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Tips for setting up your home bar for the holidays and beyond

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A gold-toned two-tier bar cart is positioned in front of a pink wall and under a sign that reads: Keep calm and party on.
You don't need every liquor, bitter, or simple syrup at your home bar for a party. Adobe Stock

The bar cart, once relegated to chic hotels and scenes in old movies, exploded in popularity in the 2010s. Holiday entertaining cooled during the coronavirus pandemic, but as people welcome friends and family back into their homes, they seem to have turned their attention back to their home bar setups: Searches for glassware, drinkware, or barware increased 146 percent in the past year, while searches for bar carts and accessories are also up, noted Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s trend expert.

A well-appointed bar cart adds style and function to your home. Here’s how to put one together.

Stock versatile basics

You don’t need every liquor, bitter, or simple syrup at your home bar for a party. “The home bar experience is going to be very different, and if you’re trying to replicate what you can do in a restaurant, you’re never going to be able to do it,” said Chad Spangler, cofounder of D.C. cocktail spot Service Bar. Focus on the building blocks of drinks you personally enjoy and ones you’d like to share with your guests. To avoid being trapped at the bar mixing drinks all night, offer a drink that can be prepared in a large batch and served in a pitcher or punch bowl. Stock at least one bottle of vodka, gin, whiskey, and Scotch, and a tequila or mezcal on the cart to cover the bases for popular stirred drinks such as martinis, Manhattans, old-fashioneds and negronis.

Expect to spend at least $30 per bottle, and start with legacy names if you’re unsure of what to get. “Don’t buy the cheapest thing, but you don’t have to buy the most expensive thing,” Spangler said.

Once you have the basics, add in funkier, more specific choices, such as a bottle of Bailey’s for holiday cocktails, or something unexpected, such as sherry or port. Don’t forget to have tea or coffee and nonalcoholic drink options available for nondrinkers.

Tonics are versatile mixers. Keep other mixers, simple syrups, vermouths, and bitters in the refrigerator; Spangler said Angostura bitters are probably what you’ll need “95 out of 100 times.” Have garnishes that match the drinks you want to serve, such as olives, Luxardo brandy cherries for Manhattans, and citrus fruits like limes and lemons, which you may already have in your kitchen.

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Choose your equipment

Many bar tool sets come with lots of pieces, but a small stable of well-made tools will do the job. A one/two-ounce Japanese-style jigger, which is more elongated and narrower than other types, is the “most necessary piece of barware,” Spangler said; it’s used to measure and pour ingredients. A shaker is essential for any home bartender who likes shaken drinks; get a two-piece set of weighted shaking tins. Avoid three-piece cobbler-style shakers that come with a built-in strainer, Spangler said, because they can get jammed easily.

A Hawthorne strainer, a mixing glass with a wide base, and a cocktail spoon with a thin handle will round out your collection. Spangler recommends Cocktail Kingdom for well-made tools.

Glassware depends on your favorite drinks, but Spangler said a core of wine glasses with a stem, rocks glasses, and V-shaped martini and Collins glasses can be adapted for most cocktails.

Pick the right furniture

Decide whether the cart is mostly for display, storage, or drink mixing and serving. Look for carts that contain shelves and organizational aids. “I recommend three shelves if you’re going to functionally use it, but if you just want a fun, cute accent in the corner of your apartment, I think two shelves would be fine,” said Abby Price, founder of New York home décor store Abbode. Multifunctional pieces are best; some might have flaps that expand for serving or come with built-in storage racks.

The best home bar might not even be a cart. Consider wall-mounted, shelf, and credenza/cabinet bars, or even a small dresser. Anna Franklin, interior designer and founder of Stone House Collective, uses an antique china cabinet as a bar and entertaining station in her home outside Milwaukee.

Keep it organized

Glassware, decanters, vases, bowls, ice buckets, pitchers, and plants can all play a role in your setup, but don’t crowd the top. Group glassware, décor, and liquors together to make it easier on the eye, said Roxy Owens, founder of furniture and décor company Society Social.

Arrange items on larger trays to keep everything organized and easier to move around, Price said. Display drink garnishes in pretty bowls. Everything on the cart should serve a purpose, because “when you crowd things and have stuff spilling everywhere, it detracts.” And don’t pack it with bottles. Keep the back stock tucked away.

Items of varying heights create visual interest. “It’s important to keep the higher items in the back and work your way forward,” Franklin said. Use cocktail books as risers to vary glassware if it’s all the same height. If the cart is a drink station, lay it logically in the order someone would prepare a drink, with liquors on one end and garnishes on the other.

Personalize your home bar

Pick any accessories you’d like as long as they serve a purpose. Coasters protect your home’s surfaces and can add patterns and colors. Martini drinkers might display unusual olive picks or stirrers. Etsy’s Isom Johnson suggested drink charms or labels to make sure everyone’s glass remains their own. Franklin likes seasonal cocktail napkins.

Natural elements such as greenery and florals add an easy holiday touch. Owens likes the look of magnolia, boxwood wreaths, and satin ribbons. Price favors dried florals and branches with festive red berries. Franklin suggests clipping evergreens and displaying them in a tall vase.

Louder accents include string lights, tinsel, garlands, ceramic or paper trees, and holiday figurines. Price stocks mirror-covered tree sculptures that look like disco balls. Break out family heirlooms and vintage pieces. “Anything that glistens is a beautiful way to incorporate a cozy holiday feel,” Franklin said. “Light a candle that reflects off the glassware.” And think about what’s on top: Extend the good cheer above the bar with decorative signs or artwork.

Glassware doesn’t have to be plain or boring. An interesting decanter, pitcher, or ice bucket can be a conversation piece. Turn to local thrift stores, estate sales, neighborhood groups and relatives for vintage glassware and bar accessories. For retail items, Franklin browses sales at West Elm and Crate & Barrel, and she splurges at RH and Z Gallerie. She likes Anthropologie for a vintage feel and also suggests Target for budget-friendly picks. Choose cool glasses and give them away as a favor at the end of the night. “You can almost match glasses to someone’s personality,” Isom Johnson said.

Above all, don’t fixate on making a photo-ready display at the expense of having fun, Isom Johnson said. Remember: “The main goal of a bar cart is to bring joy to you and your guests.”

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