A few weeks ago, we asked you to show us your home bar and what you shared with us ranged from bottles spread across multiple rooms to rooms dedicated to nothing but bottles. Today, we ponder the mechanics of making drinks from the home bar, from organization tips to keeping the most useful tools within arms' reach.
In the last 5 years, I've moved four times, and each time, I've dragged with me a collection of around 50 bottles of liquor, dozens of bottles of bitters, plus a stash of various other mixers, ranging from homemade orgeat to a treasured bottle of Carpano Antica vermouth. And, since my favorite activity with these ingredients is to host cocktail parties, I've learned some lessons along the way that have helped keep me sane when trying to mix drinks for anywhere from 2 to 20 friends.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide; it's merely a list of tips I've gathered along the way. Have your own tip or idea? Do share in the comments.
#1: Size matters—your size, that is.
I learned knife skills from my dad. He was one of those people who could casually julienne a carrot with a Chinese cleaver while watching you do your math homework and never mess up a cut. But, when I tried to teach my wife some of those same skills (tuck the knuckles, rock the blade, etc.) she couldn't seem to get the handle of it. Then I figured out her problem. She's 5 feet tall. Standard counters are 34" high, which means her arms were forced into an awkward angle, which made it very uncomfortable to grasp the knife. So we bought a stepstool and everything works better now.
To apply this to the home bar, stand where you think you would stand as the host, then try reaching for various ingredients and tools. Do you have to stretch or compromise your balance? Then you need to bring your gear closer, either by repositioning your ingredients or yourself. Ideally, you should be able to rest your hands comfortably on your work surface with your elbows bent 90 degrees, forearms parallel to the floor. If you have issues, consider buying a small stepstool or lowering the counter height of your bar.
#2. Everything in its place.
The rest of this article discusses several specific tips for a proper mise en place, but here I'm emphasizing that once you decide what you'll need and where it goes, be prepared to *always* keep it there. It's about muscle memory. Notice how in the picture above, there are literally spots cut out of the tool drawer for specific tools so you can't misplace a tool, even if you wanted to. You may not need to go that far on a home bar, but little touches like a bar mat or strategically placed towel (more on that later) can help you keep tools in order.
#3: Oh, did you want to talk to your guests?
My first bar was a monstrous L-bar that I built into a tiny 4th-floor apartment (the image at the beginning of this post). It looked pretty impressive, but it kept me from interacting with friends who weren't sitting at the bar. If I did want to talk to someone around the room, I had to walk out from around the bar, dodging other party guests along the way. By the time I had spoken three sentences, it was time to squeeze back behind the bar to make someone else a new drink.
At home, some great alternatives to the traditional bar include kitchen carts/islands and what I call "the inverted L-Bar".
Islands are great because many modern kitchens come with them built in and a simple one from a furniture store isn't that expensive. That, and you can change who you're talking to by simply changing where you're standing in relation to the island.
Although an island is good for conversation, it stinks for storage. All your bottles have to stay underneath the island, forcing you to bend repetitively. This inverted bar lets you stay in the mix, while providing storage. While you could literally build an L bar in this configuration, the most basic version calls for nothing more than a bookcase against a wall for storage (anchor it to the wall!) and a kitchen island or cart as your work surface.
#4: Keep water at hand
If you have a wet bar at home, you don't have to worry about this tip, but if you don't, you'll quickly grow frustrated trekking back and forth between your bar set up and the nearest sink. It only gets worse when guests are in the way and you're dripping water everywhere.
As a solution, I like to keep a large squeeze bottle of water within easy reach on top of my bar. Depending on your volume, you could also just buy a wholesale pack of bottled water with sports squeeze-tops.
The water is for quickly rinsing out the cocktail shaker between drinks. I then dump the used ice/rinsing water into a 3 or 5 gallon bucket I keep under the bar and empty the bucket at the end of an evening. Spent citrus segments and wet napkins can all go into the bucket.
#5: A Workaround for Refrigeration
Just as most of us wish we could have a wet bar, we wish we could keep a refrigerator stocked just with cocktail syrups, garnishes, etc. within easy reach of the bar. But, since that's not a reality for most of us, here's a workaround.
First, think about what you really need to refrigerate for a several-hour long get-together. Citrus should be at room temperature. Syrups will be fine for a few hours without chilling. If you plan to use vermouth, I recommend pouring large bottles into several smaller bottles and topping with inert gas so the whole bottle doesn't oxidize after you open it. Then, just keep one small bottle on the bar during your party, no refrigeration needed.
With those out of the way, I find that fragile garnishes like cucumber are what you really need to keep cool. For cucumbers, I keep a small cooler full of ice underneath my bar (right next to the dump bucket). I scoop ice out of it for mixing drinks*, and I keep my fragile garnishes wrapped in a layer of plastic wrap, resting just on top of the ice.
*Yes, ice held at room temperature will dilute more than ice straight from the freezer due to surface melt. I haven't found a good way to avoid this without keeping a freezer close to the bar.
#6: Juice Ahead
This might be blasphemy for some of you, but taste tests show that lime juice that's been rested for a few hours at room temperature is just as good, if not better, than freshly-squeezed juice. I've done my own trials (admittedly, not very scientific) and found that lime and lemon juices taste great from 3 to 10 hours after squeezing, and grapefruit juice was fine for up to a day (keep refrigerated). Only orange juice suffered; orange juice is best squeezed right when you need it.
To significantly streamline your drink-making, juice your lemons, limes, and grapefruits a few hours ahead of time and store the juice in easy-to-pour from bottles on or just below your bar. Keep just a few fruits around for decoration and garnishes. See 8 more tips and tricks for using citrus.
#7: Get a good shaker and practice with it.
On separate occasions, I've: (1) broken a Boston shaker glass into dozen tiny pieces while slamming it on bar to open it (2) cut a gash in my hand trying to free the top from an all-stainless shaker. Not conducive to having a good time.
If you're going to shake drinks for guests, first learn the proper technique for opening a boston shaker. Then, make sure to practice shaking (and straining and serving) with some cheap vodka before you make a fool of yourself, as I did. Chilling alcohol in a shaker makes both the shaker and the air inside the shaker super-cold, which can cause a vacuum that glues the pieces together.
Practice doesn't just address safety issues; it's also important to get your timing down right.
#8: Respect the towel.
Keep no fewer than 5 dishtowels on hand at all times. You may have no idea how important this is. Here's what I use them for:
- Place under a small cutting board (used for slicing citrus). The towel stabilizes the board and catches drips. You can also prestage the citrus on the towel.
- Keep one on your shoulder or in your apron for quick access. Wipe your bar surface constantly. If you find yourself bored, wipe something.
- Keep several backups folded beneath the bar for dropped glasses and substantial spills. If you've used them to wipe up a spilled drink, toss the used right into the bucket with used rinsing water that you plan to discard.
#9: Don't be afraid to pour from a handle
Back in my first apartment, I kept a few handles (1.75L containers) of my most-used spirits in the bar. These included white rum, vodka, and bourbon. You would think that pouring from these heavy bottles would be anything but ergonomic, but it's easier than you might think. More importantly, most large bottles come with a nifty little aerator that breaks up the flow of the alcohol and prevents that annoying last drip of liquid down the side of the bottle.
To pour expertly from a large bottle, store the bottle on the shelf just below counter height (it should be about 16" off the ground). Don't lift the bottle to the bar; make a space near the bottle where you can rest a jigger and use the leverage of the shelf to tilt the large bottle with one hand.
#10: Put your guests to work
The last thing you want at your next cocktail party is to be overwhelmed and overworked, unable to chat with the friends you've invited over. So even if you've figured the perfect workflow and design for your home bar, don't neglect what happens after guests finish their drinks. Should they leave everything in the sink? Load the dishwasher? What about trash and garnishes?
Since I normally have people I like over at my house, I'm not afraid to ask them to grab a new glass from the cupboard. If we're out of glasses, then I ask people to wash a glass in the sink before I make them a drink. Most people are more than happy to do a dish or two, especially while they're looking forward to a cocktail.
#11: If everything is a priority, then nothing is
One more broad principle to always keep in mind. If you're hosting a party at home, don't even begin to pretend that you can duplicate the experience of a professional bar, or offer anywhere near as many different drinks. If you're going to be shaking/stirring cocktails, offer guests no more than four or five choices. Even that is a lot. Don't let a custom order send you scrabbling to the back of the fridge, searching for the last of your maraschino cherries.
And keep the beer and wine away from the cocktail bar area. People are more than capable of pouring their own beer and wine.
Do you have a home bar? Any organizational tips to share?