Every collection starts small.
Think back to that very first dusty 45-rpm single you found in your uncle’s attic, now flanked by scores of vintage vinyl neatly shelved in the living room. Collecting spirits is no different. A road trip through Bourbon County, a dinner-party gift of aged Scotch whisky, and before you know it, your libations have taken over more than their fair share of kitchen-cabinet space.
Congratulations: It’s time to acquire a liquor cabinet.
First popular during Prohibition, when liquor was often stored out of sight, the home bar has re-emerged alongside classic cocktails as a staple of domestic entertaining. Go-to furniture retailers like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn sell a number of credenzas, consoles and sideboards perfectly suited for wine and spirits storage. But that’s presuming you’re game for spending upward of $1,000 on mass-produced furniture.
For those who’d prefer a unique, vintage piece with a little history, home-bar alternatives abound.
“The best advice I have,” says Daniel Hyatt, manager at San Francisco’s craft cocktail-centric Alembic Bar, “is to be creative. A small bookshelf can make a nice bar; a large rolling-toolbox, like you’d find at an auto shop, also makes a nice bar.”
In other words, anything goes.
Hyatt’s home bar was found at a secondhand store. But for other spirits enthusiasts, a single cabinet can be too limiting. Mixologist Michael Robertson, who slings drinks at Portland, Ore.’s Driftwood Room at Hotel deLuxe, found potential in an old piano. “I have made four-tiered shelves where the keys and top were,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I took the front panels off and I light it up with candles and rope lights.”
Realistically, converting a piano into liquor storage isn’t something most folks have the time, ambition or skill to take on. Much less daunting: Browsing for well-constructed cabinetry at flea markets, antiques and thrift stores, garage and estate sales, and online auctions. Look for wood structures built with genuine craftsmanship (dovetail joints are good, veneer finishes are bad), sturdy shelves (preferably a foot between them, to accommodate tall bottles) and latching doors.
Antique wood ice-chests are ideal, given their just-right capacity with built-in shelving and airtight doors. Fairly common at antiques stores and flea markets, they typically sell for a few hundred dollars or less. Several bartenders I spoke with also mentioned adapting vintage Victrola record cabinets, which have ample storage suitable for tall bottles. They’re not especially rare, which means they’re priced affordably. A quick search on Craigslist found a “circa 1930s Victor Victrola cabinet currently used as bar,” asking price $50.
There are bona-fide vintage liquor cabinets out there too. I searched for about six months on Craigslist before happening upon my custom-built 1930s-era dark-wood bar cabinet, with a built-in light and pull-out shelf for glassware. My bar was listed in the dead of winter, its glass doors and interior light lovingly repaired by its seller, Clarence, who stores and sells his estate-sale finds at an unheated, makeshift storefront on Chicago’s South Side. My burgeoning collection of spirits has since graduated from the kitchen cabinet to said liquor cabinet in the dining room — with a nice view of the record collection.
Beyond spirits, experts like cocktail historian David Wondrich emphasize that basic tools are second only to basic recipes. “Beyond that, it’s icing on the cake,” Wondrich says. “A lot of people will mistake getting the gear right for getting the technique right.”
While Wondrich doesn’t have a home bar — he admits “there’s no way I could fit any of (my collection) into anything but an actual bar” — he relies on a simple bar kit for home entertaining. In it are a cocktail shaker and mixing glass for stirred drinks, a two-part (Boston-style) shaker for shaken drinks, a bar spoon, ice cracker and measuring device.