I Asked a Bartender What My Small Bar Cart Absolutely Needs — Here’s What He Said
Back in the day (the early ’90s), I’d often join my dad at the bar he owned while my mom was working at the post office (somehow a less child-friendly place?). One day, behind the bar, I did something that would probably make any seasoned bartender want to puke: I stuck my tiny toddler fingers into the holes of the floor mats, sniffing the stench of sticky, stale beer. Knowing how toddlers are, I probably then immediately put my fingers in my mouth or eyes or ears, which is pretty gross! I survived (and likely have some sort of untapped superpower as a result of ingesting who-knows-what) and to this day the smell of beer brings me back to that memory.
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All this to say, I’ve been a bar kid from the get-go. So it makes sense that one of my personal favorite features in anyone’s home is their bar cart. Growing up, we had a pretty active wet bar setup (beyond an actual brick-and-mortar bar and a family bar and restaurant supply business). But wet bars are scarce these days, especially in the smaller apartments and condos I frequent in Chicago.
Since my husband and I are lucky enough to have a more formal-sized, actual bar in our basement (what did you expect, given my background?), I’ve been dreaming of repurposing our living room bar cart into a coffee station for my former-barista, coffee-obsessed partner. I wanted to ask a bartender for their recommendations for a small space’s bar cart essentials so I can keep a little cocktail station tucked away in our living room. Here’s what I learned!
Top-notch bartender, mixologist, and breathtaking musical artist Ollie H. concocts creative cocktails and keeps the chill vibe strong at my favorite Chicago bar, The Longroom. Ollie explains that bar carts have two main features: the spirits and the tools. (Plus, simple mixers for moments that call for a mocktail.)
Let’s start with spirits. What should a small space owner add to their shopping list? “This depends on their own preference, but whatever it is, you want the basics for a simple, classic cocktail in that spirit,” he says. Identify your spirit of choice, then hone in on a crowd-favorite cocktail that you can keep on hand. “For example, if they like whiskey, maybe stuff for an old fashioned and a Manhattan. If they like vodka or gin or tequila, maybe stuff for a martini, a gimlet, or a margarita.”
Ollie breaks down the basic needs for each of those cocktail categories. For an old fashioned or Manhattan (the favorites of my whiskey-loving household), Ollie recommends, obviously, whiskey. “Really anything better than your very cheapest stuff. Evan Williams and Old Fitzgerald are on the cheaper side, but they are both still bourbons and work perfectly well for old fashioneds and manhattans. So any whiskey of that quality or higher is great!” In addition, make room for Angostura bitters, which Ollie shares, “is a little pricey for the size, but will last you a long time and is essential for both drinks and for a home bar.” Bitters serve as a key ingredient in mocktails as well, perfect for your alcohol-free guests or those Dry January evenings. Orange bitters, a basic sweet vermouth, and Demerara syrup round out this grocery list (although Ollie notes that you can easily make your own Demerara syrup as needed — one less thing!)
For margarita fans, you’ll need tequila, triple sec, agave, and lime juice. With regard to agave, “[this] can be bought at the store, but simple syrup can also suffice if you don’t have it,” says Ollie. And there’s no need to clutter up a bar cart with limes — just keep those in your fridge! For classic martini fans, Ollie says you’ll need a gin or vodka (whatever your preference!), as well as soda water and tonic water. Again, for a small space’s bar cart, it’s all about preference. You certainly don’t need gin and vodka, soda water and tonic water. But for gin lovers, “Bombay Dry is a decent affordable gin that works for martinis, negronis, or gin and tonics,” says Ollie.
And for alcohol-free folks and those hosting zero-proof soirees, keeping a handful of mocktail-friendly supplies on hand is essential. Start with a fizzy carbonated base like club soda, seltzer, ginger ale, or your favorite brand of lemon-lime soda (I’m a Sprite gal, myself). Next, be sure to include one or two fruit juices, such as pineapple or grapefruit, in addition to the juice you can squeeze from a fresh lemon or lime. To round out the mocktail, simple syrup and a garnish of mint leaves or sliced fruit are the proverbial cherry on top. One of the best features of non-alcoholic cocktails is that without worrying about complimenting a particular spirit, it’s far easier to mix and match to your heart’s content.
Now for supplies! According to Ollie, essentials include “a standard cocktail shaker and a Hawthorne strainer (but if on a budget, one can just use a mason jar with a lid!).” If you have room, a tall stirring spoon and mixing glass is preferred. But if you’re on a budget or short on space, “a basic pint glass can be used in lieu of the fancy mixing glass,” says Ollie.
And because Ollie serves up kindness in addition to my favorite Longroom cocktail, the Shady Lady, he’s thoughtfully included a shopping list below. Cheers to Ollie, and to making every space count!
Small Bar Cart Shopping List:
- Bottle of bourbon
- Bottle of sweet vermouth
- Bottle of tequila
- Bottle of triple sec
- Bottle of gin
- Bottle of vodka
- Angostura bitters (+ orange bitters if you’re feeling fancy)
- Agave for margaritas (if you’re feeling fancy)
- Fizzy carbonated beverage of your liking (for sparkling mocktails)
- Fruit juice
- Salt for margarita rims (if that’s your preference)
- Limes, lemons, and oranges as needed for juicing and garnish
- Soda water and tonic water as needed
- Simple Syrup (and Demerara for an authentic old fashioned)
- Stirring spoon