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6 Items You Need on Your Bar Cart Before Guests Come Over, According to Mixologists

These are the best ways to ensure you'll be serving up memorably good cocktails.

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Hosting guests requires plenty of planning, from making sure your home looks its best to creating the right ambiance for a dinner party. But no matter what the occasion may be, there's a good chance you'll end up serving your friends and loved ones a beverage or cocktail once they arrive. Fortunately, it's easy to get everything you need in order to keep everyone well hydrated and satisfied—even if you don't know the difference between a Pimm's Cup and a paloma. Read on to discover what you need on your home bar cart before guests come over, according to mixologists.

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The basic liquors and spirits

Woman in a liquor store looking at a shelf with bottles of whiskey.

With hundreds of options on the shelf at any liquor store, it can feel hard to hone in on the bare necessities of the perfect home bar. But instead of getting overwhelmed, you can cover most of your bases just by ensuring you have five types of alcohol ready to serve.

"The key is to have all the basics on hand that you would have on the 'speed rail' behind a bar: whisky, gin, vodka, rum, and tequila," says Lauren Gonzalez, bar expert and owner of Lolo Pass Hotel in Portland, Oregon. "Higher-quality spirits make for tastier drinks, so I think it's worthwhile to invest in top-shelf spirits you enjoy. You can find some great options for $20 to $40 per bottle."

But there's also no reason to go overboard when you're beginning to build out your selection. "If you're stocking your bar cart for the first time, you can just start with one light and one dark base spirit to keep it simple," suggests Cristina Martin, a New York City-based cocktail expert and educator. "I like having gin and whiskey in mine because of their versatility, but feel free to pick based on your or your guests' preference."

Vermouth and fortified wines

A closeup of a vermouth cocktail with an orange zest and green olive garnish, surrounded by potato chips
iStock / Miguel Tamayo Diaz

While most hosts know they'll need a few bottles of base spirits on hand, things get trickier once it comes to lesser-known ingredients and items. Besides being an integral part of any perfectly made martini or Manhattan, fortified wines are an underappreciated essential that can instantly elevate your home bar.

"I recommend having one dry vermouth and one sweet vermouth on hand," says Martin. "They can be mixed into cocktails or drank on their own over ice with club soda for a low-ABV cocktail option. But just remember: After you open vermouths, you want to keep them in the fridge to prolong their shelf life."

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The right hardware

set of cocktail making tools on slate background

As with cooking, whipping up the perfect cocktail requires much more than following proportions in a recipe. Besides the liquid in the glass, you'll need a few simple pieces of the necessary hardware to make everything come together.

"A mixing glass is essential for stirred cocktails like martinis, not to mention beautiful to display on your cart," says Gonzalez. "Other tools include a long stirring spoon, a metal shaker set, jiggers for measuring ingredients, two types of strainers for straining out ice and pulp—you'll want a Hawthorne and a fine mesh version—and a muddler for crushing fruit, citrus, or mint leaves."

And don't shy away from shopping for a version with the right decorative qualities. "I store these on the top of my bar cart inside the shakers and mixing glasses along with some unique glassware," she adds.

Non-spirit items and liqueurs

A young couple shopping for a bottle in a liquor store

Depending on your guests' tastes, classic cocktails might not always cut it. That's why you should be prepared with some non-spiritous options to make sure they'll have something they'll enjoy sipping.

"I like to have a few types of wine available at all times—usually a dry white, a lighter red like a pinot noir, a fuller red like a Cabernet Sauvignon blend or a syrah, and a bottle of bubbly," says Gonzalez. "I firmly believe everyone should always have a bottle of something sparkling in their fridge ready to celebrate at a moment's notice."

You can also add some depth to your selection with other non-spirit liqueurs. "If you're up for it, add an aperitivo like Campari to the mix. And amaros are also a nice addition because they are perfect for after-dinner sipping," says Martin.

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Non-alcoholic ingredients

Different citrus fruits with leaves as background
New Africa / Shutterstock

Even the stiffest drinks require some non-boozy ingredients to balance them out. And in some cases, experts say having the right items on hand can be as important as your selection of spirits itself.

"Don't forget to stock non-alcoholic ingredients," says Martin. "My bar cart always has some club soda, tonic water, and ginger beer. I'd also grab a bottle of Angostura or orange bitters to dash into your drinks."

"And even though it might require a quick trip to the store before a get-together, a bowl full of citrus fruits like fresh lemons, limes, and oranges is an absolute bar necessity," she adds. Besides making easy garnishes, you can count on their fresh juice as a key ingredient in many drinks or for their zests to liven up cocktails.

If you're planning on going through a higher volume of cocktails than your juicer or time might allow, there's nothing wrong with using ready-made ingredients—especially when you don't want to worry about running out to the store at the last minute. "Canned or bottled juices are always a good idea to have stocked," Irving Gonzales, an expert mixologist and cocktail consultant with IZO Spirits, tells Best Life. "Think cranberry so that way you can mix some cosmos, orange juice for a screwdriver, and grapefruit for a classic greyhound."

Homemade ingredients and special garnishes

Three Cocktails
Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Just like throwing a dinner party, getting prepared for your guests well in advance can help to cut down on some of the stress and commotion when they finally arrive. That's why whipping up a few essential ingredients and having garnishes ready to go can be a huge help.

"Pre-made simple syrup will keep in the fridge for up to six months, which you can make by combining equal parts sugar and boiling water on the stovetop," Gonzalez says. "And, of course, jars of Luxardo cherries and olives are must-haves for martinis and Manhattans, which you can store right in your fridge and last practically forever."

If you feel like you're stepping out of your comfort zone, she suggests coming up with a "signature cocktail" and simplifying service by thinking ahead.

"Like any professional bar, it's all about mise en place and getting prepped in advance," says Gonzalez. "If you have an idea of what your guests like, you can prep garnishes and mixers before your guests arrive so that things can be mixed and served quickly without much cleanup."

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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