Building a Better Bar
In many ways, my home bar is an extension of my passion for cooking. Years ago, when vanilla beans were on sale, I’d make vanilla extract for friends or flavored vodkas with weird ingredients that I’d invariably take a sip of and shove into the back of the pantry. Over time, the bottom shelf of the pantry became an exercise in forensics – I never really labelled anything, so color and smell became a clue as to just what I’d done.
Intermixed with all of those science experiments was my collection of spirits. Back then, I was lucky enough to work in a large liquor store, and part of my training was to be able to speak fairly authoritatively about most things we sold. Talking to my coworkers led me to amass about a dozen bottles – things like Cruzan Blackstrap, Maker’s Mark and Monopolowa vodka.
The power of the Anvil
The trouble really began when I met Bobby Heugel. I wandered into Anvil on a tip from a friend in my CSW* study group, and was dutifully impressed. A few weeks later, I popped in after work (still in my work shirt), and the friendly conversation quickly became much more professional. Bobby ran to the back and came out with a three page annotated list of liquor that he wanted to sell, but no one in Texas could find for him. I took the list in to our liquor buyer and after some initial hesitance, he agreed to pretty much bring in whatever Bobby wanted.
So now I had to learn how to talk to liquor reps. Between having Bobby in one ear and liquor reps giving me puzzled looks until I figured out how to get what I wanted from them, I learned a lot about liquor in a fairly short period of time. Sitting at Anvil, I got a crash course in period cocktails and how to think about liquor in the same way I thought about wine. And because I could see physical inventory throughout a large chain of retail liquor stores, I got to buy a few special bottles of things that are now hard to come by.
The power of the mother. Of invention.
We left Houston to live in central Texas in the summer of 2010. I remember packing two wine cases of liquor into the back of the car, which I thought was a whole lot of alcohol. The town we moved to was tiny, and had a distinct lack of craft cocktails – I was spoiled from Anvil, and quickly realized that the nearest quality drinks were an hour away in either Austin or San Antonio. Considering I wasn’t about to drive an hour, have a few drinks, then drive an hour back, I decided that I’d learn something about making cocktails at home.
As luck would have it, my two little boxes of alcohol found a new home – we had to get some new bedroom furniture after the move, and I appropriated a pretty basic surplus armoire to hold my booze. This was an unfinished, cheaply made, too tall, beat up thing that had one shelf and a drawer in the bottom. But it was better than making drinks on the kitchen island and walking back and forth to the pantry to retrieve bottles.
Living out in central Texas also led me to a life of liquor spelunking. You’d be amazed what you can find in out of the way places if you look hard enough and make friends with the staff of liquor stores. I’m talking about pre-artificial color Campari and pre-Diageo Zacapa 23 – before it was “Solera 23”. Old Stitzel-Weller distilled Bourbons on dusty shelves. Mispriced Mount Gay XO – the store in question thought it was a twelve pack when it was only six in a case, and refused to change the pricing after I told them about it. We’ll come back to this topic — how to hunt down interesting bottles and fill your bar — in the next installment.
Over a couple of years, I amassed a sizeable collection of liquor ... to the point that my little armoire that could was becoming untenable. The top was scarred by knife cuts and dented from setting bottles down too hard. Drippy bitters bottles had left multicolored rings in the unfinished wood top. I had exploded a couple of bottles of fermented ginger beer in there somewhere – not a sound you want to hear at 6 AM. Worse, I was breaking bottles trying to grab something from the very back of the cabinet and pulling it out sideways over the tops of all the other bottles.
About the same time that my issues were coming to a tipping (dripping? — editor) point, we also needed a buffet for the dining space. We like to entertain, and during the holidays, having 20 people in the house was not atypical. Putting dishes on the island worked, but not well, and killing two birds with one stone, my wife agreed to let me have a bar custom built as long as it was big enough to act as a buffet. She would use it when we had people over.
One of the great things about living in a small town is how easily some things become. The people from whom we were renting our house were also custom builders, and brother in law of a custom cabinet maker, who had made all of the cabinets in the house. It took me about five minutes to realize that a bar is nothing more than a custom cabinet — sure, turned on its side and larger than usual, but still – the work is the same. It was a quick phone call and a few meetings with the custom cabinet guy who agreed to the work, and then I had to figure out what exactly it was that I wanted in a new bar.
The power of height
My limiting factor in all this? It had to fit in a reasonable space, be big enough to double as a buffet, and I had a statuesque bottle of Luxardo Maraschino that was the bane of my existence. I had seen pictures on the internet of the creative ways people had dealt with that crazy bottle shape. After dealing with hidden bottles and lack of access to them, I wanted shelves that extended fully. And I wanted a sealed top that would be pretty impervious to scratches and stains.
|1 1⁄4||oz||Rum, Mount Gay Extra Old|
|1||oz||Scotch, Oban (95 Distiller's Edition)|
|1⁄4||oz||Sweet vermouth, Carpano Punt e Mes|
|4||ds||Bitters, Dr. Heather Duncan's Christmas Bitters|
|1||twst||Orange peel (flamed, as garnish)|
|1||ds||Bitters, Dr. Heather Duncan's Christmas Bitters (as garnish)|
So the guy built this cabinet for me. It’s cherry, 78 inches long by 24 inches deep by 42 inches high. This is enough for eight drawers (I chose six drawers and two adjustable shelves) that have full extension cabinet slides with hardware that supports 100 pounds. The height is a good working height for me; I’m 6’2”. The best way to figure this out is to hold your hands like you’re making a drink and mark the height a little lower than your hands. This is as tall as your bar should be, subtracting an inch and a quarter for the granite top. The lower bound for the bar should be the height of a Luxardo Maraschino bottle times how many drawers you want vertically, and adding in space for clearance and the wood itself.
I actually weighed full bottles of liquor to get to about 60 pounds, then grouped them together to find the dimensions of a drawer. Adding in gaps for the wood and hardware got me to 78 inches long and 24 inches deep.
The power of the tool
It took my guy about three weeks to make the piece, and a matching box to hold bitters. About halfway through, I visited the shop to see how it was coming along, and it looked fine. Cherry’s sort of pale and plain looking before it’s finished, and having stared at my kitchen cabinets for a year, I knew that he wanted to polyurethane the piece once it was finished. Now, I don’t like polyurethane. It’s fine, and relatively waterproof… if you don’t nick or scratch the finish. Once you do, it’s a pain to restore, or it’s all got to come off and be reapplied, and I wanted something more resiliant. I decided that I wanted a Danish oil finish, as it penetrates the wood, is water resistant, and leaves no coating, but a satiny shine. They put a coat on, then delivered it to the house.
Because I’m a crazy guy who can’t leave well enough alone, I proceeded to put on an additional five coats of Danish oil, each one cut with more and more mineral spirit and sanded with finer and finer sandpaper until it had a beautiful satin gloss. To protect the wood from stains, I bought a disk of beeswax, rubbed it over the piece until it was dull, coated the wax with one final coat of straight Danish oil, then buffed the wax and oil out with 0000 steel wool so that the bar had a glassy smooth finish. Cherry is also photosensitive, meaning it will darken as it’s exposed to sunlight.
The granite top was a lot easier. There was a granite yard in town, and I selected a piece that had an overhang of 1 ¼ inches that looked nice with what I thought the final color of the bar would be.
All told, the project ended up at about $2,000, with one quarter of that being the granite top, locks and knobs. I wanted something that would effectively be indestructable and be bigger than I needed at the time. Here’s how it looks today.
My best advice for people who are ready to take this step? Build your bar as if you have twice as many bottles as you have. I can’t stress enough how handy full extension cabinet slides are, and building it tall enough to be at a good working height will save your back a lot of stress. The rest of the details are completely up to you.
Zachary Pearson, editor
* Certified Specialist of Wine