Everything You Need for a Basic Home Bar

One of the best things about having your own place is hosting parties. A great party—whether it’s a loud blowout or a fancy dinner for a few intimate guests—is a great way to keep connected to old friends, make new ones, and show off a little.

Parties can be stressful too, of course. It’s easy to worry that people won’t like the food, or that the conversation will flag. And if you’re not much of a drinker, it’s easy to worry that your cocktail-loving friends might be disappointed because you’re not experienced behind mixing drinks. Setting up a home bar might seem like an expensive and complicated project, but you can make it much easier by mimicking a common strategy used by actual bars: the well.

How to create a “well” at home

In a bar, the well is a small area right behind the bar stocked with basic liquors and mixers. It’s always within the bartender’s reach so they can quickly assemble a short list of common cocktails. Because these drinks are pretty basic and use lower-cost alcohol as ingredients, “well drinks” are the cheaper options. If you order a simple cocktail like a “rum and coke” without specifying the brand of liquor, you’re getting a well drink.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! While well drinks in actual bars can get complicated, most well drinks don’t require fancy bartending skills, and you can actually make a pretty wide range of delicious two-ingredient cocktails using this method, which keeps things simple and affordable. That means you can assemble a simple-but-effective home bar on a small budget and still satisfy just about anyone’s preferences.

No, you won’t be crafting a Commonwealth with a simple home well (honestly, if a guest demanded a cocktail with 71 ingredients we’d advise throwing them out immediately), but you can serve up all the basics. Whatever liquor preferences your guests have, you can whip up something that they’ll enjoy with a well.

What’s in a well

Start with the foundation of all cocktails, the liquor itself. You’ll need five bottles to start: whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, and tequila. You can get fancier and have different styles and expressions (bourbons, ryes, and scotch, for example), but if you’re keeping things simple and cheap, just stick with the basics.

  • Liquor: When buying your bottles, do some research into low-cost, adaptable liquors—an excellent way to figure this out is to actually just go to a bar when it’s relatively empty and check out what’s in their well (or just ask the bartender) and take some notes. If you can’t do that, go with the most well-known brands. Everything’s going to be mixed anyway, so you don’t necessarily need the most delicate flavor profiles. Mass-market quality will do just fine.

  • Mixers: To make a well bar successful, the key is flexibility, and that means mixers. You need just a few basics:

    • Juices. Cranberry juice and orange juice (for Screwdrivers) are fundamental. Throw in some grapefruit juice and you can make Greyhounds for a little extra sophistication. Adding lime juice will let you make a simple Gimlet (which technically should include some simple syrup, but you can get away with leaving that out).

    • Sodas. Having some cola on hand is key for the obvious: whiskey and cola, or even an ersatz Cuba Libre (whatever rum you have and cola). Ginger ale mixes well with a lot of things and offers a nice variation.

    • Club soda and tonic water, for scotch and soda, vodka sodas, and gin or vodka tonics.

    • Vermouth. For a classic Martini, you’ll need dry vermouth.

    • Liqueurs. For a slightly more advanced well, stock some liqueurs (a spirit that’s been flavored with sugar, fruit, or herbs):

      • Kaluha to throw together a Black Russian. You can cheat a little and have some milk on hand for a White Russian, too.

      • Orange liqueur (aka Triple Sec or Curaçao) for making a simple Margarita. A slight cheat, as you’ll also need some lime juice, but still pretty basic and crowd-pleasing.

  • Garnishes. Garnishes aren’t just for visuals; they also add to the flavor profile of a good cocktail (albeit often subtly). You can obviously use a long list of things as garnishes, and you should have them all if you want. But you can get away with having just a few on hand: Olives, lemons, and limes will get you through most cocktail situations. Add in some cocktail onions and Maraschino cherries for a bit more variety.

Armed with these basics, you can whip up a long list of two-ingredient cocktails. Whatever your guests are into, you’ll be able to offer them something in their wheelhouse, and you won’t have to actually know anything more than a few simple guidelines for tossing drinks together (especially if you err on the side of more liquor and less mixer).


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