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How to curate the ultimate home bar for your socially distant summer

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Anna Brech
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With our favourite bars, pubs and restaurants off-limits for now, here’s how to create a decadent home bar for your summer of social distancing.

It’s hard to imagine a summer without our usual line-up of balmy festival nights, or afterwork drinks that start on a crowded pavement come 5pm and stretch out hazily into the evening.

But even without the familiar comfort of our usual stomping grounds, it’s possible to recreate that fun-loving flicker of an evening well-spent. And a beautiful home bar is a great place to start.

“There’s something really special about creating your own home bar,” says Caroline Craven, co-founder of mobile bar company Portabar. “It’s so much more than a place to stash your ancient collection of half-drunken spirits.

“If you think carefully about elements such as style, mood and lighting, you can create a centrepiece that sets the tone for the kind of intimate home events we’ll be seeing lots more of in the coming months.”

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Meredith O’Shaughnessy, experience expert at the Meredith Collective and the woman behind the spectacular Nyetimber Secret Garden at London’s Rosewood Hotel, agrees that atmosphere is key to a good home bar.

“Think about your favourite establishments – what are the elements that you really miss?” she says. “Is it a beach bar in Ibiza? Turn up the heating and get your bikini out.

“Or maybe it’s Harry’s Bar in Venice: lots of bellinis and ball gowns. Or your local pub? Perhaps you tempt your dog into helping you set the feel, and put a video of a roaring fire on the telly.”

Whatever vibe you decide to go for, this is your chance to experiment and have a bit of fun.

Here’s how to work your own home bar for maximum impact – and wipe the floor on that #homebar hashtag.

Be discerning about your backdrop

Image: Jonny Cocktail

Before you even begin dusting off that trestle table, stop and consider the setting for your home bar.

“Location is everything when it comes to making a pop-up bar stand out,” says Caroline. “Of course, you can move your bar around from day to day – that’s exactly the magic of having a portable system – but wherever you build it, the backdrop is key.”

If you’re outside, frame your bar against a beautiful view or perhaps within the natural cascade of a hydrangea bush or a clematis vine.

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“The wow factor is really important,” notes Meredith. “When we created the wisteria-filled terrace at the Rosewood Hotel in London, we used one colour on the flowers to create impact and a sense of occasion. If it had been too busy, it would have been overwhelming.

“You don’t want to make it too grand, though. People should feel stylish in the space but not uncomfortable. Relax the rules a bit – let your boyfriend put his feet on the sofa.”

Whether your bar is indoors or outdoors, the important thing is to let loose on the creativity front.

“Keep it simple but fun,” says Thomas Colombo, founder of Mambo Mobile Bars. “I love to have a floor lamp next to my home bar, with a gold mellow light to set the atmosphere, along with an old record player with some random tunes.”

Dress your bar like a pro 

Image: Tom Dyer

The next step is to style your bar, and it’s really worth paying attention to the small details here.

“How you dress your bar can make the difference between a space that is simply so-so, and one that is spectacular,” says Portabar’s Caroline. “Let your imagination free a bit. From neon signs to pot plants, fairy lights or chalk letter boards, there are loads of props around the house that you can borrow and play around with for the right effect.”

“A light box with lettering is great for naming your home bar,” says Lewis Spindlove, founder of The Bartender Hire Company. “How about naming it the Lock Inn perhaps?

“For decorating your drinks, head to the garden and pick out some herbs – rosemary makes an excellent natural drink stirrer for long cocktails.”

“Jam jars and milk bottles are easy to get hold of in places like Wilko and B&M,” adds John Leeman, founder of bar and events specialist Jonny Cocktail. “You can pre-make simple fruit cocktails and leave them in the fridge until your guests arrive as a nice welcome drink. Don’t forget the paper straws, too.”

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Often a theme can help here, too.

“To create my tiki bar [pictured above], I used some flowers and bamboo tiki straws which I made myself,” says Tom Dyer, bartender and world flair champion. “I also found an old tea towel with instructions on how to make rum punch, which I stuck to the wall.

“My bar top had a little mascot and, of course, cocktail umbrellas and other tiki goodies. You could also use prints of bar-related quotes and pictures to hang around, and even a selection of your best booze on show.”

As well as the features themselves, think outside the box when it comes to arrangement.

“Ribbons are lovely,” says Meredith. “You can hang them in trees in a rainbow of colours. If you buy them from a florist they are really inexpensive and come in bulk reels.

“I love flowers,” she adds. “We use them in every activation we build. They add wonderful texture and smell. Think how you can arrange these in an original way. Maybe you can have them tumbling off a bookcase.”

Improvise with the right equipment  

Image: Sandy's On The Move

As someone setting up their own bar at home, you can’t be expected to have all the right equipment to hand; but luckily, you can find replacements quite easily.

“The majority of cocktail equipment is glorified kitchen tools,” says Lewis. “Key bits of kit are a good paring knife, a chopping board, a large glass, a long spoon, ice cube trays and a sieve.”

Try these swap-ins:

  • A shaker set = a large pickle jar or beaker
  • A bar spoon = a tablespoon
  • DIY ice = fill a zip lock bag with water, freeze and then smash it up
  • A muddler = the handle of an ice scoop
  • A strainer = a tea strainer, to stop all the ice falling onto your glass as you pour it from the shaker (especially important for martinis)
  • A prep area = a large chopping board
  • A bar measure = an egg cup or shot glass
  • An ice bucket = a fruit bowl filled with ice (you don’t want to be running back and forth to the freezer)
  • A beer bucket = fridge space can be precious so have a dustbin or inflatable beer bucket full of ice. No-one likes a warm beer

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For an extra dash of something fancy, Meredith recommends the following:

A decent cocktail shaker: You can get some lovely copper ones. Bartenders use something called a Boston Glass, which is a thickened glass beaker with a shaker. They pour the liquid out a bit more simply than a cocktail shaker with a cap.

Cool cocktail glasses: Professional bartenders spend a huge amount of time choosing the right glass for their creations. They don’t have to match. See if you can get some fun vintage options on eBay. Mix and Match is best.

And finally for spirits and mixers, look to stock up on:

  • Vodka
  • Rum
  • Gin
  • Tequila
  • Whiskey
  • Triple sec
  • Some kind of citrus juice (lime or lemon)
  • Liquid sugar (make it with 1 part of boiling water and 2 parts of sugar, mix till clear)
  • If possible a bitters like Angostura; it’s the bartender’s equivalent to a chef’s pinch of salt

Some ingredients are more flexible than others. “Gin is very versatile, and can make a variety of drinks without the need for mixers,” says Lewis. “Store it in your freezer just in case you run out of ice to make a simple dry martini.

“Rum mixes with pretty much anything, too: lemonade, coke, apple juice, tonic. It’s also available in a variety of styles and flavours to make every combination exciting.”

Get your cocktail game on 

Image: Copenhagen Distillery

Now we’re arrived at the best bit. Of course, you could simply chuck a hefty slug of gin over tonic but where’s the fun in that? If you’re serious about your home bar, you want to aim high with your cocktails; and luckily, there are loads of simple yet impressive recipes to make your mark with.

The Homijto

Tom Dyer is a big fan of this recipe for a homemade mojito.

Ingredients:

  • Three large handfuls of fresh mint
  • 50ml freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 25ml sugar syrup
  • 100ml Kraken Black Spice Rum
  • Ice
  • Lime wedges

Method:

  • Add the fresh mint, lime juice, sugar syrup and rum to a pint glass along with a splash of soda. Smash up some ice in a tea towel and half-fill the glass.
  • Give it a vigorous churn to mix it all together.
  • Top up with a bit more soda and ice and mix again, finish with more ice, a very large sprig of mint, a lime wedge and a straw.
  • Hey presto, two mojitos in one. It means you don’t waste your time making so many mojitos all day because you can’t just have one. 

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Lychee and rose martini

Meredith’s suggestion is based on a cocktail she loves from luxury macaroons company Ohlala.co.

Ingredients:

  • 35ml vodka
  • 25ml Gabrielle Boudier Lychee Liqueur
  • 25ml Lanique Rose Spirit Liqueur
  • 20ml Funkin lychee puree
  • 15ml lemon juice
  • 2 tsp of gomme syrup
  • Ice

Method:

  • Half fill the cocktail shaker with ice, add all the ingredients, shake vigorously, strain and serve.
  • Ohlala tip: if you don’t have lychee puree you can wizz up some canned lychees in the blender and use those instead. In the same way, if you don’t have gomme syrup, you can add two parts caster sugar to one part water.

Espresso martini

Thomas says the key to making drinks at home is simple, good ingredients. He swears by this recipe that his company Mambo Mobile Bars whipped up for a party with Ed Sheeran in 2016.

Ingredients:

  • 30ml vodka
  • 15ml Kahlua
  • 5ml Grand Marnier
  • 10 ml vanilla sugar
  • 1 shot of espresso
  • Ice

Method:

  • Pour the above ingredients into a shaker full of ice, shake it all together and double strain in a cold cocktail glass. Garnish with three coffee beans.
  • If you prefer a non-alcoholic version, discard the alcohol, double up the espresso and add some cream on top.

So that’s your cocktails sorted – but it’s always worth having a few nibbles to hand, too.

“As an Italian, I would suggest some olives, pickled onions and gherkins,” says Thomas. “Also parma ham and some parmesan chunks with a drizzle of honey. If you’re looking for something to go with a sweet drink such as an espresso martini, I would opt for some banana bread or gingerbread biscuits.”

Create a warm welcome 

Image: Dalloway Terrace/The Bloomsbury Hotel

So, you’ve got the cocktails covered – next up is envisaging how your guests will arrive. It’s no good just having various members of your household rock up to the nearest shelf of bottles and helping themselves. It’s up to you to set the scene.

“Always make sure you have all your fruit pre-chopped, free pourers on all spirits, and all the equipment at the ready,” says Thomas. “In this way when your guests come to the bar, you can have fun with them. You can chat to and entertain them instead of being too busy doing what you could have prepared for beforehand.”

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“Consider the entrance,” adds Meredith. “If you are setting up the bar in your living room can you decorate the door? Create a sense of occasion.

“Make sure your seating is arranged in the room properly, too,” she adds. “You want to allow your family or flatmates to chat to each other – not sat on a row on the sofa. I love a silver tray also. If you serve your guests as they sit down it’s really charming and shows you care.”

Image: The Rosewood Hotel

You may even want to create invites to drum up a sense of anticipation. “Maybe send invitations to your family members a few days before. Keep some parts secret, so there is an element of surprise,” says Meredith.

“Try and think of something a bit unusual. When we created a series of events for Marriott Hotel Group we were inspired by 60s London Music theme – lots of black and white posters of musicians and the charger plates were vintage records. We had brass instruments down the centre of the table. Such fun. People were picking the instruments and playing them by the end of the meal.”

“How about customising your own wristband for your party?” asks John. “Either with a personalised message such as a name for your party or bar, or for an old night club that you all used to visit which may have closed down now.”

“Learn a couple of bar magic tricks online,” suggests Lewis. “The three cups and four cherries is my favourite or even try some simple bar flair, such as throwing a lime wedge behind your back and landing it in the drink.”

Get the music and lighting spot-on 

Image: Portabar

“Just like a real bar, the music sets the atmosphere and a nicely-lit bar makes all the difference,” says Tom.

“Switch off the overhead lighting,” advises Meredith. “Maybe see if you can get some festoon lights, especially if you have set your bar up in the back garden. They are a bit classier than fairy lights and will give you a lovely summer festival vibe.

“If you can change the lighting throughout the party, that can be really effective too. Bring out candles as night falls and it becomes magical.”

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As for music, Meredith recommends planning your playlist in advance: “That way, you don’t have to worry about it as the night gets into full swing (and so there are no arguments). Some brilliant bars and venues have created playlists which you can download on Spotify.”

Then there’s the costume element. “Don’t forget to dress the part,” says Tom. “Your dress code depends on your bar. For my tiki home bar, I made sure I had a loud Hawaiian shirt, shorts and some sunglasses. If you want something more classy, then a shirt and a nice apron will help you look the part.” 

Try a little flair

To really push the boat out, try channelling your inner Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail.

“If you want to impress your guests without the worry of breaking anything, napkin moves are the way forward,” says flair champion Tom (not to be confused with the movie star). “The most performed move is a napkin spin.”

Here’s how to do it:

  • Hold the napkin like a frisbee and with a flick of the wrist release the napkin and let it spin in the air.
  • Then with one fluid motion place the same hand you span the napkin with underneath the spinning napkin with the back of your hand upwards.
  • Turn your hand up and over, away from you in an arching motion to catch the napkin in mid air on the back of your hand, using air resistance.
  • Then place the napkin on the bar top. You should finish with your palm facing up, with the napkin underneath and a smile on your face.

So there you have it: everything you need to know to make that home bar act come alive and delight your flatmates/family/lovers/fellow lockdown-dwellers.

Now for the cocktail shenanigans to begin… 

Top image: Jonny Cocktail

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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