Home Is Where the Bar Is

A Kiss for Luck, Art of Lying, Author, Isa McLaren, Keep the Mark Happy -

Home Is Where the Bar Is

The home bar rose to popularity in the 50s and 60s when people flocked to the utopian life of suburbia and getting to know the neighbors was practically required. Inviting people over for a drink meant showing off your home bar as much as your bartending skills.

While this trend fell by the wayside over the years, people are starting to return to the idea of a small gathering of friends sharing a drink or two. The elaborate home bar, as seen on Mad Men or in Blast From the Past, may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a stylish setup.

Author Isa McLaren is stylishly dressed in a green vintage cocktail dress with lattice work around the neckline. She stands behind a marble bar counter mixing drinks. Another woman in a blue cocktail dress looks on. Behind them, a sunburst clock hangs over a wooden mantle, which holds vintage cocktail glasses, a penguin shaker, and a silver model rocket.

I am a cocktail aficionado. This is the first thing most people learn about me. The second is that I’m well-stocked for just about any occasion. Pre-pandemic, I hosted three or four parties a year, usually with thematically appropriate drinks. For example, my Casino Night party featured cocktails named Snake Eyes, Straight Flush, and Luck Be a Lady.

I used to have a designated area as my home bar, despite the fact that I live in a small apartment. A low bookcase held bartending tools and mixing area, and the shelves stored glassware. I could turn this bookcase to face the wall, keeping glassware relatively safe from cats.

A low bookcase holds cocktail tools. On the wall next to the bookcase is a shelf holding martini glasses and a wooden plaque shaped like a martini.

But when I moved a few months ago, a different floor plan meant I had to change things up. It may be a while before I can start hosting regular parties again but I still need a place to mix drinks. Working at my kitchen counter was complicated. Cooking tools were in the way of my cocktail-making space. Or vice versa, I suppose, if you have different priorities.

A kitchen counter is crowded with crockpot, rice cooker, spice rack, assorted jars, and a container of catnip. A purple tea towel takes up the front of the counter space, providing an absorbent surface to mix the cocktail ingredients shown. The upper cabinet is tacky pine plywood and the handles are secured with a baby lock to keep out bastard cats.

I cleared some space and rearranged a little. Getting rid of a bunch of stuff I never used helped, too. Goodbye, rice cooker. Farewell, nice jars that I was saving even though I still have a dozen other nice jars. Scooch over, spice rack. And say hello to my new bar!

The same counter space as the previous pic now only holds bar supplies and a collection of drink flasks. A bar towel with Guinness logo takes up a portion of the counter.

Drawer space was more limited in this new apartment which meant it was even more important to have tools and supplies organized and easy to find. I don’t use these things every time I mix a drink, but I know where they are just in case a cocktail emergency pops up. I already had the organizing bins leftover from another project so it cost me nothing. In fact, I didn’t buy a single thing for this renovation.

An open drawer shows green and white organizer bins holding wine stoppers, fancy straws, and a pair of bottle openers. One is shaped like a skeleton hand and the other is an Art Nouveau-style nude woman.


Ready to set up your own home bar? Find a space large enough to assemble and mix your ingredients. A low bookcase, as I used, or a nightstand would work, as well as counter space in your kitchen. Put a towel down to avoid sticky countertops, or use a tray if you’re feeling fancy.

Decide where you will store your basic tools and your glassware. A wall-mounted shelf is a fun way to display your fancy glasses. Just remember to rinse out the dust and cat hair before using. Liquor can be stored anywhere away from heat and sun. Several years ago, I upgraded my booze storage from a kitchen cabinet to a large antique cupboard.

Obviously, your space requirements will depend on how elaborate you want your home bar to be. Start small; you can always change things up if you need to.

For stocking any size bar, make sure you have these essentials:

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Jiggers or other measuring cups (as long as they measure small increments).
  • Citrus reamer
  • Garnish picks
  • Cocktail stirrers/straws

Really. That’s it. Mixed drinks can be served in any glass and don’t let cocktail snobs tell you otherwise. Plastic cups work just as well as hand-blown stemware that you picked up on vacation but never use because it doesn’t go in the dishwasher.

If you do opt for cocktail-specific glassware, here are the basic types.

From left to right, champagne flute (with gold Las Vegas decoration), Collins glass, cocktail, coupe, and rocks.

A - Flute

B - Collins or Highball glass

C - Classic cocktail glass

D - Coupe

E - Rocks or Lowball glass

While I have a collection of recipe books because I love them, recipes are easily found online. Don’t be afraid to substitute if you don’t have, or don’t like, one of the ingredients. Vodka martinis exist because some people don’t like gin.

As for the actual booze, pick what you like to start. Gin, vodka, and whiskey are the basis for most cocktails. In my next blog post, I'll dive into this more, including additional types of liquor and liqueurs.

Until then, drink responsibly! 


(All pictures copyrighted by Isa McLaren 2022)

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