If you think a bar cart is only for “proper” grown-ups (you know, the ones who have guests over for a 5 p.m. cocktail served from a monogrammed shaker), you’ve got it all wrong. We want to spread the word that anyone—yes, even you—can have a fully stocked bar in the comfort of their own home. And you don’t need to spend last week’s paycheck to do it.
DIY cocktails are cheaper than happy hour (hello, $3 martinis that don’t taste like rubbing alcohol!), and there’s no cover charge for your living room. Word to the wise: Your home is about to become your group’s preferred drinking destination. You may just need to invest in a bouncer.
Step 1: The Cart
We’re using the term ‘cart’ very loosely; you need a structure that can hold bottles and the occasional wine glass. If you’re not in the mood to go shopping or spend money on a one-use item, here are some other objects that will work:
- Bookshelf: Seriously, donate the books you’ll never read again and clear a shelf for the booze.
- Dresser: You know you haven’t worn that sweater in years. Knowing that it’s making room to store liquor might motivate you to finally clean out your closet.
- Radiator with a tray on top: Works great for parties—keep in mind you’ll need a new option if you plan to turn said radiator on.
- Stairs: Another great party option. It’ll keep your guests from using the upstairs bathroom you forgot to clean.
- Large vintage suitcase with a tray on top (you know, the one you bought at Salvation Army five years ago): shoe storage inside, party on the outside!
Step 2: Stock Your Bar With the Basics
Start with the basics according to your taste and shoot to have at least three different bottles of liquor: something clear, something brown, and something fun. Then build out your bar with the essentials. We think buying middle-shelf brands are a good way to go. They’re a step up from the plastic bottles of vodka you drank in college, but not as fancy as the ones in your parents’ liquor cabinet:
We love: Smirnoff, Tito’s, Absolut
$13-$23 per 750 mL
We love: Seagram’s, New Amsterdam, Beefeater
$12-$23 per 750 mL
- Whiskey (Bourbon, Rye, Irish, etc.) or Scotch
We love: Evan Williams, Dewars, Jack Daniel’s
$12-$22 per 750 mL
We love: Sauza, Jose Cuervo
$17-$20 per 750 mL
We love: Captain Morgan, Bacardi
$15-$20 per 750 mL
Pro tip: Buy handles of the really good stuff when it’s on sale and pour into smaller bottles to save space (store the leftovers in a closet). If you’re planning a get-together, we also think it’s a good idea to keep a bottle (or two) of white wine and a six-pack of your favorite beer in the fridge, plus a bottle (or three) of red in a kitchen cabinet. And don’t forget the mixers since only a select few of us are cool with drinking vodka on the rocks. Here are the favorites we always have on hand:
- Soda water
- Fruit juices (cranberry, orange, grapefruit, etc.) with no added sugar
- Tonic water
- Bottled lemon and lime juice (not as good as the real thing, but works in a pinch)
Step 3: The Most Important Ingredient of All
Ice! According to Eric Alperin, award-winning bartender and owner of The Varnish in Los Angeles, “Ice is one of, if not the most important ingredient in making a cocktail; sadly [it] is the most overlooked component, especially at home because fancy cocktail ice is thought to be only found in high-end bars.” Alperin also suggests making your own ice blocks (freeze water in a plastic container, invert it onto a tray, then smash it up with something sturdy and sharp), but we think a big ice tray gets the job done just as well—and might be a little less dangerous.
Step 4: The Extras
For nights when you feel like taking your vodka-soda game to the next level, pull out a few tricks. Start with a baseline liquor, then add an aperitif (a dry, light beverage) or a liqueur (a syrupy, sweet distilled spirit). We think a good bar cart should have at least two or three of these. Never tried Kahlua? Not sure what Cointreau even is? Buy a few cheap, tiny bottles at the counter of the liquor store before shelling out the big bucks. Keep in mind that some of these bottles are a bit pricey, but you rarely need more than an ounce of them per drink. Some of our favorites:
- Vermouth (we like Martini & Rossi; $11 per 750 mL)
- Campari or Luxardo Bitter ($18-$25 per 750 mL)
- Aperol ($25-$30 per 750 mL)
- Cointreau ($20-$25 per 750 mL)
- Kahlua ($15-$20 per 750 mL)
- Baileys Irish Cream ($20-25 per 750 mL)
There’s just one more step: “Get your own set of tools,” says Elle Taylor, owner of café-cocktail bar Amethyst Coffee Company in Denver. “Making a balanced cocktail means having proper measurements and dilution.” Elle suggests using a jigger (or any measuring device) when mixing drinks so they turn out the same every time. Taylor also stresses the importance of learning to properly shake or stir a mixed drink, instead of simply pouring liquor into a glass. Get your hands on these tools for better mixing:
- Cocktail shaker (hey, even two plastic Solo cups taped together will get the job done) and/or a mixing glass
- Jigger or shot glasses
- Vegetable peeler (for citrus zest)
Although technically unnecessary, these relatively cheap garnishes take a cocktail from mediocre to one that you might accidentally drink half of in one gulp:
- Lemons, limes, and oranges
- Olives and cherries (the non-abnormally red ones)
- Simple syrup (buy or DIY: boil equal parts sugar and water; reduce until slightly thickened)
- Herbs (mint, basil, and sage)
We can’t send you off to set up a bar cart without a few recipes. Leave the rum and orange juice to your roommate, and give these drinks a try (take or leave the glass suggestions based on what’s handy). They all average out to be less than $3 a pop. Who’s thirsty?
- Gin and Tonic
2 parts gin + 3 parts tonic + highball (tall) glass filled with ice + lime garnish
- Vodka Soda
1 1/2 parts vodka + 2 parts soda water + rocks (short, squat) glass filled with ice + lime or lemon garnish
1 part gin + 1 part vermouth + 1 part Campari + stir with ice, strain + martini glass or rocks glass filled with ice + orange peel garnish
6 parts gin or vodka + 1 part vermouth + shake with ice, strain + martini glass + olives or lemon peel garnish
- Aperol Spritz
3 parts prosecco + 3 parts Aperol + 1 part soda water + wine glass filled with ice + orange garnish
- Whiskey Sour
3 parts bourbon + 2 parts lemon juice + 1 part simple syrup + rocks glass filled with ice + lemon and cherry garnish
- Old Fashioned
2 parts bourbon or rye + ½ part simple syrup or 1 sugar cube+ bitters + rocks glass filled with ice + orange and cherry garnish
4 parts white rum or vodka + 3 parts lime juice + 1/2 part simple syrup + 2 parts soda water + mint leaves + highball glass filled with ice + lime garnish