How to Set Up a Bar for Your Next Holiday Party

We have expert advice from party planners and pro bartenders that will help you build the perfect bar for hosting.

elegant home bar setup
Photo: LOOK Photography / Getty Images

If you're planning a holiday party in tight quarters or simply don't have a home bar, don't fret. It's actually easy to set up a bar for a holiday party in a makeshift space. Here, we're sharing some straightforward guidelines from the pros so you can serve drinks efficiently at your next gathering.

How to Find the Right Space for the Bar for a Holiday Party

in an ideal world, carving out two defined areas for your bar would be best: There should be one spot for the liquor and wine bottles and another area that can serve as a work space, with the latter having enough room for pouring, mixing, garnishing, and so forth, advises Annemarie Schumacher, an award-winning event planner and founder of Make Every Day an Event based in St. Louis, Missouri. If space allows, a countertop near the sink is an ideal bar area, says Jordan Catapano, co-founder of This Girl Walks Into a Bar LLC bartending services, who's based in Los Angeles. "Guests can rinse out their shakers [the metal bar tool used to strain ice and solid ingredients from drinks] so as not to contaminate a tequila drink with the essence of a gin cocktail. The sink is often close to a trash bin, which eliminates the need for a spill bin [a small, lined trash can]," she says. "Remove all appliances and tchotchkes, line with clean bar towels, a small tablecloth or a runner, and devote this area to making cocktails."

Miami-based event planner Michelle Madison says her go-to surfaces for a holiday party bar include the kitchen counter, kitchen island, and/or tables (like your dining room table). But if theyse spaces don't work for you, she urges hosts to embrace getting a little creative: "I've turned an unused wall nook and bookshelf into a bar," she notes.

What to Stock

"A perfect holiday bar area should be simple and well-organized with spirits, bar tools, ice, prepared garnishes, and mixers," says Catapano, who recommends sticking with the "fab five" to keep things simple—vodka, tequila, bourbon, rum, and gin—or two specialty cocktails.

In terms of bar tools, Catapano says to have multiple cocktail shakers ("plastic if possible because they don't freeze shut like metal"), a couple of jiggers, bar spoons, and muddlers available for easy access wherever you've set up shop. "The garnishes should include sliced lemons, sliced limes, an open jar of cocktail olives with a bar spoon inside already, and possibly some fancy extras like dried blood orange wheels or jalapeño slices," she adds. "The mixers must include club soda (non-negotiable), bitters, agave, and small cranberry and pineapple juices." It's also a good idea to keep nonalcoholic beer, seltzer, and sparkling cider on hand for those who don't drink or like to go easy on the booze.

Should You Have a Full Bar or Limit Your Offerings to a Signature Drink or Two?

Ah, decisions, decisions. Like most things entertaining-related, the answer to this question comes down to budget and personal preferences. "Budget often dictates whether you have a full bar or opt for signature drinks with a few other options. If you're having a big party, a full bar is ideal to satisfy everyone's preferences, and you can still incorporate signature drinks for a festive touch," says Madison. "For smaller events, I suggest signature drinks, especially when there's no bartender. The drinks can be premade and displayed for guests to grab and go. You can have two other drink options guests can make themselves. Be sure it's organized with everything they will need." Echoing Madison, Catapano elaborates, "A full bar takes up too much real estate on your table or counter and gets expensive quickly. We are big fans of a signature drink (which people always gravitate towards) and a few other options."

Have Plenty of Glasses and Ice

For a large party or gathering, one of the most common mistakes people make, according to Schumacher, is not having enough glasses and ice on hand. "To remedy the glass situation, I suggest using plastic glassware. People are constantly misplacing their beverages as they chit-chat and mingle," she says. "Fortunately, there are lots of elegant, recycled plastic options from which to choose. A good rule of thumb is to have three times the number of glasses on hand as guests you anticipate."

Another pro-tip from Schumacher? "With respect to ice, borrowing or renting a large, fishing-type cooler that keeps items cold for up to a week is perfect for overflow ice," she says. "This can be placed outside on a back porch or in the garage, since they take up a lot of room and can be a bit unsightly. But it will ensure you have adequate ice to last the entire night." And one last word for the wise: "Guests frequently arrive with a bottle of wine as the host or hostess gift. If you're on a budget, cut back on how much wine you buy and use that savings towards a higher end tequila or bourbon," says Catapano.

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