Raising the Bar

A party on wheels

Jeff Amberg

The dictionary defines a bar cart as “a small table on wheels, outfitted for serving drinks; a portable bar.” Interestingly, the bar cart began in the Victorian era as a tea trolley. These were used in fashionable homes, as taking tea was the focus for many social invitations. All tea implements could be brought on a trolley at one time and rolled to the hostess to serve. Then in the late 1930s at the end of Prohibition, individuals were ready to get down to the business of alcohol-infused entertaining. Enter the portable bar.

Years ago, all the stylish hosts had one. Bar carts bring to mind Hollywood glamour, nostalgia, and old movies. The popularity of the Rat Pack, James Bond, and Miami in the 1950s and ‘60s spotlighted the chic cart and made this home accent fashionable and desirable. In the 1955 movie, The Seven Year Itch, in a memorable scene, Tom Ewell mixes Marilyn Monroe a “big, tall martini” from a well-stocked bar cart. In High Society, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby drink cocktails from an alfresco cart.

The bar cart began to fade as a fad around the 1970s when homes were built bigger and with more entertaining options. Enter the built-in bar — filled with cabinetry, shelves, a sink — able to store enough liquor and glassware for any immediate gathering. Bar closets were also often constructed to be closed off and locked away. Built-ins essentially replaced the stand-alone bar cart; however, fast forward to about 2014. Fueled by the modern renaissance of craft cocktails and the desire to be a posh home entertainer, the bar cart has had a resurgence. Millennials embrace the chic, vintage home accessory.

Bar carts are meant to be multipurpose and efficient. They come in many sizes and shapes, from large designs with several shelves to compact styles for small homes and apartments. Carts are made for every decor: lucite, shining chrome, vintage brass, wood, and leather. Plus, they offer diverse decorating options. They can be used as a side table with lamps, slid into a pantry for storage, or put into a bathroom to house toiletries. Or, use a bar cart for its intended purpose, which is to stock party refreshments. Since the cart is on wheels, you can move your party to any room in the house, including a balcony or terrace. It is a portable party!

The cart is customarily used as a simple bar for a small gathering; however, a host can expand this and be creative. Use a cart to showcase after-dinner drinks in antique decanters or set up ingredients necessary to prepare a featured cocktail, such as martinis. It could also showcase an offering of one type of liquor, like single malt scotch or bourbon. Perhaps it is the Champagne bar.

Fun, interesting glasses are available for every drink type as well as bar utensils to make each bar unique. A bar cart can be fun to style, and the options are limitless. Find reproductions or new designs, or even peruse local antique stores for an original design.


Set up

Since the size of the cart is limited, the bar typically consists of four base spirits, including whiskey, vodka, rum, and gin. Tequila is also a popular addition. Include small bottles of soda and tonic, a pitcher of water, and a bottle of bitters. You then add the mixers that are needed to prepare the drinks that you wish to offer. For instance, from whiskey, you can make a whiskey sour, a Manhattan, or an old fashioned. Gin options may be a gimlet or gin sour. Vodka can be used in many ways, but special drinks might be a bloody mary, screwdriver, or salty dog.

The cart also needs to be outfitted with an ice bucket and tongs, stirrers, napkins, a shaker, jigger, and a variety of glasses. The host can be creative with the glassware. Specific glasses are available for almost every drink. Research and start a collection.

Additional accessories might include a kitchen towel, strainer, and bottle opener. And don’t forget the lemons, limes, and olives. A host should wish to please guests so each cart will be different and take on a distinct personality. Once you set up the bar a few times, it will get easier.

For her bar cart, Karen Dukes artistically displays the liquor that she and David, her husband, prefer. Their two antique soda bottles in blue and purple glass are a conversation piece as well as a handsome horn handle bottle opener that was a gift. Sparkling crystal glasses and special Nick and Nora glasses, named for the 6-ounce versions popularized on the 1950s Thin Man series, are combined for serving. Also, Karen has added her favorite bartender guides and drink recipe books. Often, she and David keep their selection of wine on the cart near the dining table when guests are invited to their home so that it is within easy reach to refill glasses while guests enjoy the meal. Karen has collected beautiful decanters through the years, and she has often used those on her cart for after-dinner drinks.

The bar cart provides a friendly and stylish way to use the things you love and creates a practical conversation piece. Create an enchanting evening filled with the pure pleasure of having your drink an arm’s distance away while offering guests an opportunity to try new cocktails served on a decorative bar cart.