It always starts with that one bottle.
Maybe you got it as a gift, maybe you blew your first paycheck on it, or maybe it wasn’t even yours. But the moment you laid eyes on it, you knew that it was the start of something beautiful.
It was slightly different for me. I’ve always dreamed of having a cupboard full of liquor, but when you’re 17 and stupid, that’s not really realistic. I started by collecting the empty bottles that represented my best memories with people – the first beer I had with my dad, the first wine (of many) my girlfriend and I shared on the terrace… that sort of thing.
Call me sentimental, but I’ve still got all of them.
That’s the best part about starting a collection – it doesn’t have to be about rare, exclusive pieces; on my shelf, that empty bottle of Budweiser holds more value to me than any Blue Label on the planet.
So here’s a quick breakdown of everything you need to know about building your own home bar.
- The Golden Rules
- The Vibe
- The Logistics
- The Actual Booze (both essential and optional)
- The Equipment
- The Hacks
Click to skip to whichever heading is most relevant to you. 🙂
1. The Golden Rules
I. Building your bar is less about your bar, and more about you.
What do YOU enjoy drinking? Maybe you’re a gin fanboy like me, or maybe you prefer wine because it doesn’t give you a hangover. Or maybe vodka soda is your jam, but you have a “complicated” history with Old Monk. Don’t ask.
Hey, it’s your bar, and you are your first customer. First buy your favourite thing, and if you have something left at the end of the month, then buy your second favourite thing.
II. Buy the good stuff. But only when it’s worth it.
Look, man. Alcohol is expensive, and I know it. But when you’re stocking up, opportunity cost is everything.
Let’s say that you want to treat yourself with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. That definitely qualifies as “the good stuff”, but for the same amount of money, you could also buy two bottles of Greater Than with cash to spare.
Bombay Sapphire is expensive because it’s imported, and that means an obscene amount of tax. Anything you can do with Bombay, you can do with Greater. And you can do it for less than half the price.
And the third point, possibly the most important one:
III. It’s not a race. It’s a marathon.
Building your home bar takes time, but it’s VERY rewarding. Trust the process, and let it do its thing. The worst thing you can do when you decide “I’m going to build a bar”, is to spend all your money on everything, in a week.
I know, because that’s what I did.
Things change over time. Preferences change, circumstances change. Your plan about what you want your bar to be, also changes.
Building your bar does NOT mean having more bottles that you can count – you’d be surprised by how much you can accomplish with just three bottles.
Start small, and let it grow organically.
2. The Vibe
So you’ve decided that you want to start a home bar. Now what?
First, you need to decide how much money, effort, and space you’re willing to dedicate to it. You also want to figure out what the general vibe is going to be.
You might be:
– The Jack of all Trades: You have different things to suit different moods. Maybe whisky, rum, and gin. This means you have a lot more variety in your bar, but none of them are going to be the absolute best you can buy.
– The Master of One: You want a whole shelf full of different varieties, styles, and flavours of ONE spirit. This means that your entire budget is based on saving up for the REALLY good stuff that makes it all worth it. For example, an entire bar of your favourite Single Malts.
– The Straight Drinker: If you enjoy the taste of a certain liqour just the way it is, you save a lot of money on stuff like mixers, bitters, and liqueurs.
– The Hopster / The Cellar Dweller: You’re not a big fan of spirits at all, and prefer to spend your money on good beer and wine. This has the benefit of being slightly cheaper, but you will need the fridge space for it.
– The Host: This is similar to a Jack of All Trades, but your bar is based on hosting parties, and strongly based on the preferences of your friends, as well as your own.
– The Hobbyist: You want a modest bar, but your focus is more on making your own infusions, syrups, and bitters, and you love trying to make weird flavour combinations work. If you enjoy being in the kitchen, this might just be you.
– The Home Bartender: This one requires the most effort, space, and investment, but it’s a LOT of fun if you enjoy the whole process of making drinks.
Which one are you?
3. The Logistics
Building your bar means a lot more than just having alcohol in your cupboard or fridge. Based on how often you find yourself making a drink, the positioning, space, and effort are all factors you want to consider.
Think about it. If your bar, your ice, and your favourite spot are all miles apart… you’re going to have a bad time.
Weirdly enough, your kitchen is actually the most important part of your bar. This is because everything APART from the booze is all there. Namely, your ice, mixers, and garnishes.
So it makes sense to keep your bar as close to the kitchen as possible, depending on how your place is built.
But what if you don’t have a lot of space to store all your precious booze? I can’t tell you the number of times my beers and wines have been rudely evicted from the fridge because they were crushing the shimla mirch, or because there was no place for the cabbage.
Luckily, you don’t need any fridge space if you buy spirits, like vodka or whisky – unless you plan to drink them with tonic or soda, which you want to keep chilled.
For beers and mixers: These don’t spoil, so you don’t have to keep your whole stash in the fridge. If space is limited, just keep 2-3 of them in at a time, and keep replenishing them once they get over.
For wines: Sealed bottles can be kept anywhere out of direct sunlight (preferably in a cupboard), but try to keep open bottles in the fridge. I’m sure the shimla mirch will understand.
4. The Actual Booze.
This is what you guys came here for.
There are no rules when it comes to this part. As I said before, most of it comes down to preference. There are compelling reasons for all kinds of booze to make an appearance in your bar, but you do need to keep your vibe, logistics, and budget in mind.
Personally, I had some pretty ambitious goals for my bar – I wanted to make a lot of classic cocktails, but also wanted to be able to experiment with different stuff. This means that I had to spend a little more on what I wanted.
But if you prefer to just make yourself a quiet drink at the end of the day, your booze priorities (and your costs) will change accordingly.
Generally, you want to keep one of each base spirit: Vodka, Rum, Gin, and Whisky. An argument could be made for Tequila, but unless you routinely do shots at home, or just really love Tequila, I wouldn’t recommend it as a first choice. It’s expensive, and not as versatile as the rest.
They don’t all have to be top shelf stuff, but don’t go for the cheapest you can find, either. First invest more in the things you like and want, and THEN spend what you have left. One bottle a month is usually a healthy pace to build your bar, and gives you time to understand your own tastes.
I would STRONGLY recommend starting with half bottles (375ml) or Quarts, (180ml) to save money in the beginning. You don’t want to commit to a full bottle of booze without knowing what you’re getting into first.
– Say you’ve bought a bottle of dark rum, since you like it a lot. Why not try a half of white rum as well, just to change things up?
– You bought a bottle of Absolut, but you don’t really drink it much. When it does get over, ask yourself if you really need another vodka at all, or consider buying a slightly cheaper one.
– Whisky is a tricky one. Personally, I prefer a smoother, slightly sweeter style of whisky called Bourbon. Jim Beam is usually my go-to for this. But if you don’t like it sweet at all, consider a Scotch, like Black & White or Johnnie Walker (funds permitting).
Or better yet, start with quarters of all of them, and see which one you like best.
“Hey, this is cool and all, but I don’t know the first thing about alcohol, I just know that I like it. What should I buy?”
That’s a fair point.
Here’s a basic checklist that covers pretty much all of it. Just pick what feels right. 🙂
1. Vodka: If you’re just looking to jack up the alcohol content of something, or you’re not a fan of any alcohol with a particular taste, you want some of this in your bar. It’s also the ideal base for experimenting with infusions, so you can’t really go wrong with it.
Start with: Smirnoff or Absolut
Upgrade to: Ketel One or Grey Goose.
Expect to spend: Rs. 900-1200 for 750ml.
2. Gin: Imagine vodka, except that it’s flavoured with juniper berries, citrus, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s slightly more spicy and herbaceous than vodka. And similarly, goes great with soda or tonic.
Start with: Greater Than
Upgrade to: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Hapusa
Expect to spend: Rs. 1500 for 750ml.
3. Rum: Alcohol derived from sugarcane. Light rum is more fresh, while dark rum is usually sweeter and more intensely flavoured, since caramel is often used to darken the colour.
Start with: Bacardi (Light), and Old Monk (Dark)
Upgrade to: Bacardi (Gold), and Bacardi / Captain Morgan (Dark)
Expect to spend: Between Rs. 700-1500 for 750ml.
4. Whisky: This is a very long and deep rabbit hole to go down, and our resident expert Yuvraj agrees. According to him, there’s no “best” place to start. There’s a LOT of different kinds of whisky, and most of them taste quite different from each other.
Unfortunately, this means that whisky tends to be the most expensive part of the bar, especially if you want more than one style.
A good goal to aim for might be:
- one whisky for all occasions
- one single malt, for special occasions
Start with: Jim Beam, or Red Label
Upgrade to: Paul John Nirvana. It’s a super smooth Indian single malt for around Rs.2500.
Woodburns is a great Indian smoky whisky for around Rs. 2800.
Expect to spend: Rs. 1500-2000 on the basic one.
And it’s usually Rs. 4000+ for the other single malts. Sorry. 😦
5. Beer: It’s always good to have a couple of cold ones tucked away. For emergencies, of course. Kingfisher and Bira are good to keep, but it’s always better to go Indian – try stuff by Moonshine Meadery and Kati Patang, if you haven’t yet.
6. Wine: I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to buy wine if you’re not going to drink it. It is prone to spoilage, needs to be stored properly, and needs to be finished fast once it’s opened.
I’d recommend Reveilo wines for both red and white. Sula Seco is a decent sparkling option, but if you can buy Chandon, go for that instead.
7. Mixers: Depending on what you have in your bar, you can stock up on Coca Cola for Rum & Coke, tonics for G&Ts, and plain soda for pretty much everything else.
Ginger ale is another thing to consider, along with canned juices. Remember – these aren’t just for your bar, you can stock these up for the whole house.
There are also some other bottles you can buy that are super niche, and also quite expensive. I would not recommend buying them unless you REALLY plan on using them.
- Liqueurs: These are flavoured, sweetened drinks that can be enjoyed by themselves, and also mixed with other alcohol to great effect. They can add a little bit of oomph to your bar.
You can’t go wrong with stuff like Bailey’s and Kahlua, and perhaps Jägermeister.
But anything else above the 2k bracket, I would stop to think twice about.
- Campari / Aperol: These are a crucial ingredient in many classic cocktails, like the Negroni and the Aperol Spritz. But at almost 5k a pop?
- Dry / Sweet Vermouth: Unless you’re a bartender or want to become one, you’ll survive without this. Save the money and buy something else instead. Or just make your own. 🙂
- Bitters: While I am a HUGE fan of bitters, I also know that they are extremely expensive and not always worth it unless you’re going to be making a lot of cocktails.
5. The Equipment
Okay, I’ve got some good news here. Almost NONE of this equipment is absolutely necessary unless you want to get really serious about making drinks. All of them have their uses – and if you think they could be useful to you, feel free to pick them up.
It always helps to have glasses of different shapes and sizes, for different drinks. To begin with, stick to the classics. They are multipurpose and versatile :
– Old Fashioned / Whisky Glass
– Highball / Tall Glass
– Wine Glass
– Beer Mug
- Old Fashioned / Lowball / Rocks Glass: This is your classic whisky glass. You’ve seen it, you know it, and you feel like a boss when drinking from it. This is great for those who love their spirit neat, or on the rocks.
- Highball / Collins / Tall Glass: This is the most common style of glass there is. Good for anything from water to LIITs, to anything in between.
- Wine Glass: Don’t bother about buying different glasses for red wine, white wine, or sparkling wine. There are all-purpose wine glasses that will save you money and space. Keep in mind though, wine glasses do tend to break more often than others, so I’d recommend buying a set of 6 to start with.
- Beer Mug: 9/10 times, your tall glass works for beer, so a beer mug isn’t essential. But it does feel a lot better to hold, and looks pretty great as well.
You also want to avoid all the weirdly shaped cocktail glasses. They look great, but are usually impractical, expensive, take up too much space, and are difficult to drink out of without spilling everywhere.
And as iconic as the triangular Martini glass is, it also falls under this category. Not worth it.
II. A Basic Bartending Kit:
Maybe you’ve accidentally discovered that you really like making drinks. Here’s a short list of stuff you can buy for cheap that will take your game to the next level. You can also buy full kits on amazon, they’re pretty affordable.
- A Shaker: You don’t even need to buy this one. A jam jar, a sturdy flask, a protein shake bottle, anything works. You just need something with a solid lid that won’t pop off easily.
- A Strainer: Any strainer you have around the house will do. But if you want the pro feeling, buy this thing called a Hawthorne strainer.
- A Bar Spoon: This is is actually more useful than you think, and they’re easily available. They are really long, twisted around the middle, and with a shallow bowl.
- Peg Measure (optional): You only need precise measures if your goal is to make consistent cocktails. Otherwise, just eyeball it.
- Muddler (optional): These are used to gently crush leaves, herbs and fruits so they give out more flavour. Again, don’t buy one. Just use one end of a rolling pin, or the back of a wooden spatula.
- Special mention – Speed pourers/spouts: These are just useful to have around, whether you make drinks or not. They fit onto almost any bottle, and give you a smooth, consistent pour. Less spillage = more money saved.
III. Other stuff:
This is just some really cool stuff to have around. You won’t always have immediate use for them, but they come in real handy occasionally.
- Mixing Jar: These things look absolutely gorgeous, but only buy them if you intend to make a LOT of cocktails at home. They are expensive, and not easy to replace.
- Ice Box: If you plan to have big party at home, you’re going to run out of freezer space fast. You need a place where you can store a lot of ice, and alternatively, a lot of beers. A decently sized one costs like 500 bucks. Totally worth it.
- Ice Moulds: I personally LOVE ice balls, so I bought a couple of moulds for pretty cheap. They shape up nicely, and keep your drink cold forever. I’ll vouch for these ones, I bought them twice.
- Funnel: It’s always useful to have a tiny funnel lying around. You only realise how much you need it when you start using it.
- Microplane Zester: This comes in more handy than you think. Useful for cooking, baking, and making drinks. Citrus zest has a LOT of flavour, and this tool is the best way to take advantage of it.
6. The Hacks.
Alright, you’ve made it this far.
Now that you’re armed with all the essential knowledge, here’s how to make the most of it. Your bank account will thank me.
- The Duty-Free is your best friend. Honestly. The alcohol is cheap, the deals are amazing, and it’s the only place I would ever recommend buying stuff like Baileys and Campari from. If you know anyone who’s stopping by one, call in a favour.
- Make friends with your local wine shops. They will give you the inside track on all the new stuff, and some of them, like Hops Cork, have loyalty programs as well. Depending on how regular you are, they might also offer cash credit.
- Look out for deals. This might sound obvious, but liquor shops usually have a lot of deals going on – most commonly, 1+1 on wines. Keep an eye out.
- Start small. Buy half-bottles and quarters whenever you can, especially when trying something new.
- Try before you buy. When you dine out, you can taste what you plan to buy, at a fraction of the cost of a full bottle. Trying everything once is a good way to find out what you like. Use this to your advantage.
- Tell your friends. If your friends know that you’re building a bar, you can always ask them (nicely) to buy you alcohol for your birthday, instead of other stuff. I’ve both given and received plenty of such gifts, so I can vouch for this.
- Buy only what you need. Nothing says “I wasted my money” more than a bottle of wine you won’t drink, or vermouth that you won’t use, or a vodka you can’t stand.
- DIY is always an option. Things like Kahlua (Coffee Liqueur) and Cointreau (Orange Liqueur) are actually laughably easy to make at home, for a significantly lower price.
- Sharing is caring. Show someone your bar, and you’ll have their curiosity. Make them a drink, and you’ll have their attention. You never know, they might even be inspired to start a home bar of their own. 🙂
- Don’t spend all your money at once. Bar building is an expensive process, so take it slow and easy.
- Drink responsibly. Seriously. I’m not trying to patronise you. Not getting shitfaced has been scientifically proven to save money.
And that covers just about everything.
It might seem like a lot to take in at once, but as I said before, the best thing you can do is take things slow, and ease into it.
Click here to go back to the top if you feel like you missed something.
Starting your bar can be a LOT of fun. If you have any ideas, let me know what you would do differently – and if this helped, I’d love to know.
As always, thank you for reading. I shall see you in the next one. 🙂