This past holiday season, my wife and I were having a few neighborhood couples over for a cocktail party. I planned to make eggnog, batch a few festive drinks and have the ingredients ready for some winter standards. I thought it might be appropriately celebratory to make a paper menu for our guests, too. So I found a template online, typed in my cocktails’ names and ingredients, then took the PDF to a local copy store to have it printed on high bond paper. It was a hit, something I might do again for special occasions. But for a certain swath of cocktail enthusiasts, the curated home bar menu is an everyday affair.
Logan Retzer first made a cocktail menu for his home bar, which he has dubbed The Bearded Bear, a few years back. He was tired of his friends coming over and continually asking him for a simple Kentucky Mule (a Moscow Mule, but with bourbon subbing in for vodka) despite his deep cocktail knowledge and bartending prowess.
“I wanted my friends to have that same curiosity and excitement about trying a new cocktail, but not be afraid that they’re going to spend $15 on something they hate,” Retzer explains, of the impetus behind creating a bar-like atmosphere at his own house. He filched a logo from a defunct Facebook page and typed out a three-column menu in Microsoft Word. It includes a mix of classics like the Negroni (“If you don’t know what a Negroni is, you probably won’t like it,” the menu reads) and more modern cocktails like Shannon Mustipher’s Song of the Siren (a rhum agricole– and mezcal-based tropical drink) alongside his house spirits list, which runs the gamut from single malt Scotch and bourbon to poitín and Fireball.
“I’m definitely not a graphic designer, so for me it was just a challenge to see how it would come out,” Retzer says. Now, the menu permanently resides on his dining room table, which doubles as the bar in his 700-square-foot apartment in Austin, Texas, along with some 200 bottles housed on three bookshelves. “[My friends] usually read through it, laugh at some of the dumb jokes, and then pick something new to try.”
In fact, most home cocktail menu creators claim they made their menus not for any sort of self-aggrandizement, but simply to help friends daunted by their large booze collections. Unlike Retzer, Kevin has an actual home bar, set up in his basement; he also made a cocktail menu to help guests decide what to drink. It includes everything from the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz to modern classics like the Naked & Famous and Paper Plane. He continually tweaks it as he comes across new cocktails, and he fine-tunes past favorites.
“I had found that most people, when presented with, ‘What would you like?’ just go deer in the headlights,” says Kevin, who declined to give his last name. “The menu is helpful for first-timers, to give a handful of options broken down by base spirit.”
Matt Diepholz likewise found guests at his home bar, which he named Le Cube Cocktail Bar after his cat, a little too dithering in their ordering; many had limited knowledge about the cocktail landscape in general, he says. A known “cocktail guy” in his suburban community in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Diepholz provided menus as an easy way to bridge the gap, helping guide his guests toward a drink they might enjoy.
“The home bar menu turns the experience into something closer to an actual cocktail bar, where they can peruse through a list of drinks and just point to something,” Diepholz says. More importantly, it has helped speed up the process of getting orders in and drinks made, an absolute necessity when shaking and stirring drinks à la minute for a half-dozen people. He changes his menu more than most home bar enthusiasts, every few months or so, offering a “snapshot in time” of what he currently has available and drinks he’s been enjoying lately.
But not every home cocktail menu creator is necessarily a die-hard cocktail enthusiast. Shannon Smith typically sips on whiskey neat, which he pours from a significant collection housed in two large glass Ikea cabinets in his kitchen. But his wife, and most guests to his Southern California home, seem to always want cocktails. So when he had some downtime, he typed up all of his recipes to make a home cocktail menu.
Labeled Juno’s Cocktails after the couple’s old rescued boxer, the menu offers a mix of classics and modern classics divided by spirit type—whiskey, agave, rum, vodka—including deeper cuts like the Final Ward, a rye-based take on the Last Word from New York bartender Phil Ward.
“People are usually very excited to get handed a menu,” Smith says, though that doesn’t mean it changes their ordering behavior. “I’ve noticed they pick the same two cocktails 80 percent of the time,” explaining that most opt for two of the sweeter, less-acclaimed drinks on his menu—the Green Tea (Irish whiskey, peach schnapps, sour mix, dash of Sprite) and the Gummy Bear (a raspberry vodka–based take on the Green Tea).
As any real-world bartender knows, and as many of these home enthusiasts have learned, most people already know what they want, whether it’s on the menu or not. And just like at a real cocktail bar, the home bar menu creators are happy to accommodate.
“Worst case,” Retzer says, “I’ll make you another Kentucky Mule and I’ll drink your Vieux Carré.”