Whenever I visit a home with a well-stocked bar, I’m instantly impressed. I’m not talking about people in three-story houses who convert their 1,000-square-foot basements into tiki bars—I’m talking about dwellers of apartments or small houses who ingeniously use limited spaces and budgets to transform a cart, a small counter, or a couple of shelves into a bar worth showing off. A micro-bar is cozy and welcoming, and it leaves every day open to the possibility of an impromptu party, even if it’s usually enjoyed by just your housemates or a significant other.
But if you’re starting from scratch, cobbling together a bottle collection and judging which bitters and tools you need can feel overwhelming. So I turned to some of Portland’s top bartenders, as well as local hobbyist mixologists, to learn more about the art of the small home bar.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a home with a tucked-away counter or built-in shelves, you’ll need to start by finding a container for your home bar. When I asked for tips on Twitter, several different people professed their love for the RÅSKOG, a small three-level utility cart from IKEA that’s a very reasonable $30. But if you want to get a little more creative, Portland home bar aficionado Ron suggests buying an antique sideboard, which, he says, “can be easily retrofitted into a home bar.”
Sure, you can easily pick up some good-enough barware at IKEA or Target—but Mike Shea, owner of the Rum Club, suggests searching for previously owned treasures at vintage shops like Lounge Lizard on SE Hawthorne or the Estate Store on NE MLK.
“For a home bar, you don’t need to have the most fancy, professional stuff,” Shea says. “There’s so much cool vintage stuff out there—that’s what I have at my house.”
But if you do want something professional-grade for your home, Shea recommends Bull in China, a local shop that sells stylish, high-end wares out of the Martin Ryan Distilling Company off NW 23rd.
If using a full bar set at home sounds like more of a pain than a pleasure, don’t sweat it. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an author and award-winning bartender at Portland’s Clyde Common, says the humble blender is the most underrated home bar tool.
“I don’t really like using a cocktail shaker at home because it gets sticky cocktail everywhere,” he says. “So I just throw the drink in the blender with one [one-inch-by-one-inch] ice cube and blend it on high until the ice cube is incorporated. As a bonus you can usually get four to six cocktails in a blender, as opposed to one or two in a shaker.”
The Good Stuff
If you love cocktails enough to set up a home bar, then you probably already know what your favorite liquor brands are. The fun of a home bar comes with picking a few oddball or local bottles that suit your specific tastes. Shea prefers to sample local vodkas, gins, and liqueurs, because they tend to be more successful that the brown hard liquors that need to be aged—“It’s hard to compete with Kentucky or Scotland,” he says.
London Bauman, a bartender at Firehouse Restaurant who curates a small home bar, says he’s fond of Portland-based Wild Roots Spirits’ cucumber and grapefruit infused gin, because it’s “light and beautiful and helps me pretend it’s sunny outside.” Josh Sargent, a local home bar enthusiast, favors the Turkish Coffee Liqueur from Corvallis’ Vivacity Fine Spirits because it has “a really wonderful intensity to it.” And Shea, who curates the best rum list in town, says he’s found one Oregon-made rum he enjoys: Donlon Shanks Amber Rum from Cannon Beach Distillery.
Have a new bottle you want to add to your home bar? You can find the closest liquor store that sells it by using the OLCC website oregonliquorsearch.com, which tracks every bottle in the state.
Once you have your home bar set up, you can start developing cocktails that take advantage of the fresh ingredients Oregonians enjoy year-round.
“When fruit is in season, it does all the work for you,” Shea says. “Blended margaritas or daiquiris are the best thing in the summertime. And it’s almost healthy.”