Having a perfectly designed and well-stocked home bar often is high on many people’s wish lists. It allows one to host a lively cocktail party or a small intimate evening. But for many people, the idea of building one is daunting. There can be so many moving parts—every week seems to bring out the next hottest thing in the spirits world. Well, luckily for aspiring home bartenders, the team at Death & Co, the legendary New York City bar that helped launch the cocktail revolution earlier this century, has stepped forward to help.
Their latest book, Death & Co Welcome Home, was created after seeing firsthand the effects the pandemic had wreaked upon their own business. Their locations in Denver, L.A., and NYC were forced to shut down, and a planned Chicago location was put on hold. As the company scrambled to survive, they crafted a reopening playbook to use to ensure that they still offered the level of professionalism their customers had come to expect when they were able to welcome them again.
A famously open company, they have released two other books stuffed with their famous recipes; they distilled everything from their playbook into Welcome Home. It’s the ultimate DIY home bar book. Designed to take an individual from a novice barback to a smooth mixologist, the book has many insider details and over 600 drink recipes.
We reached out to Javelle Taft, the head bartender at their NYC flagship location, to further simplify the process of building the perfect home bar. It all begins with having the correct tools on hand.
“I think first and foremost the key to setting up a great home bar would be the tools,” he says. “You don’t need a bunch of stuff, just a few items to set your cocktail making over the top. You can shop around for them online, but I recommend buying from Cocktail Kingdom. That’s where most of the mixologists I know shop.”
He recommends a set of Japanese Koriko Weighted Shaking Tins and a Koriko Hawthorne Strainer. They are both super versatile and can be used for both mixing and shaking drinks. Made from stainless steel, they will clean easily and look great. Have a couple of Boston Shaker Glasses handy for mixing. A longer bar spoon with a teardrop tip is a must-have for blending beverages by hand, and a basic v-peeler with a three-inch blade is perfect for peeling fruit and expressing their essence into your cocktails.
When it comes to measuring out ingredients, he recommends going with a set of Japanese jiggers. They are slightly taller than the standard ones and have more detailed measurement increments to allow precise work. A basic hand citrus juicer that you can find in any home goods store is needed to pull fresh juice from lemons and limes. He highly recommends getting a Vitamix juicer to prepare batches of fresh juice, especially before any larger gatherings.
When it comes to the alcohol itself, Taft suggests stocking two bottles of each type of spirit. “To build a nice bar, I suggest having two different bottles of each of the core spirits. A nice solid bottle for mixed drinks and a more elegant one for straight pours,” he says. “One that brings something interesting to the table.”
Whiskeys are the bottles that can make or break your home set up. For bourbon, he suggests Elijah Craig due to its versatility and ability to mix effortlessly in numerous cocktails and Weller 12 Year for sipping, one not well known but a hidden gem according to him. When it comes to scotch, he says that there are so many good ones on the market it can sometimes be difficult to nail one down. It is heavily dependent on one’s tastes. When working behind the bar, his go-to for everyday drinks is Bowmore 12-Years-Old Single Malt. For customers wanting something a bit more adventurous, he says you can’t go wrong with Kilkerran 12 Year Single Malt, a phenomenal sipper.
Martinis and their accompanying cocktails, made with gin or vodka, are crucial to any home bartenders’ repertoire, so choosing the correct bottles is critical. The two gins he suggests are Tanqueray and Old Raj; both are loaded with flavors that nicely accentuate any drinking experience, especially the Old Raj, which is navy strength with notes of blueberry and pine. While many think of vodkas as a flavorless beverage, they are incorrect. Good ones can add a hint of complexity to a drink. For standard mixers, Poland Select is the bottle he suggests, while Ketel One is a smooth sipper that can elevate a martini.
When making drinks influenced by our neighbor south of the border, he loves El Tesoro Blanco tequila, it’s young and fresh with slight fruit flavors, and Nuestro Soledad mezcal for a more complex set of tastes. Since rum is all about expressing the flavors of the Caribbean, sunshine, and sugarcane, you need to choose bottles that aren’t just designed to be poured into a blender. El Dorado 3-Year works perfectly in any tropical concoction since it doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. At the same time, any rum from Foursquare Distillery out of Barbados will blow you away with its layers of flavors.
The only other bottles you will need to turn out a wide array of drinks are a solid brandy; Taft loves Lustau Solera Reserva Brandy, one aged ten years with chocolate and walnut flavors. Plus, you will also need a couple of bottles of unaged fruit brandies called Eau-du-vie’s; they are very versatile and add different flavors to your drinks. Clear Creek Blue Plum and St. George framboise Eau-de-vie can fill various needs.
Every decent bar these days has a wide array of bitters on hand. They are the “salt and pepper of modern cocktails today.” Taft says not to go crazy when shopping for biters; a few are all home barkeep needs. Make sure you have both a bottle of Angostura Aromatic and Orange bitters; they have been around since 1824 and are masters of their space. Round that out with either a bottle of Scrappy’s Bitters if you are looking to get “funky” or Bittermens for something a bit “wilder.”
The last few items he highly recommends are glassware and a few recipe books. Instead of buying new glasses, he recommends doing what they often do at Death & Co, scour your neighborhood thrift stores and yard sales to score some vintage glasses. As for books besides the aforementioned Death & Co Welcome Home, he also thinks everyone should have a copy of their Cocktail Codex. It dives deep into mixology. The other two books to search out are classics from a time when cocktails were king; The South American Gentleman’s Companion by Charles H Baker Jr. from 1951 and The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A Embury from 1948.
The key to building your home bar is to enjoy doing it, to not stress about it. It is supposed to bring you joy. Taft suggests creating it over time and using the one resource located the world over, your neighborhood bartender. “Start talking to the bartender the next time you are out at a cocktail bar,” he says. “Tell them what you are doing and ask them for certain drinks and such that they love and then try it at home. We love sharing our knowledge with interested people. Start with one drink and the ingredients you need, and expand from there. Soon enough, you will have a place that people love to come to visit, and you will have the passion yourself.”