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How to set up your home bar for $150 or so

September 30, 2017

the good son bar manager connor scott cocktail bar expert

Setting up your home bar is both exciting and daunting. What you need to do is focus. Stick to the basics and start small. With just a few choice bottles, you’ll be able to make a nice selection of classic cocktails and even a few fancy ones. (Just make sure you practice first… a lot!)

First off, get one or two good books about cocktails, like the classic Mr. Boston’s Official Bartender’s Guide. (Hint: used book stores are a great source.) Second, choose one or two spirits you love and set your bar up around it. What are the spirits you like best (white, brown, golden, etc.)? Look up a few choice cocktails that feature your favourite spirits, then go and buy the ingredients you’ll need to make them. Start with easy ones, like any of the classics.

“Classics are classics for a reason,” says star bartender Kaitlyn Stewart over the phone from Vancouver. “I definitely embrace the classics, as it’s great to know a little bit of history and know what came before us… I draw a lot form the classics and modernize them and bring them into 2017s.”

Stewart knows what she’s talking about. She’s the bar manager at Royal Dinette in Vancouver, and she was just declared the world’s best bartender at the Diageo World Class competition in Mexico. (She’s also really in to cats.)

The classics, as Stewart points out, are the building blocks of our modern cocktails. They are all about the KISS principle: keep it simple stupid. A base spirit, a bitter, maybe some water or juice, some sugar — and bam! There it is. An Old Fashioned. A Negroni. A French 75. You know, the good strong stuff!

Essential non-booze ingredients are: lemons and limes, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, soda water and simple syrup (which is just water and sugar — easy to make it at home.)

And don’t forget a good sparkling wine, which you should have on hand at all times, for serving straight up or in a French 75 (or just to add a little fizz and fun to a drink). Get a good Cava from Spain, like the Segura Vuidas Brut Reserva ($14) or a French Crémant, such as Chateau de Montgueret Crémant de Loire Brut ($19.95). Or, for extra fun, an excellent pink-hued rosé sparkler is the De Chanceny Crémant de Loire Rosé Brut ($19.30).

With all that said, here are a few spirits and flavours we recommend to get your bar started right, along links to some of drinks you’ll be able to make with just these ingredients. And once you’re comfortable with these, you can roam further afield in the world of cocktails by adding a few more specialized liqueurs like Chartreuse and Dry Vermouth, plus more spirits like rum, bourbon and vodka. But this will get you started nicely…

London Dry Gin

Cheap but venerable, Gordon’s London Dry Gin ($27.45) is a flavourful, punchy gin with characteristic juniper and lots of citrus. Cocktails: Negroni, French 75, Gimlet

Canadian Whiskey

J.P. Wiser’s Double Still Rye Canadian Whisky ($29.95) was a gold medal winner at this year’s Canadian Whiskey Awards and it’s smooth with a bite, packed with toasted rye and sweet spice. Cocktails: Manhattan, Old-Fashioned Whiskey, Sazerac, Ward Eight


For sipping, shooting and mixing, you need quality agave juice like El Jimador Tequila Blanco ($32.95). With tequila, you really do get what you pay for. Cocktails: Margarita, Paloma


A little brandy, which is distilled wine, goes a long way to adding heft and depth to a cocktail. Go for something good, but you don’t have to break the bank for something you’ll be mixing. St. Remy ($26.25) makes a good cheap and cheerful. Cocktails: Sidecar, Sazerac, Corpse Reviver


You can make do with a 375 ml bottle ($19.95) of this delicious orange liqueur (just don’t get hooked on sipping it neat). Cocktails: Sidecar (ok, it’s my favourite)


An indispensable Italian bitter-sweet citrus liqueur, Campari ($28.10) is great on its own with some soda and ice or mixed in a variety of ways. Cocktails: Negroni, Americano

Sweet Vermouth

Trust me, you’ll need Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth Red ($8.45, 500 ml) for many great cocktails (and you really should get dry vermouth too). Cocktails: Manhattan, Negroni