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Secrets to stocking your home bar

Tips from hospitality entrepreneur Shawn Soole

When it comes to stocking your home bar, there’s very definitely an art to it—as I discovered while bending the ear of Shawn Soole, hospitality entrepreneur and bar manager at Chateau Victoria’s Clive’s Classic Lounge. Soole, also an author of Great Northern Cocktails and a podcaster, encourages having a foundation of six bottles in the spirit stakes and then adding to that core.

“I think you can always do your usual suspects; vodka, gin, tequila, rum, bourbon and rye (whiskey); those six bottles are your baseline. I usually go for a nice mid-range bottle; $30-plus.

“You want those six bottles to be middle-of-the-road flavour profiles. You want a vodka and a gin that’ll work great in a martini as well as shaken up in a cocktail, like a Lemon Drop or a Clover Club. And you want a rye whiskey that’s versatile enough to make a really good Manhattan or a Sazerac, but can also go with ginger ale.”

Soole then recommends adding more subtle, obscure bottles to a domestic line-up to expand your cocktail-making potential.

“Once you get those six bottles down you can start going for the Campari and vermouth. You want to have both a dry and a sweet vermouth to cover you for Negronis, martinis, Manhattans and Boulevardiers—both ends of the spectrum. With Campari and a sweet or dry vermouth, along with gin, rye or bourbon, you can make seven drinks.

“And then you can start playing around with your classic liqueurs; your Cointreau and triple sec. Plus an orange liqueur can allow you to make five cocktails using gin or vodka. So it’s another big one to add into the mix.

“With a 10-12 bottle backbar at home you can make 50 or 60 cocktails; everything from spirit-forward all the way through to fun and mixed—and everything else in-between.”

Soole says the pandemic has changed the home bar landscape; many people stuck at home got into making cocktails.

“During the pandemic Campari outsold Aperol for the first time in five years, which is kind of insane,” says Soole. “The pandemic, especially with [actor] Stanley Tucci doing his version of the Negroni online, sort of kicked everybody into doing Negronis.”

And space needn’t be an issue.

“On a bar cart you can fit 12 to 15 bottles and that just sits in the corner of your living room. You can also get an IKEA rolling home bar for like $140 to $150, which is usually only about 12 to 15 inches deep; 24 inches wide. So it’s easy to create a little spot with your favourite bottles on show and your expensive ones tucked underneath.”

He adds: “And less can sometimes also be more. I know Jessica Schacht from Ampersand Distilling up in Duncan actually has a book coming out later this year—The Five-Bottle Bar. So you don’t need a lot of room to make great cocktails.”

Alongside the spirits and liqueurs, a rack or more of wine and a beer-filled fridge, tonic, ginger beer and fresh limes are also key ingredients to weave into the mix.

“I would say a good tonic is always essential and if you have vodka, real limes and ginger beer you can make a Moscow Mule; three ingredients, super easy. So, tonic, a nice club soda and ginger beer are always needed. And then some classic bitters like orange and agave syrup are pretty much all you need for most of your main cocktails.”

Soole gives three tips for making your home bar really pop.

“Pick a spirit and learn everything you can about that spirit before selecting a favourite; learn your classics, learn your classics, learn your classics; and third, have fun. As soon as it’s not fun anymore, take a break, get revitalized, go and visit some other bars and then come back to it. Once you reignite the passion, chances are you’ll love it even more.”