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Home bar essentials

By Kate Bernot, @redeyeeatdrink

RedEye

12:00 AM CDT, March 26, 2014

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You've finally unpacked the last plastic tub and are fully moved in to your new place. This calls for a drink, yes? Stocking your home bar is probably the most enjoyable move-in task, but keep in mind that Rome wasn't built in a day. I've been living in my current apartment for a year and half, and I'm still adding bottles to my bar cart. You don't need to drop hundreds of dollars at once to create a home bar—just know what you like. Below are guidelines for creating a well-rounded, serviceable bar, but tailor it to your tastes: more wine, a range of whiskeys, a few types of gin … or all of the above. Cheers!
kbernot@tribune.com  @redeyeeatdrink

10 basic bottles to buy

Rum: A white rum is versatile in both cocktails (like daiquiris) and highballs (like rum and Cokes), but an aged, brown rum is the next step for both sipping and mixing.

Gin: There are as many gin varieties out there—London dry, sloe, Plymouth—as there are gin cocktails, so best to taste test and find what you like. With so many great Midwestern distilleries, why not start with some locally made offerings from Letherbee, Journeyman or North Shore?

Bourbon: Bourbon is a word that can only be attached to whiskey that meets certain characteristics related to its recipe and barrel-aging process, and it's mostly associated with whiskey from Kentucky. This is a place to splurge a bit on a better-than-bottom-shelf option, especially if you plan to drink it straight.

Whiskey: Whiskeys that aren't bourbon are … whiskeys. Fans of smoky, peaty flavors may want to stock a scotch for serious post-dinner drinking.

Vodka: Ah, the universal mixer. While those wacko-flavored bottles may be bizarrely intriguing—caramel? whipped cream?—best to stick to the plain stuff if you want versatility. (And to be taken seriously.)

Tequila: Mixto denotes a tequila that's a blend of agave tequila and other sugars. Mixtos and gold tequilas are generally fine for margaritas and other sweet cocktails, but upgrade to an anejo or reposado for a smoother sip.

Wine(s): You don't need a whole cellar, so don't be intimidated. Find a good wine store with friendly employees who can guide you toward some reds and whites with a spectrum of light and heavy bodies. Also, consider whether you mostly drink wine on its own or with a meal when choosing a bottle.

Beer: Again, find a liquor store with helpful employees to guide you. Personal preference reigns here, but you can't go wrong with having a balanced IPA, a porter and something less than 5 percent ABV in your fridge at all times.

Bitters: Your first bitters should be angostura, which will generally work anytime you see "bitters" listed in a cocktail recipe.

Vermouth: One small (375-milliliter) bottle each of dry and sweet vermouth will greatly expand the range of cocktails you can make at home; just be sure to store them in the fridge once they're opened.

Mixers

Mixers—especially fizzy ones—are helpful to buy in cans or small bottles to ensure that they don't get flat. Stock a six-pack each of tonic water, soda water, ginger beer, ginger ale and cola and you'll have most basic highballs covered.

5 must-have tools

Juicer: Squeezing fresh lime, lemon and orange juice for cocktails improves their flavor exponentially. Trust me. (Read up on a bartender's tips for home juicing.)

Shaker: You don't need anything fancy, though there are some pretty ones on the market. Make sure it's big enough to mix a few drinks at once, but not so big that you can't shake it without straining your biceps.

Strainer: After "wet shaking" ingredients—shaking them with ice—you don't always want that ice to end up in the glass.

Jigger: Find a jigger to measure at least one- and one-and-a-half ounce pours; bonus points if it has half-ounce and three-quarter-ounce markings.

Bar spoon: For drinks that are stirred, not shaken.

Optional upgrades

Herbs: Buying small packets of mint, rosemary and basil can be costly. If you make a ton of mojitos each summer, consider planting mint in a backyard pot—it's nearly impossible to kill. (See an expert's tips for building a cocktail-centric herb garden.)

Pitcher: Making a batch of cocktails all at once for a party saves time.

Amaro: I'm certainly partial to sipping these bitter liqueurs both before and after a meal, but they're also a wonderful way to balance sweetness in cocktails.

Syrups: Artisan syrups are fun to buy to add a twist to plain sparkling wine or for making mocktails (just add soda water), but you also can try your hand at making your own with fresh fruits. No need buy bottled simple syrup, either—anyone with a stove, water and plain white sugar can make it herself.

Liqueurs: Elderflower, orange, agave, coffee, hazelnut—nearly any flavor has been made into a liqueur that can add depth and complexity to your mixed drinks.

Ice cube trays: The easiest way to impress your guests? Those fancy, square ice cubes. (Their actual purpose: They melt less quickly, keeping your drink less diluted). Flexible plastic trays are available online and at most kitchen stores.

Glassware: Basic rocks glasses are key, but if you find yourself making drinks at home often, consider a set of coupes, Collins glasses or martini glasses.