All You Need For a Killer Cocktail Bar—Under 100 Bucks

All you need is a bar cart and a set of ring-a-ding-ding cocktail glasses your cupboard to start toasting to married life. We asked Hal Wolin, of The Cocktail Guru and Wedding Cocktail Design (and himself a newlywed!) to equip uswith the no-holds-barred bar—without breaking the bank.

The Advice

This is your bar. “You need what you like to drink,” advises Wolin. “If you don’t like to drink vodka, I wouldn’t have any vodka.” A bottle each of gin, rum, and whiskey should accommodate most tastes and provide the essential ingredients to make an array of classic drinks. That said, there are no hard and fast rules. If one of those spirits doesn’t suit your fancy, sub in something you love.

Skip the plastic handles. After a night of $14 drinks, the bill at a dimly lit speakeasy is almost enough to sober you up on the spot. Remember how much you’re saving just by stirring your Manhattans at home, and don’t scour the bottom shelf for your bottles. “If you buy a $15 bottle of gin, its not really something anyone is going to want to drink,” warns Wolin. “You’re getting what you pay for.” Instead, look to spend somewhere between $20 to $30 per bottle and you should still be able to set up your home bar for about $100.

The Gear

Learn from the pros. Keep a copy of Portland-based cocktail obsessive Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book near the shaker. “This is probably the best starter book because it explains techniques and simple, basic cocktails without getting overly complicated.” If you’re going to Google your classic cocktail recipes, go with the David Wondrich’s recipes for Esquire or the drinks in Imbibe Magazine.

The $8 essential. “Making cocktails is like baking,” Wolin says. “You want to measure everything.” Using a jigger will keep your drinks consistently delicious. “It also helps you save money because you’re not over-pouring.”


The Big Bottles


Look for a bottle that says London Dry, which is the most versatile.

Go For: Tanqueray or Beefeater

Save With: Gordon’s

What to Make: Gin Gimlet, Gin and Tonic, Martinis


Go For: Angel’s Envy or Buffalo Trace

Save With: Four Roses or Evan Williams

What to Make: Whiskey Sour, Old-Fashioned, Manhattan


Go For: Flor de Cana or Banks 5 Island

What to Make: Daiquiri, Rum Old-Fashioned, Rum Manhattan


The Little Bottles

Look for 375-millimeter bottles of dry and sweet vermouth, which you’ll need for Manhattans and Martinis; the half-sized bottles are easier on the bar budget and stay fresh. Wolin recommends Carpano Antica and Dolin Dry.

Bitters are another essential. “Bitters are like the salt and pepper of cocktails,” Wolin says. “They’ll either bring out flavors in the other ingredients or balance it out. They add a backbone to a drink and bring everything together.” Since you’re adding 2-3 dashes at a time, they also last forever. Angostura Bitters are available in any grocery store and have a clove flavor that works well with aged spirits. Wolin also likes Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6. If bitters get your heart beating, Wolin also recommends Peychaud’s, which has a anise flavor, Bittermens Mole Bitters, which are cinnamon and cocoa-scented, and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit, which works well with tequila and gin.


The Extras

As your budget allows—and your preferences evolve—round out your bar with additional bottles, like scotch and tequila. Wolin recommends Monkey Shoulder as an affordable starter scotch. “It’s very accessible. It’s really light, and it’s really flavorful.” (If you become a connoisseur, upgrade to Lagavulin 16-year or Balvenie DoubleWood 12-year.) With a bottle of Milagro or Lunar Azul, your taco Tuesday tradition just got a lot more fun with margaritas and you boosted your Sunday benedict brunch with bloody Marias.

Specialty bottles like St. Germain, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, Campari, Cointreau, and Green Chartreuse aren’t necessary when you start out, but ultimately will add variety to your repertoire, so you can make a Negroni, an Old Pal, or the Martinez.


The Wildcard

For an unexpected, on trend bottle, Wolin suggests cool-again sherry, no longer a dusty old lady drink. “It’s a great versatile cocktail ingredient, it mixes well with pretty much almost anything.” A sweeter sherry, like Pedro Ximénez, can be used in cocktails in place of sweet vermouth or simple syrup—or drink it on its own. “It’s one of those things you can drink before or after dinner, and it goes great with salty meats and stinky cheeses—that’s how the Spanish enjoy it, especially the fino,” which is a dryer sherry.


Bottoms up!