There's a reason the term "watering hole" exists as a euphemism for the neighborhood bar. The phrase conjures up associations of community, relief from thirst and a gentle buzz to close out a tough day of work. Fortunately, it's easier than ever to enjoy the atmosphere of a favorite bar, be it sports dive or swanky craft cocktail lounge, without ever having to put on shoes. Bar installation is increasingly popular in new homes, says Randy Shaw of Nordic Kitchens and Baths, and the bevy of available options makes it well-suited to almost any budget.
Installing a full bar in a living room or den is the most involved option and generally takes at least three months, Shaw says. To get the ball rolling, he and his team meet with prospective clients to assess their vision, then draft a design based on what they've learned. "It's important to figure out what the bar will be used for," he says. Will it be a walk-behind, with a space for an amateur bartender and seating at the counter? Does the customer need a wet bar (one equipped with a sink and plumbing) or a basic dry bar? During the design process, Shaw uses his expertise to make sure the bar reflects the customer's aesthetics and drinking habits.
"If the person is interested in beer, we can do a customized fridge, or even actual beer taps," he says. "For wine, we try to get away from the boring, basic, crisscross iron wine rack, and maybe suggest something like an underground stone cellar."
Shaw says home bars have become a central focus in media rooms; tricked out with appliances like dishwashers, microwaves and icemakers, they essentially function as small second kitchens.
The appropriate countertop is another factor in a built-in bar's longevity, Shaw says. Since the surface is used for mixing drinks and cutting garnishes, "you're going to want to go with a marble like quartz, which is 100 percent non-porous, and consequently hard to damage," he says. For customers with tighter budgets, there are lines that carry marble-inspired countertops in an assortment of colors, also designed to withstand the acidity of fruit juices and garnishes, with a significantly smaller price tag.
If you're less inclined toward bar installation, a self-contained beverage cart or table is a smart, and mobile, choice. Cameron Jones for Your Home offers a number of options in various sizes and price ranges, most of which come equipped with detachable trays, drawers and sliding cupboards to facilitate storage and service. The stainless steel line from Johnston Casuals is a popular option, says co-owner Joan Trenor. Although the metallic construction and modern lines have an almost futuristic feel, the carts are customizable with a range of finishes and textures, so it's easy to make them conform to a space with a rustic or antique vibe.
Bar stools are another way to express the home's aesthetic, whether pneumatic, covered in patterned fabric, or ordered to match the bar cart. To create an area that feels intimate and sectioned-off, Trenor suggests a few well-placed design elements: "Put a rug down beneath the cart, or even a runner from the kitchen to the bar area if you're worried about spills, to draw people over." Pendant lighting over the bar lends warmth, and if there's ample surface area, "a funky lamp on the side can add some personality," she says.
But what's a bar without the booze? Stocking yours from the ground up can be a daunting task, acknowledges Vom Fass owner Denise Dussom, but a little planning and education goes a long way toward ensuring you're prepared to accommodate guests' tastes.
"I've heard it said that when building a good liquor supply, you need to remember it's a marathon, not a sprint," she says. "Take some time, figure out what you like, and gradually buy the things you need."
Most liquors have long shelf lives, and a few key basics will get you far. Dussom recommends gin and vodka, the two "basic clear spirits," a dark rum, a good scotch (if you're in doubt over which, choose smooth over peated — its less smoky flavor has more universal appeal), and an American bourbon. Keep the fridge stocked with basic mixers like club soda, tonic and fruit juice. For wine, co-owner Chris Herman suggests a California chardonnay for a good white and a Malbec as a "food-friendly and inexpensive red." Both advise newbies to build a relationship with a local wine and liquor proprietor who has a similar palate and ask freely for recommendations.
"Tell them when you like something, or when you don't," Herman says. "They'll start to get a sense of your tastes, and will let you know when there's something different in that you might enjoy."
Don't be afraid to ask for samples (Vom Fass, for example, lets customers taste before purchase), and don't feel the need to break the bank. A quality bottle of wine shouldn't run more than $20, Herman says.
With the bar and booze obtained, an at-home watering hole can be a veritable blank canvas for your design flair. Accessories ranging from ice buckets to olive spoons, from cocktail napkins to scotch glasses, are widely available in all manner of motifs. Trenor is partial to hammered steel for water pitchers and serving trays; they're chic and contemporary, but basic enough that you don't need to stick with one designer. For practical purposes, there are wine openers of varying technological complexity, and cocktail recipe books meant to bring out your inner mixologist. Small and frequently inexpensive, these products "can be great as small hostess gifts, or party favors," Trenor notes. Solidifying a network of friends with home bars? That's something to get behind.