Well-stocked bar boosts holiday spirits

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:37 PM

With party plans in full swing, out-of-town guests arriving and well-wishers dropping by, having a bar area at the ready is essential this time of year.

Whether you have a place in your home perpetually dedicated to drinks or you keep your goods stashed away until needed, having the design basics down and the proper supplies on hand can save you time when you need it most.

Get your plan in order now, and you'll be prepared to set up your spirits at a moment's notice all year round.


You can fashion a bar anywhere you have space for it, including the dining room table, a kitchen counter, a side table or a rolling cart, even one that's meant for outside.

Ideally, your drinks station will be in a well-lit, centrally located spot that has access on at least three sides. Avoid corners and you'll also avoid guests crammed around a small space. If the spot is easily seen from the front door, even better.

"It's very inviting when people walk in and see the bar," says Amanda McClements, writer of the local food blog Metrocurean . "They think, 'There's the bar; I know where to go.' "


Corral bottles and glassware on serving trays to keep things looking pulled together and organized, says Alexandria designer Catherine Hailey . If you don't have trays, place mats or a table runner will work, too.

If you're setting up a full bar, create a bottle shelf by stacking books or bricks, then cover the entire tabletop or counter with a tablecloth, suggests Griz Dwight, principal of Grizform Design Architects in the District . Place some bottles on the stacks rather than lining them all in a row.

"If you can make a bar area visually enticing, it can kick it up a notch," he says.

For mixers, single-serve glass bottles are a better choice than two-liter plastic bottles. Not only will you be able to use the unopened bottles in the future, but large bottles go flat soon after opening and, Dwight says, "a big bottle of Coke can only look so good."

Small mixer bottles can be placed in a tray next to the liquor or stored in baskets below.

And, though it sounds like a good idea, don't put bowls of salty snacks on the bar table. "Set them up in different area," he says. "To be a good bar, you're in and you're out. I don't want that guy snacking on nuts when I'm trying to get my drink."

Alcohol, mixers and garnishes

Our experts say a well-rounded bar should have the following liquors: gin, vodka, rum, bourbon, scotch and tequila. Basic mixers include club soda, tonic water, ginger ale and Coke. Extras include bitters and aperitifs.

Limes and lemons are the best citrus garnishes, says McClements, but adding something seasonal, such as Meyer lemons or blood oranges, is a nice touch.

Signature cocktails

If you'd rather not fuss with all the bottles in a full bar, consider offering one or two special drinks. Most guests will appreciate your editing, McClements says.

"I'll pick maybe three cocktails for a season, commit the recipes to memory and stock my bar with those ingredients," she says.

Or, make it even more simple by offering only one drink.

"I always think it's fun to make your own holiday specialty drink," Dwight says. Find a recipe you like, pre-mix it and put it out with a recipe card next to the pitcher. "It takes the intimidation away," he says. "Some people get intimidated when they go up to a bar because they don't know what to do."


Make sure you have enough glasses for your number of guests. A good cocktail party estimate is one glass per person per hour, according to Party Rental Ltd. in Washington . If your stock is on the low side, consider investing in inexpensive basics rather than resorting to plastic, says Hailey. "The Crate and Barrel outlet has amazing deals on glasses."

Or, forget about the usual suspects altogether. "I'm constantly on the prowl at consignment or junk shops for interesting glassware, like moroccan tea glasses or vintage champagne coupes," McClements says. "Serving things in somewhat unusual glassware, like a bourbon drink in a jelly jar, is always fun and adds a little surprise."

Tools and accessories

Near the liquor and glasses, keep an ice bucket (a deep serving bowl with tongs or a scoop will do), a water pitcher and, if you're serving wine, a corkscrew.

Another must-have: bottle openers. "It's important to have two of these because someone always puts one in their pocket and walks away with it," Dwight says. "They don't mean to, of course."

Small touches, such as decorative stirrers, alcohol pourers, cocktail shakers or vintage barware accessory kits, can make the area look more festive.

Hailey suggests browsing the Hour Shop in Alexandria and consignment shops for vintage barware accessories and chain stores such as Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn for newer versions.


Even if you don't serve food, don't forget napkins. "People always forget about putting out napkins, and then you have guests wiping their hands on their pants," McClements says. "Napkins are a small opportunity to infuse your personality into the bar."

While McClements often picks up little paper cocktail napkins with graphic prints, she also likes to use linen squares. "It's one of those little touches that make people feel really special."

If you don't have linen napkins, Hailey suggests taking good quality, white paper napkins and using gold ink and a stamp from a stationery store to create custom look with a holiday motif, a decorative design or a monogram. "It's a way to make things more interesting without spending a lot of money."


Want to go beyond the basics to jazz up your holiday drinks? Do it with ice, says Dwight. Pre-make extra-large cubes for a fun conversation starter (they'll also keep drinks cool instead of watering them down).

"Or you could go old-school and actually get a block of ice, a couple of ice picks and have guests hack away."

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