Fewer things in life have the power to make you feel more like a sophisticated adult than hosting a dinner party. And the critical moment in any dinner party — the one that sets the tone for the rest of the evening — happens when you invite someone in, then walk over to your home bar area and ask, “Can I offer you a drink?”
Contrary to what you might think, having a home bar is not a privilege reserved for the upper class. Nor does it automatically indicate that you have a drinking problem. Being able to craft a delightful aperitif or cocktail is a simple act of hospitality that shows guests that you’ve thought ahead, you’re glad they are present, and you want them to feel comfortable.
It may sound silly, but having a fully-stocked bar cart in my home has been one of the real joys of adulthood. All it takes is setting up a designated area in your home to stock with some simple staples. It requires a bit of investment up front, but once you have the basics, you’ll find this space offers a special touch that adds so much to your hospitality without much effort.
So, how do you stock the perfect bar cart? It starts with the cart itself. There are so many options out there that it’s easy to find one that works for any style. In reality, you don’t need a fancy cart that gleams and glistens — you just need a dedicated space where you can neatly store all your supplies. If they’re hidden away in a cabinet somewhere, chances are good you’ll forget you even have them, and your lovely bar concept will stay just that: a concept.
Personally, spacious storage is more important to me than design — though it’s certainly possible to get both! Some of the most popular, dazzling, modern bar carts seem ideal in their simplicity, but you’ll come home to find that they only have room to store one or two bottles. There is quite a bit that goes into making good cocktails or mocktails, so be sure you’re providing yourself with enough space.
Consider storage carts or floating islands — don’t confine yourself to things that are called “bar carts.” I’m currently working with a two-level cart with a rack for glassware — I have a lot of glasses I want to display, and I like that I can use the bottom for storage while still keeping the top nice and neat. There are certainly cheaper options, though.
Once you’ve got your area picked out, it’s time to stock it:
You can really go pretty simple on equipment; there are few things you absolutely need to get started. Remember, you can always build and add as you become more advanced!
You absolutely need a little bit of glassware. If you’re just getting started, there is no need to have every kind of cocktail and beer glass in the world. Wine glasses, standard beer glasses, and a simple cocktail glass will do. If you really like cosmos or martinis, you might consider a few martini glasses, as well. Thrift stores and estate sales are great sources for cheap glassware.
Aside from drinking glasses, you’ll need a cocktail shaker with a strainer, a shot glass, and a muddler. You might also consider a microplane zester and a cup with ounce measurements on the side — but those aren’t strictly necessary.
Another nice touch guests will appreciate is a cocktail recipe book. They might not know what they want, and they might feel overwhelmed. A cocktail book can be a great conversation starter. You can go with a basic recipe book, or choose one on a theme. I love this literary themed collection, but there are cutesy, pun-filled books for every taste.
It’s hard to have a bar cart without the liquor. Start with the basics: find a few brands that you enjoy, and choose the liquors that make sense for the cocktails you’re making. I prefer to find a local brand to support craft distillers in the area. To get started with a range of liquor that’s found in most cocktails, you’ll want to keep on hand:
- Whiskey, or bourbon, or rye
From there, consider additives like Cointreau, vermouth, and other flavored liquors that will enhance your drinks and come up frequently in recipes. Most of these bottles will stay good for a long time, so it’s okay if you don’t use them that frequently!
Mixing can be as simple or complicated as you like. A good starting point is to have some tonic water or club soda, a few juices (orange, cranberry, and pineapple), and some soda if you prefer a sweeter mixed drink.
This is where you can get really fun and creative: I like to keep fresh fruits on hand — from blueberries and strawberries for muddling, to oranges and grapefruits and other citrus fruits for fresh-squeezed juice. These touches might not make sense if you don’t make drinks frequently, but they will really bring your beverage game to the next level.
You’ll also want to include some simple syrup (you can buy this at a store, or make it yourself by heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar dissolves), bitters, and other sweet additions like grenadine.
If you don’t drink, or have friends who are sober, quality mixers are the perfect way to have some extra fun. A well-thought-out mocktail is a validation that you care about your friends and their preferences, and you value their decisions and their presence in your home.
What really brings together a good drink from a fancy bar cart? The presentation! The best way to make a drink your own is to put thoughtful touches into the garnish.
If you’re planting herbs in a garden, add in mint, basil, rosemary, and thyme, which make excellent garnishes for several drinks. Keep fresh fruit on hand to hang off the rim. Tajin works great on any tequila drink, while margarita salt or a sugar rim are always a hit. If you’re a whiskey drinker, a simple store-bought whiskey rim blend can bring your drink to the next level. (Just make sure you wet the rim of your glass with citrus juice or simple syrup to get the garnish to stick.)
Once you’ve got your bar cart stocked, this is your opportunity to get creative. Try out new recipes, be bold, and invite friends to contribute ideas before you invite them over to show off your new skills. Test out mocktails, or add in alcohol and refine your own tastes. Decorate your cart with cute towels, save bottles that bring you joy, refine your tastes, and figure out what makes this cart yours.
A bar cart is only as fun and as meaningful as it is useful — so gather the basics, put your own spin on things, and most importantly, have fun!