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Entertain like a pro: How to set up a self-serve home bar this holiday season

Need to put together a self-serve home bar in time for your next gathering? Read this guide

The holidays are nearly here, which means cocktail soirees, dinner parties, themed gatherings, and the like. If you’re hosting this season, you likely want the very best for your guests. That tends to translate to a nice bar spread and a signature beverage like a boulevardier or dark and stormy.

If you’re willing to throw on the apron and bartend yourself, more power to you. However, chances are good that you don’t want to be working the entire time you’re hosting, so you may want to consider something a little move convenient: The self-serve bar. It’s a home bar that allows guests to whip up their own drinks to their liking and at their leisure, but how you set it up is important.

A Bourbon Whiskey Decanter and Bourbon on the Rocks in a Tumbler sitting on a bar with bottles in the background.
Annabelle Breakey / Getty Images

The host with the most delivers a great self-serve bar that’s both inviting and easy to figure out. It also presents a few options, as no two palates are alike. The best ones quietly urge people to keep it all in check, too, as nobody wants to be tending to the guy who had one too many when they could be catching up with old friends, snacking, or trying out the basement karaoke system. Here are a few things to consider when setting up your own self-serve bar.

Keep it simple

You’re not a tiki institution or a candidate for the best bar in the land. Keep it simple. That means picking a few minimalist cocktails that folks can modify to their liking. You know, like the gin and tonic, whiskey sour, negroni, or martini. Remember that these are base cocktails that can be personalized with a few last-minute additions. In other words, keep some fresh or dehydrated citrus around for garnishes and a few different kind of bitters options. Do the same for tonic and have a standard-issue version available as well as at least one flavored version.

An Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail at a bar.
Steven Miller / Flickr

Part of the simplicity comes from organization, which leads to ease of use. Have a designated area for additions like simple syrup and garnishes, and keep tools like stirrers and straws at the ready. In this brave new post-pandemic world, many of us are skeptical of finger contact on the things we eat and drink, so think about having some tools like tongs available to grab ice cubes. If you’re showing off something a little more unexpected, such as an infusion of your own creation, great — just make sure it’s clearly labeled.

If guests are mixing their own drinks, set the bar up near a sink, or be sure to set up the station with all the necessities (shaker tin, strainer, ice, glassware). Know that some people don’t know how to make their own drinks, so don’t be afraid to make them feel less intimidated. Offer a demonstration or even a little cue card that they can use as a guide.

Portion it out

There are some clever ways to keep imbibing reasonable. Keep an eye on your liquor bottles and see what the consumption rates are like. If you want a little more control or just don’t want to worry about Glen throwing up in the bathroom, pre-batch a cocktail. Create a signature drink for the evening thatt everybody enjoys. You can even make it the night before or days in advance and store it accordingly. It will minimize day-of work as well as give you a controlled amount of booze you’re working with. Plus, large-format cocktails are just fun to make.

Consider what all you’re serving too. Again, we love to keep it simple. If you want a lot of options, though, including beer and wine, be aware that they don’t always mix well with spirits. Think about lower-alcohol options like lagers, pilsners, or lighter white and pink wines. Have a designated water or non-alcohol station so guests can rehydrate often too. Nobody wants a hangover.

Consider punch

A bowl of Hendrick's hot gin punch beside a bottle of Hendrick's gin.
Hendricks / Hendricks

The ultimate prix fixe party drink is punch. There are tons of great versions of the stuff, and it’s fun to doll up and serve. Many of the best recipes are festive ones, so the holidays are prime time for punch. It’s also a cocktail style that’s usually pretty easy to dilute, either through naturally-melting ice or adding more hot water, tea, etc. to your warm-bowl beverage. Punch gets so many party presentation points and can be served in cool, themed vessels to boot.

Don’t forget the snacks

Charcuterie Board Set with food and utensils for parties.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Don’t let your guests drink on an empty stomach. No, you don’t have to whip up an involved dinner, but you should have some bar snacks at the ready that can sop up some alcohol and offer some much-craved sodium. Get out the mixed nuts, pretzels, crudités, dried meats, crackers, and cheese. Set guests up with small plates to minimize messes, and have a bar towel or two at the ready, just in case. Also, avoid things that can lead to sticky, gross glassware, like honey or nachos, as much as we love them.

What the pros do

Need some more home bar ideas? Lynnette Marrero is the co-founder of Speed Rack and an award-winning bartender. She uses a simple size upgrade when hosting. “Using a larger mixing glass to make several cocktails is a great thing to have on hand to make a round of martinis or Manhattans,” she says. Marerro also praises fresh juice and having a nice juicer on hand at home. Oh, and don’t forget the essential tools.

“One of the best things to purchase for your home bar is a barware set that has all of the essentials you need to make cocktails. I really enjoy this at-home barware set that includes a shaker, muddler, strainer, and jigger. It is a gorgeous set, designed by Charles Joly, that will give you everything you need to make shaken cocktails. It even looks pretty on the bar.”

Robert Kidd is the head bartender at Le Cavalier in Delaware. Like many good barkeeps, he doesn’t want you to overlook the frozen water. “Ice is the one ingredient that you will be using in every cocktail you make. Even if the drink is served up, you still need to use ice to chill the drink. Make sure your ice trays have lids to protect the ice from smelling like whatever is in your freezer,” he says.

A bartender pouring a Sazerac cocktail.
Maksym Fesenko / Shutterstock

Neal Bodenheimer is a drinks author based in New Orleans, where he says they set up self-serve bars often, especially around the holidays. “First, consider glassware or disposables,” he says. “If you are taking drinks to go (maybe that only happens in New Orleans), I like to buy a high-quality reusable cup that marks the event or holiday,” he says, adding that a custom cup is always a hit.

And what to have at the ready in your home bar cabinet? “If the party is exclusively at your home, don’t be afraid to break out the good stuff. So many people are afraid to use their nice china or glassware, but your guests will appreciate the extra touch of luxury,” he says.

“Next up, take the time to select out singular spirits for your bar. So many people get caught up with what they think people like, which always defaults to the spirits that are marketed the best, but I think bar selections should be more about your personality, tastes, and aesthetic rather than about what you think people want,” Bodenheimer adds.

If you keep small home bar ideas in mind as you whip up your self-serve station, your next party is going to be the talk of the holiday season.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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