Home Bartending Home Bars

Cocktail Bars for the Home

This drawing shows how to build your own portable dry bar, for home entertaining, or mobile bartending jobs.

Custom made dry bar for mobile bartending.

Get ready to entertain! Here’s the full scoop on liquor cabinets, portable dry bars and built in wet bars. It covers the advantages and disadvantages of each. Also, how to prepare and use a dry bar, including how to manage ice, water and waste.

Intro to Home Bars

Most products sold as home bars are actually storage cabinets, or carts, for wine, liquor and glassware. They can be beautiful heirloom pieces of furniture and function to serve a drink or two, but they’re not really designed for entertaining.

There are two main types of home bars, wet and dry. A dry bar is unplumbed, meaning that it doesn’t have any running water, usually there’s just a sink. It can be set in place, or have wheels for portability, so you can roll it to where the party will be.

The wet bar has hot and cold running water and one or more sinks. It’s professionally plumbed and considered a built-in fixture that sells with the house.

If you’ve set down roots and own a house, consider going for a fully plumbed wet bar for entertaining. If you rent, or live in a condo, consider a dry bar that can be taken with you when you move.

Dream about what you want and let your imagination take you there. If you can see it in your mind, you’ll find a way to make it a reality.

The Dry Cocktail Bar

To be a dry bar for entertaining, it needs a stainless steel dump sink, a power bar for electricity, a garnish prep area, serving area, ice storage and refrigeration. You need all these features within arms length, if you want to make cocktails and still have time to enjoy the party. You’ll also want to make a drink menu, because of the limited storage space in a dry bar setup.

If you don’t have a fresh water supply handy, it means running to the kitchen, bathroom, or garden hose, to fill a tea kettle every 10 minutes. You need the fresh water to rinse the mixing glass in-between cocktails. Plus it’s handy to have water the moment your guests want it.

The easiest solution is to bring a water supply to where the bar is located. A 5 gallon (19 liter) insulated drum will last a long time and keep the water cold. A 4 foot (1.2 m) long portable folding table, made with resin and featuring locking legs is lightweight and will keep the water drum off the ground. It also serves as a flat storage area for extra glassware and soda.

Another water option is the standard 5 gallon jug that’s used in most home and office water coolers. A manual pump can be snapped on top for instant water on demand. If you happen to own a water cooler unit, you could wheel it to where the party is, but keep in mind that the cooling feature requires electricity.

Some people use the dry bar dump sink for storing ice, but that’s a job for an ice bucket and cooler. The sink is used to dump out used ice cubes, left over drinks and warm water from the tea kettle, that was used to rinse the mixing glass. The sink drains into 5 gallon bucket hidden underneath, which will need to be emptied on a regular basis.

If you do use the sink to store ice for cocktails, you’ll still need to rinse the mixing glass and dump used ice. In this case put the 5 gallon pail off to the side. It doesn’t look pretty but at least it works. You’ll also need a second empty pail to catch water as the ice melts in the sink.

Ice is usually brought to the dry bar in a large cooler, or ice chest with wheels. It can slide under the bar, or portable side table for storage. Ice is scooped from the bulk cooler into the ice bucket for making the cocktails. After shaking a cocktail, the used ice is discarded into the dump sink, where it drains into the dump bucket

In addition to the dump bucket and ice storage, the lower half of the bar can have a shelf to store glassware, or bottles. It also has a large cutout area for a small bar fridge that stores eggs, cream, garnish and soda. If there is no bar fridge, use a second cooler filled with ice for the perishable items.

The middle part, or counter top of the bar, has the dump sink off to one side, and a working area in the center for preparing garnish on a cutting board. The other side can store liquor bottles, tea kettle, ice bucket and blender.

The middle of the bar may also have a speed rail. It is a stainless steel storage railing that’s directly in front of the bartender. It holds the most popular cocktail base spirits like white rum, vodka, rye and gin. Depending on the width of the bar, a speed rail can hold anywhere from 5-12 bottles.

The highest level, or top of the bar is usually kept clear. This is where the cocktails are prepared and served.

Some bar tops have a 4 inch wide by 1/2 inch deep channel, on the bartender’s side that runs the full length of the bar. This is known as the pouring trough. It prevents accidental spills from flowing off the top of the bar. If there isn’t a pouring trough, a rubber bar matt is recommended.

There is a vast range of dry bars that come fully assembled and ready to use. Lower end ones are the smaller portable types, that can be wheeled around and transported for mobile bartending businesses and back yard entertaining. Higher end portable bars have wheels, but aren’t usually trucked around, because they are large full size bars. Most of them in the high price range have cold storage, CO2 lines, ice bins, speed rails and all the other features built right in.

The Wet Cocktail Bar

The wet bar has everything that the dry bar has in terms of functionality, except its far more convenient having hot and cold running water and proper drainage. The only downside is that you can’t take it to where the party is, or with you when you move, because it’s considered a fixture.

A wet bar may have one or more sinks. Usually one is a dump sink and the other is used to wash glassware. Ice is stored in the freezer compartment of a full sized fridge within steps of the bar, along with all the perishable goods. There may also be an extensive back bar, or cabinets, that are used to store liquor, mixers and glassware.

The wet bar still needs electricity to power the tea kettle and blender. It may also feature an ice maker, a draft beer system, beverage cooler and a pod style coffee maker.

The only limit to your wet bar is your imagination, or what you can afford. But always get the best you can afford, so you’ll be happy about a quality product that you and your guests will enjoy for years to come.

Get a Custom Bar Built

If you don’t have a bar, you could buy blueprints and make one yourself. You could buy a kit and customize it. Or you could hire a carpenter and get them to custom design one, so you can have all the features.

The height of a cocktail bar is usually from 42-48 inches (106–122 cm) high. This is a good working height for mixing drinks, because you want the mixing glass to be just below straight arm length, so you can use the jigger in a throwing motion. It also happens to be a perfect height for guests to lean on, while they chat you up and watch you perform cocktail magic.

If you happen to be tall, a good solution is to get a couple of dollies with locking wheels for under the dry bar. This will raise it up to the proper height, so you won’t stoop over while mixing. It can also turn your fixed dry bar into a portable one.

If you buy a basic wooden bar, you could customize it with a little carpentry skill. Some improvements include under cabinet lighting, speed rail, brass foot rest, rails to store inverted stemware, or putting a dump sink into a bar that doesn’t have one.

For back yard entertaining, you could even turn that portable dry bar into a pseudo wet one by using garden hoses. A snap on coupling for the sink – similar to the ones that portable washing machines use – and a length of hose gets water to the bar. A length of hose and a storm drain, or grass in the yard, gets water out of the dump sink and drained away.

Since you own the bar, there really are no rules. You can have fun and do what you want. The objective is to make the bartending as fun and easy as possible, so you can return to the party as quickly as possible. The more you minimize the running around you have to do, the more fun you’ll have entertaining and visiting with your guests.

Bar Stools

Some people like to sit at the bar and chat with the host during the party. The bar is like a magnet and naturally attracts some people. It can also be an ‘intimate’ setting when a couple share a drink.

When you get busy, guests may have to wait a minute or two to get their drinks. So instead of heading back to the crowd, they sit near the bar while they wait and chat with you. It’s a great way to get caught up with them and to hear what everyone is talking about.

Besides that, bar stools can make any old bit of furniture look more like a bar. They also say volumes about the bar and its owner, depending on the quality of the stools. 

For example, a bare bone minimalist with unpadded wooden stools might be seen as a cheapskate. If so, what type of bargain bin booze do they use?

Now what if the stools had padded swivel seats and padded backs, along with air lifts and footrests. Without a saying word, it whispers class and elegance.

So ask yourself this question, what do you want your home bar, rec center, or man cave to whisper about you?


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