Since the invention of the cocktail, nothing has felt quite as indulgent as a delicious, expertly crafted mixed drink; unfortunately, they usually come with a matching price tag, and the rise of mixology hasn’t exactly lowered the numbers. Nowadays, it seems like anyone who wants a quality cocktail should expect to pay anywhere from $9 all the way up to $14. Sure, happy hour is always an option, but even those usually have limits as to what kind of cocktails you can get and how many, not mention that it’s ONE HOUR out of 24. That’s a lot of other hours with no cocktails, am I right?
Enter the bar cart.
These bad boys have been a cocktail-lover’s best friend since the invention of the cocktail, and they’re just as handy (and classy) in 2019 as they were in the 1800’s. Now, before we get into the nitty gritty of stocking a bar cart, we feel it’s important to define our terms a little. A traditional bar cart is usually a decorative cart with multiple levels designed for holding various bottles and glasses. They’re usually on wheels too, which makes them super versatile and allows you to park them wherever you’re planning on entertaining that night. While bar carts might not enjoy the same popularity they had in the 50’s and 60’s, they can still be found almost anywhere that sells furniture, making it easy to find a bar cart that fits in your home and beverage needs. That being said, almost anything can be turned into a home bar, if you’re creative enough – an old dresser, a funky side table, and even a bookshelf are all great items to re-purpose into the perfect home bar! To keep it simple, we’ll just call them all bar carts, but know you definitely don’t have to blow your budget for a great home bar.
Stocking the Bar (Cart)
Even if your tastes run towards the luxurious, you can still put together a fully stocked bar cart on a budget. A few tips and tricks to know going into the game: first off, beware the flavored alcohol! These temptresses of the cocktail world are definitely delicious, but they tend to be pricey and lack versatility. Stick to the basics at first and worry about building up your specialty-liqueur stash later! Second, if you’re not sure about something, try the mini size first. Most liquor stores will carry a variety of miniature bottles of different liqueurs, perfect for testing out that funky cocktail you’ve been hearing about. If you love it, great, you can go pick up the full-size bottle confident in your ability to use it up; if not, you’re none the poorer for it, and any leftovers won’t take up room on your cart. Finally, if you’re working with an especially tight budget and can’t afford the truly top shelf stuff, pick your very favorites to splurge on and go budget-friendly on everything else. This also applies to mixers and add-ins – spend your money on ingredients you’ll use regularly first and add to your collection over time!
Overall, while you may use your bar cart for entertaining, you’re the person who’s going to being using it most; pick items that suit your tastes first, then start checking out the funkier items.
Bring On the Booze Artistry
Not to be over-eager, but we’re building this thing from the ground up, and the foundation of every cocktail has got to be good liquor! While you can definitely go hog wild with all the specialty liquors out there, we’ve found that a few essential bottles go a long way towards cocktail creativity. If you’re working on an extra tight budget, pick your top three and build up from there!
Scotch, Bourbon, or Rye Whiskey
Oliver’s Pick: Four Roses Bourbon Whiskey ($15.99/750 ml. Bottle)
A brown spirit is definitely a go-to bottle when making cocktails, particularly for making certain vintage cocktails like the aptly name “Old Fashioned”. Look for whiskeys with a balanced sweetness but that are still dry enough to stand up to sweet mixers and sugar cubes; the whiskey should also be of a fairly high proof, which allows the flavor of the whiskey to cut through the multitude of other flavors in a cocktail.
Potato or Grain Vodka
Oliver’s Pick: Grey Goose Imported Vodka ($22.99/750 ml. Bottle)
This is one of the “work horses” in the spirits world, serving as the neutral base for many classic cocktails. Select one with minimal taste, a smooth texture and no burn as your best bet for a range of drinks. As we said before, flavored vodkas may be tempting, but they’re rarely good for more than handful of cocktails, not to mention the added sugar. Instead, opt for homemade infused vodkas, they’re great for spicing up a bar lineup and super cheap to make. Check out our recipe for homemade Clementine Infused Vodka HERE.
Oliver’s Pick: Hendrick’s Gin ($25.99/750 ml. Bottle)
This spirit was made for mixing in cocktails, and while it may have fallen out of fashion for a while, gin is once again gaining a reputation for deliciousness. The distinctive, herbal flavor of good gin adds tremendous nuance to any cocktail; however, there’s quite the variety of gins on the market, and choosing one for your palate can be a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Look for gins that are quite dry for mixing, with a pungent herbaceous scent and clear presence of juniper flavor throughout. These bold flavors will allow the gin to stand out in any cocktail!
Light or Gold Rum
Oliver’s Pick: Pyrat Rum ($16.99/750 ml. Bottle)
Whether you’re planning on sipping or mixing, rum is an absolute mainstay of any good bar. Choose rums that are lighter in color and higher in proof for mixing in cocktails, the less intense flavor of the rum will allow it to highlight the other ingredients in the cocktail without overpowering them. As with vodka, spiced and flavored rums may make a great addition down the line, but unless you’re planning a tiki bonanza in the near future, you may find them a bit superfluous.
100% Agave Silver or Reposado Tequila
Oliver’s Pick: Camarena Tequila ($14.99/750 ml. Bottle, Silver or Reposado)
As every college student knows, tequila is the ubiquitous drink of a good times and great decisions, and we think it would be a most excellent addition to your bar cart! Pick a tequila that falls into the category of either “silver” (also known as “plata” or “tequila blanco”) or “reposado” – these two categories are aged for the shortest amount of time, giving them a much lighter flavor that lends itself well to cocktails. Reposado is the darker of the two and is great for sipping as well as adding to simpler cocktails that demand a smack of tequila flavor; meanwhile, silver is perfect for those blender margaritas that are such a hit at parties and other cocktails that require a subtle tequila touch. For a full guide to picking the perfect tequila, click HERE.
Each of these liquors can be combined and recombined into thousands of different cocktail combinations, all at a fraction of the price of a bar.
Mix It Up
Having a few liqueurs and special add-ins around can send your cocktail game soaring into the stratosphere, so adding a few to your bar cart is a must. Unfortunately for the novice mixologist, there are quite literally hundreds of specialty liqueurs on the market, ranging from fairly common options like Cointreau and Vermouth to the downright bizarre – anyone care for some Crème de Violette? A nice glass of Chartreuse? No matter what you wind up filling your bar cart with, here are a few staple mixers that’ll really expand your cocktail-making horizons:
- Sweet & Dry Vermouth – Though both start as white wine and are blended with botanicals, dry vermouth is less sweet and contains a more acidic flavor and pronounced herbaceousness; sweet vermouth is darker in color and is often consumed as an aperitif.
- Tonic Water – Tonic water contains quinine, which gives it a distinct bitter flavor. Modern tonic waters are usually also sweetened and carbonated, and they can contain a range of additional flavorings. We like to stick with the plain version for the sake of versatility.
- Club Soda – Essentially carbonated water with a little salt added in, club soda is a great bar cart staple. Use it to add fizz and meld the flavors of your cocktails, you can also substitute mineral water if you have trouble finding plain soda.
- Ginger Beer – This traditional cocktail addition is delicious on its own, but paired with your favorite alcohol, it becomes simply magical. The ginger imparts intense spice and a hint of sweetness and fizz.
- Simple Syrup – A simple (hence the name) combination of equal parts water and sugar, simple syrup adds significant sweetness without muddying flavors. You can purchase syrup that’s ready-made, but it’s just as easy to make at home and a lot less expensive.
- Bitters – Bitters are just that, bitter! Made by infusing barks, herbs, and other botanicals in alcohol, just a few dashes of bitters can pack quite a wallop and add real depth and dimension to a cocktail. Aperitifs like Lillet and Campari also fall into this category, although they’re not so bitter as to be undrinkable on their own.
- Maraschino Cherries – Quick disclaimer, we are NOT talking about the violently red, overly sweet monstrosities you see topping sundaes, these Maraschino cherries are a different breed entirely. These cherries are packed in cherry liqueur, Bourbon, or syrup where they soak until they wind up in your glass. Use the cherries and the packing liquid to give a delicious and seriously boozey kick of cherry to your cocktails.
Other fresh mixers like lemons, limes, and oranges as well as fresh fruit juice and coconut cream can be purchased as needed and kept in the fridge. We also like to keep a jar each of pimento-stuffed green olives and cocktail onions on hand for all potential savory cocktail needs. Other mixers to keep around can be cola, lemon-lime soda, and even sparkling wine like Prosecco.
The Tools of the Trade
Surprisingly, perhaps, the least important and final addition to your bar is going to be glassware and cocktail tools. Why are they least important? Namely because most of these can be substituted for standard cooking tools you have around the house. Don’t have a muddler? Try a wooden spoon instead! No cocktail spoon? No problem, here are some chopsticks! Keeping that in mind, there are still a few items that we think it would make sense to invest in.
There many different styles of glassware on the market, each designed to highlight the particular aromatic qualities of the beverage for which it was intended. For simple functionality that won’t break the bank, go for two of the most versatile designs for cocktail glassware – the highball glass and the martini glass. The highball is perfect for cocktails that include a high ratio of mixer to alcohol, as well as for those are meant to be served over ice. Meanwhile, the martini glass is great for more concentrated and heavily aromatic cocktails, and the long stem prevents your hands from warming up your drink. Also great to keep on hand are a couple whiskey tumblers or rocks glasses; these are perfect for simple, classic preparations, like an Old Fashioned or any liqueur on the rocks.
As we said before, most bar tools have perfect equivalents that can be found in the average kitchen; that being said, if you’re planning on investing in some super legit bar tools, spend your money wisely and buy some essentials. We recommend a jigger, a strainer, a bar spoon, a muddler, an ice bucket, and a large shaker tin. All but the shaker tin are pretty self-explanatory, and no matter what style or color you get, the item will likely be essentially the same as any other one of its kind; however, there are a few different kinds of shakers available, and each has its own pros and cons. The first option is the Boston shaker, comprised of a tin cup and mixing glass. These shakers are easy enough to clean and fairly versatile for working with, but they do require a certain amount of skill to control and can break relatively easily. Next there’s the all-tin Cobbler Shaker; these are the classic cocktail shaker, and they tend to be what people expect to see sitting on a home bar. They consist of three parts and are very easy to use, and their popularity means they can be found in most stores. Unfortunately, the parts tend to get stuck or pop off unexpectedly, leading to difficult cleaning and occasional cocktail disasters. Finally, there’s the French shaker, which combines the best (and worst) aspects of both – there’s only two parts, both made of tin, but the shaker works like a Boston shaker. We tend to favor the Boston shaker for its versatility, but honestly, the Cobbler shaker really can’t be beaten for style.
Last but not least, we had to include ice. Ice is a surprisingly important component to a good cocktail, and as silly as it may sound, having the right kind of ice can completely change the experience of a cocktail. Standard-sized ice cubes and small chunks of ice are great for shaking and chilling a cocktail, but drinks served on the rocks requires something with a little more heft – we recommend keeping one or two trays for making large blocks of ice. The larger size of the cubes and greater surface area allow the ice to melt more slowly than smaller cubes, which in turn prevents the ice from watering down the cocktail to quickly or excessively. While this may seem a small thing, it really makes the difference between a good cocktail and great one.
We know this is a lot of information to take in, but that’s why our Wine, Beer, and Spirits department staff are so dang knowledgeable! They can help you find the products listed here and more, ensuring that you get to enjoy cocktail bliss in the comfort of your home tonight. This week, stop into any one of our four locations for great deals on everything you need to stock your bar, and enter to win your very own bar cart! Happy mixing!