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Build your own Chicago bar cart

The at-home bar cart starter kit that supports local businesses

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The COVID-19 pandemic has left indoor dining in a constant state of flux in Chicago. As bars and restaurants throughout the city are scrambling to make outdoor dining as comfortable as possible for guests, rigged tarps and igloos aren't exactly ideal conditions to sip craft cocktails as temps continue to drop. Luckily, curating a bar cart at home is a simple alternative to catch a buzz without freezing your ass off. Here's a list of at-home bar cart essentials that allow you to buy local while being your own bartender.

No need to rush out and buy a bar cart—free counter space or stylish side tables also work for your at-home bar. And while stocking up on liquor can be a bit pricey, you can start with the staples and build your bottle collection at your own pace.

The threesome of spirits that make up your bare necessity bar cart includes gin, bourbon, and Campari. You'll also want to grab a bottle of sweet vermouth. This group is a great starter pack for your cart and will allow you to tackle your staple cocktails like an old fashioned, martini, and negroni. Just a heads-up, if you're new to negronis, practice drinking them solo before ordering or crafting one on a date. The bitter cocktail is an acquired taste.

To keep your bucks in your backyard, opt to purchase your bottles from local distilleries. North Shore and FEW Spirits both offer delivery through the distillery websites with options to order through third-party delivery apps like Instacart and Drizly. Koval Distillery and Maplewood Brewery & Distillery offer scheduled contactless pickup.

Another prime component to a bourbon old fashioned are bitters. While great for cleansing the palate and facilitating digestion, the key to bitters on your bar cart is for balancing your drinks. Chicago's Bitter Ex is operated by exes in love/partners in business Ryan Rezvani and Stephanie Andrews. The company creates handcrafted bitters locally with bottles starting at $15. Bitter Ex recently introduced CBD bitters in a variety of flavors that boast 300 mg in each bottle to add a different kind of buzz.

If you don't want to go through the trouble of ordering from individual distilleries, opt for snagging spirits from locally-owned liquor stores in place of a chain.

Other edible necessities include sugar cubes, soda water, tonic water, demerara sugar, and citruses, like lemons, limes, and oranges. Demerara sugar is key to making simple syrup, which consists of boiling sugar and water (1:1) until the sugar dissolves. Let it cool, and pop it in a mason jar in the fridge for safekeeping. Simple, right?

It also never hurts to have a bottle of bubbles for celebratory sips and champagne floaters. This can be tucked away in your fridge until the time comes.

Rather than Googling recipes, you can snag Cocktails for Ding Dongs, authored and illustrated by two Chicago-based bartenders, Dustin Drankiewicz and Alexandra Ensign. The book also lays out tips and tricks from celebrated bartenders across the country for all levels, even, yes, ding dongs. To grab your copy, visit cocktailsfordingdongs.com; it'll run you just over $15 and you'll be prompted to order through PayPal. Bartenders from the Smith in River North have also generously given the recipe for a seasonal hot toddy in the meantime.

Now that you've got your booze, let's talk accessories. Your cart should include a shaker, jigger, julep strainer, and muddler, as well as a citrus press and zester. You can usually find these as a set, which makes them easier to hunt down. Other must-haves include a bar spoon and an ice bucket with tongs. When it comes to glassware, to start, you can get by with a set of highball (prime for a Collins or gin fizz) and lowball glasses (best used for drinks like an old fashioned or Manhattan). Once you've decided you're ready to take the next step in your glassware game, you can begin collecting martini glasses, coupes, and champagne flutes. Barshop Chicago sells these items, alongside a lineup of decanters, at moderate prices that can be shipped to your door. For an in-person shopping experience, you can stock up at the newly opened Kit: A Bar Supply Store in Portage Park.

If you want bar cart gear with a little more personality, slide by vintage shops like Broadway Antique Market, Brown Elephant, P.O.S.H., and Good Old Days. There you can snag one-of-a-kind glassware, signs, coasters, and carts that can provide some flair when hosting.

Speaking of hosting, there are some extras that might come in handy when it comes time for an intimate gathering. For instance, silicone ice cube trays, which come in all shapes and sizes—from classic block cubes and perfect round spheres to trays that can sculpt "The Child" from The Mandalorian series. Nothing like a baby Yoda floating in your old fashioned. Olive spears and a jar of maraschino cherries aren't a bad idea either for garnishes.

Don't have the energy to customize and keep up with your own bar cart? You can always opt for to-go cocktails from bars and restaurants around town. Either way, you're supporting local businesses while staying safe and warm within the comfort of your own home.

Once your bar is stocked, warm up with a homemade hot toddy. - COURTESY THE SMITH
  • courtesy The Smith
  • Once your bar is stocked, warm up with a homemade hot toddy.

The Smith's Hot Toddy

Ingredients:

4 oz water
chai tea
1.5 oz Bourbon
.25 oz Campari
.5 oz Lemon Juice
.5 oz Agave
Garnish with sliced lemon

Instructions:

1. Bring water to a boil, pour over your tea bag or steeper, and let the tea steep for five minutes in mug.
2. Combine the rest of the ingredients and stir.
3. Garnish with sliced lemon and serve.   v

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