'Tis the season of entertaining. Whether you're a natural born hostess or not, the holidays are a time of year during which your home tends to see a little more action by way of family and friends popping by for gift exchanges, dinners, or even more festive soirées. If you'll be having guests over for any of the aforementioned events — or if you just like to have the makings of a delicious adult beverage at the ready for personal use — one thing to consider in preparation is stocking up on bar cart essentials that will help you whip some mixologist-quality holiday cocktails at a moment's notice.
A stylish bar cart has become one of the most coveted home decor items of late, but after you've pinned down the one that's just right for your space, the next natural step is filling it with must-haves (and some fun and handy accessories) that will have you channeling your inner Cocktail-era Tom Cruise. But if you're still a novice at drink mixing, you may still be unsure where to start when loading up your bar cart (or at-home bar, if that's what you're working with). Luckily, Victoria James, beverage director and partner at Cote and author of the rosé-celebrating book Drink Pink, knows the tools of the trade from her years in the business — and behind the bar, as it were.
According to James, you, too, are capable of whipping up a batch of cocktails to impress all of your holiday guests — or just create an enviable happy hour at home — you'll just need to invest in a handful of key items. Ahead, find her suggestions for the essentials you'll need for a chic and fully functional bar cart.
First order of business: stocking up on key bottles of booze. But according to James, you'll want to skip the cheap stuff, "For booze, always have the staples with high-quality ingredients," she says. For a well-rounded stash, grab gin, vodka, Scotch whiskey, rye, bourbon, tequila, white rum and dark rum, and once that's out of the way, perhaps pepper in a few beyond-basic options like cognac, mezcal, amaro, etc.
Aside from the hard stuff, you'll want to keep a few classic mixing spirits at the ready for tried-and-true cocktails. This could include a orange-flavored liqueur like Cointreau for margaritas or sweet vermouth for a classic martini. "Antica Carpano Formula [is] the best sweet vermouth, essential for all cocktails," James recommends. And while these spirits can hang out on your cart while you're in full-swing hostess mode, you should be aware of a little housekeeping. "All perishable items like vermouth should not be kept longer than two weeks once opened," she explains, "Furthermore, since they are wine, they should be stored in the fridge — not out on your bar cart." If you're worried about waste, just pick up a smaller sized bottle.
As opposed to picking up every type of glass (wine, martini, high ball, etc) just go for a more versatile shape you can serve a number of different drinks in — that also happens to look super professional. "Nick and Nora glasses are my favorite cocktail glasses," shares James. "They are all-purpose and can be used for many of your favorites."
A mixing beaker is great to have on hand, particularly if you're creating a batch of cocktails for a group, since you can fit more liquid in here than a standard cocktail shaker.
A long bar spoon goes hand and hand with the aforementioned mixing glass. Use this to stir your concoction with the ice to keep it chilled (as opposed to shaking it). This one is especially handy, as the other side can be used to muddle drinks like mojitos or Moscow Mules.
"Always, always measure," advises James. "Building a proper cocktail is all about accuracy, like baking." Pick up a jigger, which holds about 1.5 ounces of liquid — this will help you follow cocktail recipes to a tee.
Truly step up your mixologist game with a set of high-quality knives for cutting fruit and garnishes, and even ice into large cubes. James believes that Japanese knives are especially great to have for this purpose. "These can be pricey but are very worth it" she offers. And if you're not sure about which brands are best, do as she says and "ask a chef friend for their go-to picks."
When knives just won't cut it for getting the perfect lemon or orange twists, a peeler is essential. "You need to just get the top layer of skin and a peeler is the best way to do this," James notes. "Those who try and use a knife always get a twist that is way too thick, not sexy, and not good for extracting those precious oils."
You can't get very far without one of these — just saying.
Skip the store-bought lemon, lime, or orange juice for a fresh-tasting and totally professional cocktail. If you've already got a fancy juicer on your kitchen counter for bigger jobs, great. But a small, handheld version is great and portable for all your bar cart needs.
A small strainer can not only keep fruit clumps, seeds, and even egg yolks (yup, some fancy-schmancy drinks call for the whites) out of your cocktail, but clumps of ice as well when you're serving drinks "straight up" (chilled but no ice).
For an extra special touch, it's fun to pick up a unique ice mold, like a sphere or large cube shape. Though these obviously aren't always going to be stashed in your bar cart, they're a fun addition to your home bar arsenal, according to James.
Many classic and modern cocktails call for bitters, and with so many flavors of them available, this is something you can certainly get a little creative with. James' favorite? Hella Bitters. Or if you like a DIY approach, you can make your own. "Brad Thomas Parsons has a great book with info on this," she mentions.
What's a fancy cocktail without a proper garnish? Again, once opened you'll need to stash your garnishes in the fridge, but when you're on bartending duty it's crucial to have items like olives, cherries, and pickled onions on hand. "Amarena cherries are the absolute best out there for cocktails — they are so addictive!" James says. And while you can pick up cocktail onions at most standard grocery stores, they're also able to be made at home fairly easily. "They're super easy and transform any martini," she adds.