Christina Poletto is an interior design and history buff based in Hudson Valley, NY. When she’s not writing lifestyle stories for magazines or chasing a happy toddler, she runs Dovetailor Design Studio, specializing in interior design, home staging, and furniture refurbishment.
Not since the 1940s (you know, that decade following the repeal of Prohibition) have we seen such a surge in the popularity of the bar cart. From shelter magazines to DIY blogs to tastemakers’ own living rooms, the once-forgotten relic is shaking up interiors at every turn. Whether you credit the set designers for Mad Men, the 21st-century craft cocktail-bar renaissance, or pioneer drink artisans like Julie Reiner, who have inspired us to try our hand at stirring up some beyond-the-basics tipples while entertaining at home, these wheeled wonders are here to stay.
And why not? The bar cart is an endlessly adaptable home accessory: It provides an instant decor pick-me-up and a versatile storage solution, and there’s a style to suit every environment. Whether you have one or you want one, here are some thoughts on building a better bar cart.
Pick a Cart, Any Cart
When choosing a cart, the rule of thumb is simple: Find a style that fits your decor. Midcentury, minimalist, industrial, glam, rustic — every aesthetic is accounted for, with vintage and handmade models in ample supply. Since the range of sizes varies as widely as the styles, make sure to measure the space you’ve designated for the bar cart’s parking spot and commit to checking the dimensions of every option you’re ogling from afar.
Here are a few other factors to consider:
- Wheels: While rolling versions offer party-time portability, they may not suit homes with slanted floors or rambunctious pets; if yours falls into either camp, look for wheels that lock in place or opt for a stationary style.
- Shelves: Shelf heights (and quantity) are far from uniform, so for best results, factor in the number of spirits you plan to keep stocked, the breadth of your barware collection, and details like the height of your favorite (super-tall) tequila bottle.
- Materials: There’s a reason so many bar carts come with glass shelves: All those ice bucket drips, sloshed bottles of wine, and sticky garnish jars can wreak havoc on harder-to-clean (or easier-to-damage) surfaces. If you fall in love with a style that calls for greater care, keep that in mind — and consider having a protective sheet of glass or plexi cut to fit any shelves that are likely to see spills.
Tip: While we love the look of a purpose-built bar cart, it’s not the only way to set up a drinks station in your home. Those starved for space can repurpose the top of a credenza or dresser, or even a leaning bookshelf, to hold bottles and more.
Bottle Service (and Beyond)
When it’s time to stock your cart with supplies, start with a selection of basic liquors: the building blocks you’ll use for most cocktails. Think vodka, gin, tequila, whisky and rum — with at least one pick that’s nice enough to sip neat (and pretty enough to display proudly). Emily Henderson, a true-blue design star and the author of Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms from Tabletops to Bookshelves, says the one bottle that’s a mainstay on her bar cart is Bulleit, a bourbon whisky made in Kentucky. Besides being the core ingredient for a couple of her favorite recipes (the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned), the bourbon comes in a simple bottle with a lovely label. Next, round out your repository with neutral mixers — club soda, tonic water, and sparkling water — and a go-to bottle of Champagne or other sparkling wine for celebratory toasts.
Once you’ve got your essentials sorted, you can begin assembling the interesting drink enhancers — such as liqueurs, aperitifs, bitters and garnishes — that you’ll need for many of the most appealing cocktail recipes. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- Aperol: An aperitif made with bitter orange, rhubarb, and vanilla.
- Bitters: Probably the best known is Angostura bitters, an alcoholic flavoring made from water, ethanol, herbs and flowers. It’s high-proof, but just a splash can add complexity to simple cocktails (like a sour) without getting you lit. A number of artisan producers have cropped up recently with inventive spins on the stuff, such as Beehive Bitters Co’s coffee and cacao bitters.
- Chartreuse: A brandy liqueur made from herbs. And it really is chartreuse-colored!
- Domaine De Canton: A complex and delicious ginger liqueur created from baby Vietnamese ginger. (Bonus: The bottle is absolutely beautiful.)
- Garnishes: Lemons, limes, and oranges can be squeezed for juice and twisted, sliced, or peeled for decoration.
- Maraschino cherries: We’re not talking grocery-store cherries here. Instead, invest in a gourmet version like Luxardo’s, which are packed in cherry liqueur. (Beyond serving as an essential component of Manhattans and Shirley Temples, the cherry syrup is also irresistible drizzled over ice cream.)
- Orgeat: A sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose or orange water.
- Pastis: An anise-flavored syrup that’s huge in France.
- Vermouth: An aromatized wine flavored with botanicals.
- Vinegars and shrubs: Don’t let the names confuse you — both of these versions of sweetened vinegar-based syrups (like this Wild Blueberry Shrub from Herbal Revolution Farm in Maine) go well with water, club soda, or ginger ale, and in a slew of stiffer drinks. Tip: Because of their acidity, they don’t always blend well with other acidic ingredients, so do your research before attempting to invent a recipe.
Trade Up Your Tools
Stock up on well-made bar tools that are beautiful as well as functional, and you won’t have to worry about hiding them away after happy hour’s over. Bottle openers, cocktail shakers, corkscrews, cutting boards, decanters, ice buckets, jiggers, stirrers, strainers, pitchers and carafes are all prime options for upgrades. And don’t forget trays — for serving and for organizing. Get them in a few sizes to hold (and transport) glasses, tools, cocktail napkins, and more.
Tip: Don’t overlook the ice! According to Candice Bowman of The Ice Plant Bar in St. Augustine, Florida, one-inch cubes suffice for most mixed drinks, but for Scotch and bourbon, larger ice spheres (made with a silicone mold) provide the optimal surface area for gradual dilution.
If you want to be a stickler about it, there are at least eight different types of glasses that could rightfully claim a place on the bar cart. But who has the space (or the barware budget)? Instead, just stick to good-looking sets of the styles you use the most. One foolproof formula to try: a set of highball glasses, a set of old fashioned glasses (aka lowball or rocks glasses), and some delicate coupes for sipping Champagne.
Tip: Because your bar cart will be a focal point for fun, don’t neglect the decorative extras that will bring it to life. Add a vase of fresh flowers, a framed print, vintage brass figurines, or a short stack of retro drink books — whatever tickles your fancy.