Retro Ritual: Cocktail Hour
Since my summer fascination with the acknowledged Bon Vivant of the cocktail crowd, Gerald Murphy, and his legendary prowess with that instrument of seduction the cocktail shaker (It is rumored he wielded it “like a priest preparing mass.”) I thought it fitting to devote a post to the magisterial bar cart and its nostalgic allure.
The uncontested accoutrement of civilized living, a drinks tray or bar cart, as it is typically known, can literally breathe life into a room. Not only is it simple to assemble, but in one swift glance, it subtly, but assuredly, gives a living room (den, study, or library for that matter) the sense that all is ordered and perfect with the world.
Consider the beautifully matched silver tray (above) and creamer that the enlightened host(ess) can use for Rose’s lime juice or vermouth. And if you’re blessed with a full silver set, consider trying olives or onions in the sugar bowl for a functional and beautiful presentation.
Much like a bookcase with well-worn spines and a collection of titles acquired over a lifetime, a drinks tray adds depth to a room, is welcoming to the visitor and provides a few visual clues to the tastes of the inhabitants.
A designated space with room to maneuver and ample lighting is a good place to start for the home bar tray, counter or bar cart.
The image above, for example, is not recommended as the ideal setting for a drinks tray or bar area due to limited mobility and uncomfortably close proximity to the entrance. And who, pray tell, hangs a purse with money and life essentials on a doorknob for a quick heist and/or getaway? Perhaps the photographer had been too busy savoring the samples of their own bar tray to have noticed the inelegant offense.
The point of having a bar tray or bar cart, after all, is the connotation of hospitality, socializing, conversation with friends and savoring a well shaken or vigorously stirred martini in the comfort of your own home. So much chummier, don’t you agree, idling around your own home-made cocktail theater than being jostled in a bar with a second-rate drink, thinning ice, boorish behavior and bad acoustics.
When designing your drinks tray, look for the elegant, but unusual. I used to scour flea markets and antique shops searching for beautiful carafes and crystal decanters. It’s not important that the pieces match, just that they catch the light and showcase the exquisite hues of the spirits within. There’s something so divinely chic and, unquestionably, civilized about storing a fine scotch in its own vintage decanter with the accompanying ritual of pulling out the heavy crystal top (like this stylish little beauty on ebay) and pouring two fingers of amber into a guest’s glass.
A highly decorative metal tray is always a great addition. The blend of crystal and sterling or brass and silver, or different colored glasses with flowers and an abundance of mixers can set a bar area apart. A beautiful ice bucket can anchor the arrangement and a lineup of small vintage forks are perfect for spearing olives, chunks of fruit or onions. Another good idea: confine bottles of tonic and soda water to single-serving size so it always keeps its effervescence; large and jumbo sizes tend to go flat before you’ve finished using them.
A small cutting board is imperative for slivering lemons and cucumbers (essentials for a perfect Hendricks and tonic). You’ll also need small bottles of bitters, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco.
It’s a good idea to keep half bottles of wine and quarter bottles of Champagne, along with little cans of Cipriani Bellini mix in the refrigerator. Half bottles are always a prudent choice as they allow people to slowly sip, and if you’re only two, a half bottle is perfect, particularly if you began your evening with a martini or two … or three.
Finally, remember that no matter how great your bar tending expertise, the details for the memorable fete are to be found in the snacks: anchovy-stuffed olives, Marcona almonds and Jamon Serrano are two favorites from D’Espagna on Broome Street.
A few final noteworthy tips: less is often more and so it is with drinks. A small drink will stay chilled and effervescent in an undersized glass and since you’re right at home, it’s effortless to cross the room and whip up another.
Do be mindful that dusty, rarely used bottles are never appealing and under no circumstances is plastic in glassware, stemware or plates permitted. Think of it as something of a faux pas committed by only the most notoriously ill mannered.