterthought or make up the majority of your bar depending on your sense of adventure and your wallet. Triple sec, Aperol and St. Germain are favorites, but it's best to start with what you know you'll use and expand from there. I highly recommend trying at least one amaro, an herbal Italian digestif that can enliven many cocktails or soothe on its own. Nonino is my favorite.
Finally, because it's your bar, you should have a high-end version of your very favorite spirit for special occasions, whether it's a beautiful Scotch or a lovely after-dinner liqueur.
Ice & garnishes
There's a reason craft cocktail bartenders take their ice very, very seriously. The shape of the cube and the quality of the water will influence the taste of the cocktail as much as any other ingredient. Filtered or purified water is ideal, and square or uniquely shaped ice cube trays (the Pipefitter on State Street can even set you up with mustache-shaped ice) are a lot of fun.
Seasonings and garnishes will depend largely on both your tastes and the season. I like to keep fresh herbs on hand, Tabasco sauce or Worcestershire (or both) for Bloody Marys, and lemons and limes for zesting, slicing and juicing.
Get crazy with rosemary or lavender during the Dane County Farmers' Market outdoor season if you like a botanical cocktail, slice up an attractive jalapeÃo to garnish your margarita, or throw a couple of tea bags into a warming winter drink or summer sangria. For a taste of pure heaven in a single bite? Invest in a bottle of Luxardo maraschino cherries. You'll thank me later.
The Kitchen Gallery
107 King St., 608-467-6544
131 S. Fair Oaks Ave., 800-248-0555
Orange Tree Imports
1721 Monroe St., 608-255-8211
Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply
3236 University Ave., 608-204-0560
Square Wine Co.
5 N. Pinckney St., 608-819-6191