Build-Your-Own (Summer) Bar by Lisa Wright

Summer is (mostly) here: and that means a return to the porches, patios, and poolsides that make the season such a great time to be outside. And nothing goes better with summertime soirees and hanging out on longggg sunny days than an ice cold cocktail that’s colorful, flavorful, and best of all, easy to make—after all, who wants to spend a ton of time making drinks when you could be sipping them instead?

That’s why carefully crafting your summer bar is of the utmost importance—not only does it save crucial hot weather energy, but it virtually guarantees that you’re only a few precious minutes away from having a delish cocktail (or two!) on hand. Below is the ultimate how-to, build-your-own bar guide perfect for anyone looking to mix and sip all summer long.

Here’s What To Look For:

In a perfect world we’d all be chilling with negronis and frozen margaritas all summer long. But who wants to sip the same thing all the time? The trick to building an epic summer bar is to look for things that multi-task and pull their weight cocktail-wise: ingredients that are tried-and-true and there for you the same way your bestie was at summer camp.

Versatility. Think cocktail chameleons that can act as both the star of the show and the supporting cast. Sure, we all love a good Aperol Spritz—but there are a number of summery cocktails where the delightfully bitter aperitif plays a crucial role without being the main attraction.

Variety.  A definite necessity when it comes to summer sipping, never underestimate the value of having a variety of flavor profiles on hand. A bit of bitter; a soupçon of sweet; a dash of citrus here; a touch of earthy herbs there: all are welcome at the summer party.

Longevity. Unless you’re planning to party hardy every weekend (no judgment!), one of the most important qualities in a summer bar is that it lasts more than a hot (summer) minute. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to replenish occasionally (you definitely will), but what it does mean is that much of what you’ll be getting as your bar backbone will be used in relatively small doses—a bonus for both your drinks cart and your wallet.

Here’s What To Get:

Now that you’ve nailed the basics, it’s time for the fun part: building your bar. While the following list is by no means exhaustive, it does give any aspiring at-home bartender a leg up when it comes to mixing a variety of chill summer drinks like a pro.

Campari. One of the undisputed darlings of the cocktail universe, Campari is a delightfully bitter, slightly citrusy, vibrantly-hued Italian liqueur that is the backbone of Negronis everywhere. But that’s not all: Campari is a virtual cocktail chameleon and plays well with a plethora of other non-gin mixers—bourbon, tequila, and other low-ABV all-stars like dry vermouth are just some examples.

What To Make: Boulivardier; Americano; Campari Spritz; Mezcal Negroni; Bicicleta; Rosita; High Noon

Aperol. It’s always the same: the temp hits 80 degrees and I hit the liquor store: only to realize the shelves are once again devoid of Aperol—and with good reason. Aperol, like Campari, is bright, it’s bold, it screams summer sipping; and its deliciously complex flavor profile also makes it a star of warm weather cocktails.

What To Make: Paper Plane; Cosmogroni; Aperol Sour; Division Bell; Aperol Old Fashioned; Bird of Paradise; Wild Heart Cocktail

Cynar. Now here’s where it gets interesting—while awesome aperitifs like Campari and Aperol are definite staples on any bar cart, the slightly mysterious Cynar may give you pause. Pronounced chee-nar, Cynar is a type of Italian amaro (of which there are many), that is bittersweet, herby—and famously features artichokes. But don’t let that fool you: Cynar is also a subtle (yet complex) addition to a cornucopia of cocktails; and, once you know what it is, you’ll definitely see it everywhere—from riffs on Manhattans to supporting players in Italian spritzes.

What To Make: Bensonhurst; Broken Bike; Italian Buck; Smoke Show; Cynar Manhattan; Cynar Spritz; Drunk Uncle

St Germain: Elderflower fans will love sipping this French liqueur whose pretty color and  distinctive bouquet just screams summer. Fruity, citrusy, and complex, St. Germain is easy to mix and match with a variety of other liqueurs and liquors alike—but its deliciously light, floral flavor is great with just a splash of club soda, too.

What To Make: Platinum Blonde; St. Germain Spritz; Irish Maid; Boat House Punch; Fleur de Paradis; Skeleton Key

Notable Runners-Up: Suze, Amaro Montenegro; Luxardo; Chartreuse (Green or Yellow); Lillet

NOTE: The above mixers are the perfect place to start cocktail curating: simply add-on typical bar staples like gin, tequila, bourbon, mezcal, vodka (or whatever suits your fancy)—it’s your bar, after all!

Here’s What To Have On Hand:

One of the best ways to make any bar cabinet or cart shine is to be sure you always have the essentials on hand—the easiest way to turn any summer afternoon into an impromptu happy hour.

Vermouth. Sweet and Dry Vermouth are must-haves for any at-home bartender. The workhorses of the cocktail world, these basics are more than just  a bit player in Manhattans  and Martinis; but act as an interesting counterpoint to a variety of cocktails.

Club soda: Bubbles are essential. End of.

Specialty Bubbles: This is completely optional, but every now and then non-club soda options like Ginger Beer, Tonic, and (slightly) fancier bubbles like Bitter Lemon and Topo Chico have the potential to elevate many summer sippers.

Citrus. One of the best things I’ve done for my at-home mixing is to buy bottles of lemon and lime juice. Is freshly squeezed citrus better? Of course! But—a. it’s also more expensive, and b. it’s summer; and who wants to stand around in a 95-degree kitchen squeezing 100 lemons?

That being said, always make sure you have some citrus around. You never know when you’ll need a fresh squeeze; a bright garnish; or a decorative, fancy-ish peel to rub around the rim.

Bitters. When I bartended, I only ever really ever used the classic Angostura Bitters—and so sparingly that a humble bottle lasted ages. However, the world of bitters goes way beyond the basics (though you def need them). Orange, Peychaud’s, and Grapefruit are great places to start—but feel free to add what works for you (and your cocktails).

Building your own at-home bar can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Enter summer: a time of long, hot days and warm, lazy nights that are the perfect time to experiment and begin curating your collection of everything from liquors and mixers to aperitifs and accoutrements to serve as the backbone of your bar—making it easier for you to sip, savor, and stir all summer long. 


Lisa is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and (very) amateur photographer. In her spare time she likes to read, write, bake, cook, watch U.K dramas/police procedurals and panel shows, and have her heart broken by the Philadelphia Phillies (during baseball season, of course). Though she generally avoids social media, you can sometimes find her on Twitter and Instagram @dolphy_jane.

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