Utah spirits experts dish advice on outfitting your home bar
Setting up a new home bar can be a daunting task, whether your space has room for a designated full wet bar or a spiffy bar cart. In either case, the foundations of a great bar are twofold: figuring out what you like to drink and efficiently supporting your general style of entertaining.
If you tend to like classic whiskey drinks like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, selecting flexible bourbon or rye and some quality bitters is a great starting point. Love zesty daiquiris and margaritas? Ditch the syrupy store shelf mixers and make time to squeeze fresh juice.
My grandmother Audra Belle Shenk, a frequent hostess, often advised that it wasn’t what type of spirits you kept on hand that was important, but that guests felt like they were sincerely welcome by a happy (i.e., not stressed out with mixing everyone’s drinks) host. Her go-to was festive punch served in chilled pitchers and a guest DIY set-up for two ingredient drinks like gin and tonics or Cuba Libres. Local cocktail expert Chelsea Nelson shares a similar sentiment. “I love how people come together to connect over a libation or two,” says Nelson. “A good cocktail is just an exclamation point on a great conversation.”
Cutting to the boozy chase, we asked some of our favorite spirits aficionados how they approach stocking their home bars.
Chelsea Nelson, writer, photographer and cocktail nerd
Always in stock: Beehive Jack Rabbit Gin, Campari, a good bottle of rum
As a craft cocktail chronicler and food writer of over 10 years, Devour contributor Chelsea Nelson has plenty of opinions on setting up a home bar. “I am an avid home bartender,” says Nelson, as her 11.7K+ followers on Instagram can attest. She strives to make craft cocktail recipes less intimidating for home bartenders and engagingly shares her own personal story of each drink presented with gorgeous photographs.
“The ritual of cocktail making, and the people and community cocktail culture brings together, are my main inspiration,” she says of the craft. Nelson is a big believer in a baseline of the best ingredients you can afford, such as craft bitters, making your own simple syrup and creating space for making/storing clean neutral-flavored ice. “Don’t ruin your cocktails with bad ice,” she advises. “A freezer dedicated to cocktail ice is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
With summer in full swing, Nelson suggests ditching fussy umbrella drinks and getting back to simple, classic cocktails, such as the daiquiri. “If you’re thinking of a huge, sugary, frozen poolside cocktail—you’ve got it wrong,” says Nelson of the stereotype. “This classic hails from Daiquiri, Cuba, where it was first created to ward off Yellow Fever,” she says of the origin. “But nowadays, we just drink it for sheer pleasure.”
Find Chelsea Nelson @ritualandcraft or visit RitualAndCraft.com
2 ounces white rum
(Wray & Nephew preferred)
¾ ounce simple syrup
(sugar dissolved in a 1:1
ratio with water)
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
Shake with ice until very cold. Strain into a chilled coupe glass; lime wedge garnish.
Jacob Hall, co-owner Alibi Bar & Place
Always in stock: Fernet-Branca, Campari, Cointreau
“To be honest, I really don’t keep much of a bar at home,” says Alibi co-owner and bartender Jacob Hall. With a career built in developing top-notch cocktail bars and cocktail catering, he says that now, “this is my home bar,” indicating Alibi’s lively SLC Main Street digs with a tip of his glass.
His go-to off-the-clock choice? A short glass of Fernet-Branca, a bitter Italian amaro colloquially known as “the Bartender’s Handshake” for its revered status as an industry insiders’ favorite. When Utah native Hall first started working at Bar X seven years ago as a bar back, Fernet, along with a bottle each of vibrant Campari and sweet citrusy Cointreau, formed the backbone of his small home bar.
“With those ingredients,” he says, “I knew I could learn to make a lot of different cocktails” when mixed with classic base spirits like bourbon, gin or rum. With this limited stock at a home bar, “you can make almost anything,” he says with a grin. “The Fernet is for sipping while you make the cocktails.”
Alibi Bar & Place
369 S. Main, SLC, 385-259-0616
All Hands on Deck
Utilizing two of Hall’s favorite spirits, the “All Hands on Deck” is a smoky mezcal variation of a gin-forward “Don’t Give Up the Ship” cocktail.
1 ½ ounces Wahaka Espadin mezcal
½ ounce Fernet-Branca
½ ounce Cointreau
½ ounce Carpano Antica (or other sweet vermouth)
Stir all ingredients with ice; strain into a chilled tulip or coupe glass. Orange twist garnish.
Miriam LeBaron, bartender Lake Effect
Always in stock: Angostura bitters, sweet vermouth, Luxardo cherries
From her earliest bartending days at a beer-only dive bar in St. George to jobs in Nevada, Hawaii and her most recent stint at Lake Effect in Salt Lake City, Miriam “Mimi” LeBaron says the best part about bartending is hospitality.
“I really fell in love with the interaction with my customers and being behind a bar,” she says of bartending. And of spirits, in particular, she says, “It’s incredible how many stories can come from one bourbon or one beer.”
In addition to the elegant classic cocktail, components she includes in her “always in stock” list, LeBaron is partial to whiskey in her cabinet, namely Glenlivet French Oak 15 year Scotch and Eagle Rare Kentucky Bourbon. “Whatever flavor or booze you prefer, there’s a simple and delicious cocktail out there,” she says. She continues, “Don’t worry about not having the proper glassware or bar spoon; there are tons of amazing drinks” made with a minimum of technique or equipment.
Case in point, she built a classic Old Fashioned in the glass with some of her favorite ingredients at her fingertips, sweetened with a bit of that cherry syrup goodness from the Luxardo jar in place of sugar.
155 W. 200 South, SLC, 801-285-6494,
Bourbon Old Fashioned
2 ounces Eagle Rare bourbon
1 barspoon Luxardo maraschino cherry syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
To an Old Fashioned glass, add bourbon, cherry juice and bitters; stir to combine. Add a large ice block and stir down. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry and orange zest swath.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
It doesn’t take a ton of expensive equipment to outfit a home bar in style. Here are the basics:
Stirring glass and bar spoon
A must for all-alcohol potions like Manhattans and Sazeracs; any straight-sided glass will do, such as a beer pint glass.
A Hawthorn strainer (engineered to snare citrus pulp) works for most preparations, but consider yourself lucky if you find a vintage julep strainer.
Options (and opinions) abound about a “proper” shaker. The three-piece cobbler shaker works for most home-bartending situations.
Always use fresh juice. Always.
Until you’ve mastered the metering of a free pour, measuring to ensure proper proportions is key to making great cocktails.