Since starting to write about my own experiments with cocktails, a lot of friends have asked me how to get started. So here are my personal recommendations for books, tools, and ingredients if you’re bootstrapping your own cocktail experience. These recommendations reflect my own journey with cocktails, minus a few missteps and tangents along the way. My plan is to keep this post up to date if I change my recommendations over time, so hopefully, it will be a useful evergreen source.
Books and references
These books are what got me started, and I still refer to them all the time:
Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold: This book was pitched to me as “Modernist Cuisine for cocktails,” and it was the first cocktail book I bought. It came at a convenient time: my roommates and I had just moved into a part of SF that was far away from nightlife, so if we wanted a drink we were going to have to make it ourselves. Liquid Intelligence took me out of the dark ages of bad dirty martinis to real drinks. The second half of Liquid Intelligence really goes off the deep end—centrifuges, gel clarification, liquid nitrogen, the works—and while I find that fascinating and inspiring (I have done a whole series on drinks from The Aviary Cocktail Book), the front half is significantly more practical. In it, Arnold lays out the fundamentals of traditional cocktails, from ratios to dilution to preparation techniques to the role that acids and sweeteners play in a drink. The first few chapters are the best introduction to the “why” of cocktails I’ve ever read.
Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, and David Kaplan of Death & Co: This book starts from the premise that there are only 6 fundamental cocktail recipes, and all other cocktails are variations on those basics. I went into the book very skeptical of the premise, and while it certainly is a simplification, it’s definitely less of a simplification than I expected. I found that Cocktail Codex changed the way I experience cocktails by giving me more of a language for describing what a cocktail was doing. I love this book (and the original Death & Co book, which is great but wouldn’t quite make my “essentials” list) for its recipes; their ideal Sidecar changed how I feel about the drink. I also lean on this book for recommendations of specific spirits based on what they tend to use repeatedly in the drink. For instance, the Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac has become my go-to for any drink that calls for cognac or brandy (including Sidecars!).
PDT by Jim Meehan and Chris Gall: I rarely use PDT as a reference on technique, but instead I find it useful as an encyclopedia of cocktail recipes. In addition to several unique recipes (I’m especially partial to the Conquistador and Little Bit Country), I find it has good, well-balanced versions of the classics as well. (Side note on classic cocktail recipes: I recommend applying a lot of skepticism to the recipes by the International Bartenders Association or IBA; I often find them way out of balance, and always prefer recipes from other sources, like PDT)
The Art of the Shim by Dinah Sanders: Not everyone wants a full-strength drink, let alone several. A “shim” is a low-proof cocktail, but just because it’s low-proof doesn’t mean it has to lack complexity or depth. (In fact, often the complexity in cocktails comes from lower-proof ingredients like Campari or Chartreuse.) The recipes I’ve tried from this book have been excellent, but mostly I like this book for having all of those recipes consolidated into one place rather than needing to guess if a particular drink is low-proof.
- Mixel: Mixel is my go-to app for storing, finding, and sharing cocktail recipes; I use the iOS version, but the Android version looks identical. If I’ve ever sent you a cocktail recipe, it probably came from Mixel. I like Mixel because it lets you track the ingredients you have and uses that to tell you what drinks you can make. But importantly, it’s not fussy about it—it knows that rye can substitute for bourbon when you’re desperate. The “Mixel Maximizer” is also useful for expanding your bar incrementally, by telling you what additional ingredients would give you the most additional flexibility. I’d recommend paying for Mixel Premium, which gives you access to a rich library of recipes (including several that come from the books above), but you can also enter recipes by hand. I use a mix of their recipes and my own.
For each of these things, the category of tool is more important than the specific version of that tool I recommend. I’ll link to my favorite (e.g.) jigger, but while you should have a jigger, it doesn’t need to be this jigger. If I think a piece of kit is so good that it’s worth replacing alternatives, I’ll definitely say so.
For reference, if you put together all of my “essential” recommendations, the total comes to around $250 (USD), based on current prices; the not-so-essentials will set you back another $150 or so.
(It’s worth noting that I originally got most of these recommendations from Liquid Intelligence.)
Let’s start off with the things that are truly essential to a basic cocktail setup:
Small + large jiggers: Just like graduated cylinders, tall thin jiggers are more accurate than short squat ones (hence why I recommend this over, say, the OXO jiggers that are quite common). Any jigger will do in a pinch, but make sure you can measure everything from ¼ oz all the way up to 2 oz comfortably.
Cocktail shaker, like a pair of small + large shaking tins: There are a few styles of cocktail shaker. I’d recommend against a cobbler shaker (the type that has a little cap on the top that you strain through) because they tend to leak. These shaking tins take a little practice to seal and separate, but I find them very easy to use and super easy to clean.
Hawthorne strainer: This is the one case where I think the Koriko Hawthorne strainer is so good that you should replace your existing strainer. Most strainers have a very loose spring that does a poor job of trapping ice crystals and other medium-sized solids; this one has a much tighter spring. Many drinks will call for “double-straining”—straining through a Hawthorne strainer and then a tea strainer. I find that with this strainer, there’s no need for a second strain. If you have a different Hawthorne strainer, though, you will likely need a tea strainer as well.
Bar spoon: You’ll need something to stir drinks with. You could use a normal utensil, but there are a few advantages to a bar spoon. First, they’re longer so you have much more of a handle to work with. Second, “a bar spoon” is a unit of measure in many cocktails (it’s about a teaspoon), so it helps to be able to measure with the same implement you use to stir. A normal bar spoon with a spiraling handle takes some practice and some light calluses to use effectively (the spoon itself should be “tidally locked” such that the bowl of the spoon always faces inwards as it spins around the glass); this OXO spoon makes that movement effortless.
Citrus juicer: Acid is a critical component in a huge fraction of cocktail recipes (including almost all drinks that are shaken), so ideally juicing lemons or limes should be easy. This press-style juicer is much easier to use than (say) a reamer, and the gear action on this specific one gives you more pressure and thus more juice. I wouldn’t say you need to replace your existing juicer with this one, but if I was making an upgrade list this would be pretty high up on it.
Y peeler: Garnishes aren’t just for show; I’ve done the side-by-side tests before. And while I frequently use my essential oil technique for garnishing a drink, there are still some cases where it’s nice to have a good peeler, like for making one of my favorites, the Agony and Ecstacy. I find Y peelers easier to use than swivel peelers for taking off large sections of peel.
Coupe, Nick and Nora, Collins (or highball), and rocks glasses: These to me are the 4 essential types of glassware you need to make cocktails. I have a very strong preference for coupe glasses over the traditional, conical martini glass, which I find to be awkward to drink from and easy to spill. I don’t have any particular recommendation for rocks glasses, but make sure that whatever you get can hold 10-12 fluid ounces of liquid. (Sometimes they’re labeled as “double old-fashioned” or “double rocks” glasses). If you’re looking to expand beyond this core set, champagne flutes are probably next up, though they’re much less frequently used.
Next up, two things that maybe aren’t a strict requirement for making drinks, but that I think everyone should have:
Muddler: I’m particularly fond of the Bad Ass Muddler (yes that’s its actual name) because it’s big, heavy, and easy to clean; muddlers made of wood or with the cross-hatch pattern on the business end are often not. There are lots of drinks I love that call for muddlers (such as the Little Bit Country), but if you aren’t itching to make a cocktail that calls for muddling, this might be less essential for you.
Bar mat: These come in all shapes and sizes, so you can find one that works for your space. Bar mats make it so much less stressful to put drinks together since if you accidentally spill a little of something (or honestly, a lot of something—most bar mats can hide a few ounces of liquid), nobody will know.
And finally, some things that are maybe less essential, but still very useful (I have—and use—all of them frequently):
Squeeze bottles: These are good for syrups, infusions, and other ingredients that are prepped in advance; our fridge is full of these. I like having both 8 oz and 16 oz available. (There are plenty of choices of squeeze bottle available from Amazon and other sources; there’s nothing special about this specific set.)
Larger glass bottles: Like the squeeze bottles, these are good for prepared ingredients. I like Crew Bottles, which have a removable bottom, for being easier to clean, but they’re not cheap and you could also save old liquor bottles or buy (likely cheaper) plain bottles. I use these for ingredients that I prepare in larger quantities (like simple syrup, or anything else which I use frequently). If you do go for Crew Bottles, keep in mind that the glass is dishwasher safe, but the base and stopper are not.
Spray bottles and eyedropper bottles: I’ve written before about using spray bottles for essential oils, but that’s not all they’re useful for. Some drinks (classically, the Sazerac) will call for a “rinse,” where you put some spirit (often absinthe) in a glass, swish it around, and dump it out. Spray bottles are an easier and less wasteful way to rinse a glass. Eyedropper bottles are useful for anything you want to dash out in small batches, like tinctures or bitters. (As with squeeze bottles, this is a crowded market and I don’t have any reason to think these are anything special.)
High capacity (max weight 5kg) and high precision (0.01g) digital scales: Even with the type of people who cook by weight, most drinks are measured by volume; measuring a single drink by weight would be too slow for the high-throughput environment of a bar. However, scales are still useful for ingredients prepared in advance, whether that’s simple syrup (which, the pros will tell you, should be equal parts sugar and water by weight, not volume) or more innovative concoctions. The large scale is useful for making ingredients in bulk, while the small scale is useful for more exotic ingredients like powdered acids or emulsifiers.
Mixing glass: You can definitely skip this; the larger shaking tin will work great as a mixing vessel. However, a mixing glass like this makes for a beautiful presentation as you’re preparing a stirred drink, and of course we do eat with our eyes first. Its large thermal mass does mean that its temperature can affect how your drink cools and dilutes. It’s also definitely not dishwasher safe—we cracked one before figuring that out. We use one at home for stirred drinks in spite of these drawbacks.
Julep strainer: A Hawthorne strainer is used for straining shaken drinks; a julep strainer for stirred ones. Every bartender in the world seems to recommend having both, and it pairs nicely with a dedicated mixing glass. I certainly use a mixing glass and a julep strainer, but I don’t think it’s truly necessary—in most cases you could still just use a Hawthorne strainer.
This is the section I’m most afraid to write up. Truthfully, it’s hard to make a one size fits all recommendation for what ingredients you should buy since it depends on the types of drinks you like. I’ve tried to be as impartial as I can and offer the most variety for the least bottles, but undoubtedly this list is biased by my taste (for instance, there’s no vodka in my “minimum viable bar,” a reflection of how I feel about the spirit). I primarily recommend this set of bottles as categories (having any bourbon is more important than having the Elijah Craig in particular), but I do think the specific brands make for good defaults.
With all of those caveats, here’s my recommendation for the first 11 bottles you should buy for your bar:
- Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
- Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
- Flor de Caña 4 Year Extra Seco Rum
- Flor de Caña 12 Year Rum
- Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac
- Espolòn Tequila Blanco
- Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
- Plymouth Gin
- Cointreau Triple Sec Orange Liqueur
- Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
- Angostura Aromatic Bitters
For reference, all of these together cost about $300 (USD) at my liquor store, although that will of course vary some based on where you are. I think that’s a pretty good deal for the quality and variety that you get out of that set.
With these 11 bottles plus some staple non-alcoholic ingredients (lemons, limes, simple syrup, soda water, eggs), Mixel tells me that you can make nearly 40 different drinks. For future purchases, I’d probably look at Campari (or Aperol, or both), St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur (delightfully known as “bartender’s ketchup” for a while due to its frequency of use in the late 2000’s and its ability to make any cocktail taste better), a dry vermouth like Dolin Dry (especially if you like martinis), Green Chartreuse, or Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. But ultimately the best way to build your bar is to seek out recipes that look exciting and buy the ingredients for those. That’s effectively how we built out our bar—one bottle at a time.