Ask Unclutterer: Help me organize and build a bar

Reader Tyler submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I graduated college in May. Moved to Chicago for a consulting job. Four days a week I’m in a different state and I fly back to Chicago on weekends. I have friends from college who also moved here. I like to have pre-going out parties on weekends at my place to build a social life. I want to put together a bar in my dining room. I want it to be a gentleman’s bar not something I would have done in college like a kegerator. I like being organized and prepared. Want to do it up right. Think GQ.

If you don’t already have a piece of furniture to act as a bar and you have room for it, I recommend you get something to act as your “gentleman’s bar.” This will give you a space to store the liquor you have out of direct light and your bar equipment as you acquire it (ice bucket, high ball glasses, etc.), plus you can use the top as a serving area when you do have a party. In our home, we use an Ikea Bjursta. We bought ours a few years ago and it looks a little different than the one they sell now (and I think ours was less expensive than this one), but you get the general idea. Check out Craigslist, garage sales, and second-hand shops for something more unique if that fits your style.

Once you have the furniture, your next step is to decide on a signature drink. (I’m thinking martinis, old fashions, Mary Pickfords, sidecars, Manhattans, etc.) You mentioned that you usually throw pre-parties, so let the bar you’re going to later be the one to offer a full-range of options. You just want to get the party started, and you don’t have to break the bank to do so. Find a drink recipe that you really like, and only store the ingredients for it. Change up your signature drink whenever you run through your ingredients to keep your guests interested and clutter out of your space.

Eventually, you will get nice bottles of liquor as gifts, and you can let those be your alternatives when someone isn’t a fan of your signature drink. I keep a bottle each of vodka, bourbon, gin, light rum, vermouth, and tequila in our home bar and a bottle of Khaluha, grenadine, and sweet and sour mix in the refrigerator. I also grow mint in our garden. We have friends and clients over for dinner and/or drinks four or five times a month, so we have more on hand than I think most people should. I don’t recommend storing more than what I’ve just listed. It becomes a pain to store and keep organized. As with most things, it’s about quality, not quantity. I’m trying to get back to a signature drink and get rid of some of the stuff we’re storing.

Oh, and as far as accoutrements are concerned, you honestly don’t need a lot. We have an ice bucket (you could use a bowl), a cocktail shaker, and eight high ball glasses (these are also our every day glasses when we’re not having parties).

Thank you, Tyler, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope that I helped! Check out the comments section for even more bar-organizing ideas.

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14 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Help me organize and build a bar”

  1. posted by Marie on

    A signature drink is a great idea. Many magazines suggest stretching your entertaining dollars by having a theme drink with several variations rather than having a bottle of everything. That also goes for saving dough on a wedding reception.

  2. posted by Sairey Gamp on

    To Erin’s brief equipment list, I’d add cocktail napkins. Paper are ok, but cloth cocktail napkins will make a much more elegant impression (especially on your female friends). Get several sets so that you don’t have to launder them every time you have a party. Don’t worry about ironing — just take them warm out of the dryer, fold them and store them.

  3. posted by HootsMon on

    I can help with this, as I recently went through the exact same thing. I was tired of keeping hordes of bottles in cupboards, out of easy reach when company came over. I decided to do something about it, and spent some time consulting the infinite wisdom of the internet.

    I now have a lovely home bar in my apartment which is the envy of my friends, but which is neat and tidy and doesn’t produce clutter.

    The bar itself:
    I modified an Ikea Expedit unit, exactly as demonstrated here:
    Took an afternoons effort, but the result is brilliant especially at night with the under-shelf lighting turned on!

    The drinks:
    I strongly recommend the 9 bottle bar approach, as outlined here:

    I agree with the choices of bottles, but I found I could easily drop a few of the accessories and not miss them. Pick out the items you find you need and ignore the rest, but the liquor selection is a classic ‘9 bottle’ system which allows for hundreds of cocktail options.

    I suggest Tyler take a look at those links and decide if they’ll work for him, as they certainly worked for me. Now I can get pleasantly sauced without any clutter getting in the way! 😉

  4. posted by Sylvia on

    I’d also outfit the bar with a good absorbent towel, an easy to use corkscrew/bottle opener, and a serving tray with handles. (easy to transport drinks outdoors, to another the coffee table, etc.) A few nice glass stirrers would be good too.
    Our current bar is the kitchen island but when we move I’d love to find a vintage bar cabinet with designated glass and bottle holders in the doors. These sometimes have a single drawer which would be great to store utensils and napkins.

  5. posted by Josh Baugher on

    A few handy links for you:

    Best Buys for the Summer Bar

    Stocking Staples for a Winter Bar

    The Best Booze Under $20

    I like the one cocktail at a time approach. As soon as you know it you’ll have a very well stocked bar.

    P.S. I started the “What’s in your liquor cabinet?” flickr pool if you’d like some inspiration:[email protected]/

  6. posted by Chris on

    When reading the letter to the editor I thought of this piece at Crate and Barrel

    It opens up when in use and tucks away nicely when not in use. The price is a little steep, but there are other similar options at other retailers.

  7. posted by Brandon Green on

    No Venturi wine aerator? The horror!

  8. posted by Dawn on

    If you’ve got a little room left on the bar, add a small bartender’s guide for recipes. Ours is hardback, spiral-bound so it will lay flat. It could come in handy!

    I also have a bowl full of different wine glass charms (to keep track of whose drink is whose…) and a stack of coasters for guests to grab at their convenience.

  9. posted by Kazza on

    I agree with the idea of having a signature drink – although I’d go with two drinks (one with alchohol and one ‘mocktail’). With two simple alternative drinks in mind in case someone doesn’t like your signature drink.

    If you’re choosing a recipe that has non-alcoholic ingredient make it something that doesn’t go off easily that you can have in the pantry. So it will be there when you come back from your week away. eg canned tomato juice rather than fresh milk

  10. posted by Mandy Cat on

    I’m considerably beyond my own post-college years (Martha Washington and I were university roommates) but I’ve never had a real bar, mostly because of space constraints. I’ve always thought of a bar as a wide and bulky piece of furniture, like a dining room buffet. The pictures you clever young’uns posted of more vertical than horizontal furniture pieces were very interesting. Maybe before I check into the Whispering Pines Home for the Aged, I’ll actually have a functional and attractive bar of my own.

    The idea of having a well-written bartender’s guide on hand was a good one. If nothing else, you may need to come up with a backup drink when you find you’ve run out of all the ingredients for your first choice or that bottle of vermouth has gone rancid.

  11. posted by HootsMon on

    @Mandy Cat

    Vertical is definitely the way to go! It also makes a lot of practical sense – you can stand more or less in the one place and reach up and down for your supplies. Beats running up and down the length of a traditional bar when you’re trying to entertain!

    On the point of bartenders guides, I like Difford’s Cocktails Made Easy. The author is a bit shameless at shilling his own recipes, and the sponsorship from certain alcohol brands is very apparent, but if you can forgive this then the book itself is very good – 500+ drinks based on 12 liquors. I’ve spent many a happy weekend randomly picking drinks from the book and trying them out, knowing I’ll have everything on hand without having to source obscure ingredients.

  12. posted by Kathy on

    If you want decanters, but don’t want to spend $50 or more a piece for crystal, look up lab surplus stores online and buy reagent bottles. We have the 1L size, and with custom-printed labels, they look great. Geeky, but great!

  13. posted by Nat on

    I’d second the suggestion of towels, although I guess they can multitask in the kitchen as well. We opted for using a vintage sideboard and open shelves for the liquor above the sideboard for our bar. The nice thing about the open shelves is that we always know what we have and easy access when we’re making our drinks. However, I do like the idea of a signature drink, but I would recommend that it change seasonally at least one for summer and one for winter.

  14. posted by Jeff on

    Some great advice above, and I ran across some recommendations for liquor choices earlier today that might help Tyler with his setup:


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