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19 top bartenders’ favorite under-the-radar home bar items

Looking for under-the-radar and overlooked items to take your home bar to the next level? The world’s best bartenders spill their secrets.

Written by
Joel Meares

The basic items every home bartender needs to have in his or her home bar are obvious: a shaker, some glassware, a strainer and so on. Those are the building blocks for the basic cocktails every cocktail geek needs to know how to make. But what if you want to take your cocktail-ery to the next level? We surveyed some of the world’s most celebrated mixologists (many of the same top bartenders who told us their favorite drinks previously) for their tips on some of the more under-the-radar, and sometimes underappreciated tools and ingredients that can truly elevate a home bar. From fancy liqueurs to...eggs(!), these are their top recommendations for a top-notch home bar. 

RECOMMENDED: See America’s best cocktails

Best under-the-radar home bar items

1. Sherry

Ivy Mix, Leyenda, New York City, NY
“It goes with everything, is an alternative to vermouth, is amazing and there are so many different kinds! Try a martini with fino instead of dry vermouth. I would also say to also have an atomizer at home; sometimes you just want a little mist of something and only this will do!”

Cody Modeer, Ward Eight, Evanston, IL
“Manzanilla sherry is delicious just on its own or you can use it in a variety of ways. It has a savory, nutty quality that’s subtle and can lend itself nicely to a wide variety of cocktails. I like La Cigarrera manzanilla sherry. It tastes great in a classic Bamboo cocktail: 1.5oz Carpano Bianco, 1.5oz manzanilla sherry, 2 dashes orange bitters. Stir. Strain. Zest with an orange peel. Delicious.”

2. A ‘cheat’ syrup

Elliot Ball, Cocktail Trading Company, London, UK
“A lot of bartenders are going to hate me for this, but make sure you have a ‘cheat’ syrup—a liquid with loads of seasoning which doesn’t alter balance but hugely boosts flavor. For a liter, I use 625ml caster sugar, 625ml hot water, 1 heaped teaspoon maldon smoked sea salt (flakes!), 15ml vanilla essence, 5 level teaspoons citric acid, 20 cardamom pods and 20ml vodka (to preserve). Blend it, strain it. It’ll basically keep forever in the fridge. For one, if you add this to soda, it’s a surprisingly tasty mixer. But mostly, any cocktails based on sweet-sour which aren’t quite working will be made thoroughly delicious with a splash or two of this.”

3. Good ice (no, really!)—and ice parephernalia

Kevin Patnode, Kühlanbeyi, Istanbul, Turkey
“Most people don’t have access to crushed ice in their home, but having ready-made crushed ice for a Mint Julep or cobbler is really important when making cocktails and also impressing your guests. Get a Lewis Bag. Choosing the right ice is super important in cocktail making, so this small investment will have huge returns on your ability to make world class drinks.”

Jillian Vose, The Dead Rabbit, New York City, NY
“You can get ice molds online for larger cubes. Fill those molds up with water and put them in a freezer bag and seal it. This will keep the food smell out of your ice and therefore out of your drinks. The slower the ice freezes the more clear it will be, so if you have a larger freezer you can get a small Styrofoam cooler and put the ice in that. You can really impress your guests and it's great for shaking or stirring cocktails.”

Luke Andrews, The Whistler, Chicago, IL
“I think ice is the shocker when people have drinks at my house. Big, clear, pretty and rock-hard ice for making drinks and serving them. I use a Coleman cooler to hold the water in the freezer. Then just a bread knife and a hammer to break it down into manageable pieces after it has taken its sweet time solidifying. I then vac-seal the stuff if I am not going to use it right away. Ice is perishable and takes on flavors. It is the most crucial yet most looked-over ingredient. Make your own ice and make it often.”

Paige Aubort, The Lobo Plantation, Sydney, Australia
“Ice. Good quality, thick, ice. If it’s too small or thin it will dilute too quickly and negatively affect the drink in a matter of seconds. Also from a visual perspective a big chunk of clear ice is a sight to behold.”

4. Vintage…everything!

Eben Freeman, Genuine Liquorette, New York City, NY
“I love vintage spirits such as Campari, which are no longer made the way they were in the ’50s. Vintage glassware, bitters bottles, jiggers, spoons, julep strainers—I collect all of these things.”

5. Fernet Branca

Ali Reynolds, Spitalfields Bar, London, UK
“It’s perfect before and after dinner, but also puts a great twist on any cocktail when a few drops are added. Use it as bitters in an old-fashioned, classic champagne cocktail or just make a Hanky Panky, sit back and enjoy!”

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Maximiliano Neira

6. Good quality eggs

Pasan Wijesana, Earl’s Juke Joint, Sydney, Australia
“While you can get vegan alternatives, if your guests are cool with eggs, you can’t beat a fresh egg white in a sour. Just remember to dry shake first to emulsify the white before adding ice and doing your best Japanese bartender impression.”

7. Vermouth

Yao Lu, Union Trading Co, Shanghai, China
Vermouth man! A well-kept vermouth can be the template for many delicious classic simple cocktails (Manhattans, martinis, negronis, Americanos). I would always recommend having a bottle of di Torino or Americano vermouth; not only are they great in cocktails but each is delicious on its own—just add a cube of ice and sip away your own profit.”

Tyson Buhler, Death and Co, New York City, NY
“I wish more people had a small bottle of vermouth. There are endless, simple combinations that can be put together by having a few of the staples—good inexpensive whiskey, classic London dry gin, flavorful white rum, 100 percent agave tequila and quality brandy—and most of those wouldn’t suffer from a fresh bottle of vermouth. Also, during those times before a meal when you need just a little something to get you going, splash a little vermouth—dry, blanc, sweet, whatever—on some ice and throw in a lemon twist and you’re all set.”

8. Single malt whisky

Onurcan Gençer, Finn Karaköy, Istanbul Turkey
“Single malt whisky is a must have and nowadays my favorite is Aberlour 16.
 You must have a good shaker, too, of course.”

9. Great mixing glass and juicer

Jacques Bezuidenhout, The Forgery and Wildhawk, San Francisco, CA
“Get a nice mixing glass—try Cocktail Kingdom. This will help you stir all sorts of great drinks, from martinis to Manhattans; it’s a great piece of equipment to have and looks great on your bar. Then always have a hand juicer for juicing limes, lemons or grapefruits. Do not ever, ever, ever buy pre-mixed citrus. The hand juicer ensures that you squeeze that juice fresh and makes for a much better cocktail experience. It takes a little extra effort but the payoff is well worth it.”

10. Baijiu

David Putney, Capital Spirits, Beijing, China
“I strongly recommend a bottle of pure, strong-aroma Sichuan baijiu. It’s such a unique spirit, made through solid-state fermentation in mud pits for at least 90 days—there’s nothing that tastes quite like it. Baijiu is the most commonly drunk spirit in the world, but few people outside of China have ever heard of it. I’ll tell you what put a little bit of baijiu into your next experimental cocktail and be amazed by what your unsuspecting drinkers will say.”

11. St. Germain and green chartreuse

Travis Yuan, Daily Routine, Beijing, China
“Besides the basic five spirits—whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy and vodka—a great home bar should also have a fine liqueur that’s not only tasty by itself but also fun for mixing, especially for guests who’ve probably never had a liqueur-infused cocktail. My picks are St. Germain (made from elderflowers) and green chartreuse. For a simple home-alone drink, pour a splash of St. Germain over ice, top up with soda and garnish with a grapefruit twist, and you have a refreshing fizzy drink with an elegant nose. St. Germain is perfect for cocktails that require essential sweetness and a floral scent. In contrast to that subtle sweetness, green chartreuse is the herbal bomb for cocktails or taken neat. For a stirred drink, rinse the glass, add ice, and add a teaspoon or two of chartreuse over any spirit with extra drops of bitters. The well-balanced mix will amaze your crowd. Do remember to make it extra ice cold.”

12. Lots of different bitters!

Cari Hah, Big Bar, Los Angeles, CA
“A top-notch home bar should definitely have a collection of different bitters. Bitters are like seasoning to a drink the way salt and pepper is to food. With the proliferation of all sorts of different craft bitters you can change the entire direction and flavor of any simple drink. My personal home bar is stocked with almost every bitter flavor that L.A.’s Miracle Mile Bitters Company has ever made. (I actually collaborated with Louis Anderman, the creator of Miracle Mile, and have my own inspired bitters called “Hello Cari” bitters.) They are super delicious in an old-fashioned with Green Spot Irish whiskey. With an array of bitters, you can make any number of different drinks.”

13. Fortified wine

Tim Phillips, Bulletin Place, Sydney, Australia
“Tempus Fugit is a U.S. company that makes fortified wines, liqueur and spirits in Switzerland. Their Quina Quina (quinine wine) is the best. Drink it neat, on the rocks, replace it in a Aperol Spritz, or pair it with whisky. Whatever—it’s delicious.”

14. Crumiel

Erik Lorincz, American Bar at the Savoy, London, UK
“An innovative ingredient which I regularly use is Crumiel—dehydrated honey with a crunchy texture. It can be used as both a garnish and drink component, the softly roasted and caramelized flavor is compatible with almost all spirits.” (If you’re looking for more great bar equipment, Erik also runs Birdy).
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