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Building a Holiday Bar

No gathering is too small to keep us from pulling out the stops in the spirit of celebrating. And although worldwide cultures revolve around holiday kitchen traditions—Italy's included—many home cooks embrace the season as a time to try new things.

That said, holiday entertaining is not just meant for plates. As interest in well-crafted cocktails grows across the country, home mixology has become one of the best ways to save money while not losing a speck of merrymaking. That is why even occasional drinkers or party hosts can benefit from a well-planned table of spirits for the visitors we are sure to entertain from now through the New Year.

Below are our best suggestions for building a bar fit for holiday toasting now and well into the New Year. Cheers!

Planning

Your bar is the liquid extension of your pantry, a repository of items for proper beverage craftsmanship.

Since making drinks really requires only two things—liquor and a glass—your bar can be as basic or eccentric as your taste. Whatever your pleasure, here is what you need to get started:

  • Space: Make it as simple as a side table set with bottles, glasses and mixers, or as elaborate as built-in or stand-alone furniture to house liquids and tools. Regardless, easy accessibility is key for a bar that lets you make drinks yourself or let guests make themselves at home.
  • Barware: Yes, some glasses are just better for serving certain drinks (Champagne flutes, for example, force bubbles to the top while more bulbous and flat Champagne glasses spread bubbles across the surface for a different sipping experience). Today, wine can be served in juice glasses and a good Manhattan can, too. Go with what you like, remembering you can't go wrong with a few wine stems and highballs.
  • Recipes: Invest in a book that is separated by spirit. Most major lifestyle and cooking magazines feature drinks as well, so when you see ones you like, clip and save. If you are at a restaurant and something catches your eye, use your smartphone to take a picture of the menu page so you can replicate it at home.

Cocktail-ready Spirits

Do you need a bottle of everything? No. But there are some must haves (and maybe a few "just wants") that will make it easy and fun to play barkeep:

Staples

Vodka—plain, or flavored with things like citrus or vanilla—are the base for thousands of drinks.

Bourbon or whiskey are cold-weather go-to's for drinking neat (with no ice), on the rocks (with ice), or mixed in classics like the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sidecar. A quick Google search on modern takes of those old favorites could make even your most traditional drink-sipping guest swoon over something tastily different.

Gin is good for more than just standard a Gin and Tonic. A G&T mixed with liqueurs like Crème de Menthe or fruity and flowery St. Germain are great alternatives.

Rum can easily be mixed in cola or tonic for folks looking for a little sweetness. Rum, bourbon or whiskey and brandy also comprise one of the season's most special sips: homemade eggnog.

Extras

Like things spicy? Invest in a bottle of pepper-infused vodka. How about a coffee liqueur? Are you an Irish cream fan? Does the flavor of orange triple sec put your recipes over the edge? Buy a bottle or two of something you really like and, chances are, your guests will, too.

Mixers

Visitors cannot last on liquor alone. Mixers like seltzer and tonic water, cola, lemonade, sparkling cider, cranberry juice, orange juice, simple syrup and ginger ale partner deliciously with the spirits you are serving and can double as acceptable substitutions for those not partaking in alcohol at your partito.

Add-ons

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  • For traditional martini lovers, keep your bar stocked with olives, olive juice and vermouth. (Tip: Visit your grocery's deli bar for some exotic olives or even pickles for garnishing.)
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  • Sugar cubes and a few dashes of bitters make easy Champagne cocktails.
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  • Drinks become seasonal when served with a cinnamon stick. Even a glass of port becomes special with each added spicy stir.

Tools of the Trade

You will probably mix most of your drinks in your kitchen. If you do have a separate bar space, having a duplicate small cutting board and knife for slicing fruit, juicing or making garnishes will save lots of traipsing back and forth.

Below are other suggested essentials:

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  • A liquid measuring glass—similar to a shot glass—that shows ounces, teaspoons and tablespoons. Look for these in most kitchen stores. They are better than a shot glass with no measuring designations.
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  • A shaker for blending drinks. Your most important bar tool, choose one with a secure top and that fits your hand well since it is likely to be the item you use most.
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  • Whether a hand-held wooden one or the traditional counter-top dish type with the inverted cone for squeezing, a citrus reamer and a small sieve keeps unwanted seeds or pulp out of drinks that call for splashes of sunshine.
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  • If your guests enjoy margaritas or you make limoncello at the holidays, an electric juicer will save your wrists and your time.
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  • Drink straws (which are noticeably thinner and shorter than regular soda straws) are both for slow stirring and slow sipping.
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  • A zester makes decorative citrus twists for martinis or bubbly drinks with Champagne or prosecco.
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  • Drips are inevitable, so keep handy some bar towels or rags for quick clean ups
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  • Home and liquor stores sell small wine pumps to extract excess air from bottles, making them ready for a rubber stopper that keeps wine fresher for longer if you rarely open and finish a bottle at the same time.