Retro Ritual: Cocktail Hour



Since my summer fascination with the acknowledged Bon Vivant of the cocktail crowd, Gerald Murphy, and his legendary prowess with that instrument of seduction the cocktail shaker (It is rumored he wielded it “like a priest preparing mass.”) I thought it fitting to devote a post to the magisterial bar cart and its nostalgic allure.

The uncontested accoutrement of civilized living, a drinks tray or bar cart, as it is typically known, can literally breathe life into a room. Not only is it simple to assemble, but in one swift glance, it subtly, but assuredly, gives a living room (den, study, or library for that matter) the sense that all is ordered and perfect with the world.

Consider the beautifully matched silver tray (above) and creamer that the enlightened host(ess) can use for Rose’s lime juice or vermouth. And if you’re blessed with a full silver set, consider trying olives or onions in the sugar bowl for a functional and beautiful presentation.




Much like a bookcase with well-worn spines and a collection of titles acquired over a lifetime, a drinks tray adds depth to a room, is welcoming to the visitor and provides a few visual clues to the tastes of the inhabitants.

A designated space with room to maneuver and ample lighting is a good place to start for the home bar tray,  counter or bar cart.




The image above, for example, is not recommended as the ideal setting for a drinks tray or bar area due to limited mobility and uncomfortably close proximity to the entrance. And who, pray tell, hangs a purse with money and life essentials on a doorknob for a quick heist and/or getaway? Perhaps the photographer had been too busy savoring the samples of their own bar tray to have noticed the inelegant offense.




The point of having a bar tray or bar cart, after all, is the connotation of hospitality, socializing, conversation with friends and savoring a well shaken or vigorously stirred martini in the comfort of your own home. So much chummier, don’t you agree, idling around your own home-made cocktail theater than being jostled in a bar with a second-rate drink, thinning ice, boorish behavior and bad acoustics.




When designing your drinks tray, look for the elegant, but unusual. I used to scour flea markets and antique shops searching for beautiful carafes and crystal decanters. It’s not important that the pieces match, just that they catch the light and showcase the exquisite hues of the spirits within. There’s something so divinely chic and, unquestionably, civilized about storing a fine scotch in its own vintage decanter with the accompanying ritual of pulling out the heavy crystal top (like this stylish little beauty on ebay) and pouring two fingers of amber into a guest’s glass.




A highly decorative metal tray is always a great addition. The blend of crystal and sterling or brass and silver, or different colored glasses with flowers and an abundance of mixers can set a bar area apart. A beautiful ice bucket can anchor the arrangement and a lineup of small vintage forks are perfect for spearing olives, chunks of fruit or onions. Another good idea: confine bottles of tonic and soda water to single-serving size so it always keeps its effervescence; large and jumbo sizes tend to go flat before you’ve finished using them.




A small cutting board is imperative for slivering lemons and cucumbers (essentials for a perfect Hendricks and tonic). You’ll also need small bottles of bitters, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco.

It’s a good idea to keep half bottles of wine and quarter bottles of Champagne, along with little cans of Cipriani Bellini mix in the refrigerator. Half bottles are always a prudent choice as they allow people to slowly sip, and if you’re only two, a half bottle is perfect, particularly if you began your evening with a martini or two … or three.




Finally, remember that no matter how great your bar tending expertise, the details for the memorable fete are to be found in the snacks: anchovy-stuffed olives, Marcona almonds and Jamon Serrano are two favorites from D’Espagna on Broome Street.

A few final noteworthy tips: less is often more and so it is with drinks. A small drink will stay chilled and effervescent in an undersized glass and since you’re right at home, it’s effortless to cross the room and whip up another.

Do be mindful that dusty, rarely used bottles are never appealing and under no circumstances is plastic in glassware, stemware or plates permitted. Think of it as something of a faux pas committed by only the most notoriously ill mannered.



~ by eaesthete on 09/12/09.

11 Responses to “Retro Ritual: Cocktail Hour”

  1. Sound and inspiring advice for those who love retro and ritual. I’m tempted to convert my tea cart, but it wouldn’t have the glamour of of that first sparkly table!

  2. What a treat to see this conviviality on a workday Monday morning. Thank you.

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Mrs.E. and I have a bar of one sort or another stashed in every room. But the tray or cart is the epitome of elegance. Somewhere I have a photo of a bar tray at Windsor Castle (I think.) Crowded with bottles, singleserve mixers and sparkling crystal and shining sliver, it is the most welcoming sight I’ve ever seen and humanizes the occupants.

    Delightful post.

    • E,

      I had the most difficult time finding photos for this post and I had thought to ask for your help
      since I knew you would provide the perfect solution. And there you have it. A bar tray at
      Windsor Castle! I’d love to see it. And thank YOU for your unsquelched enthusiasm.

      In fact, perhaps in an appeal to restore the “civilized” back into “living” I should generate a post
      asking readers to provide their own customized version of the ritual bar tray.

  4. EA, I think readers would be happy to respond to such a request.

    The photo wasn’t in the book I thought. It’ll take some doing but I’ll track it down. I hope it wasn’t on video… .

    • Thank you E. I await what I imagine to be unmatched excellence.

      Well readers, what think you on the notion of sending in your own visual interpretation of
      cocktail hour? With the onset of autumn, cooler evenings, longer nights, and a new wave of
      thriftiness supplanting our excesses, think about creating your own private ritual in the
      sanctuary of your home and restoring the lost splendor of cocktail hour. And share it with us,
      won’t you? I would happily establish a forum. A post to come.

  5. Thank you for this inspiration. I do not have a drinks area, but would like one. I look forward to your readers pictures, as I am sure to be inspired by elegance to create a lovely ritual.

  6. Have you seen the first installment of the Nick and Nora movies? I think the very first scene with Nick is in a hotel bar as he explains to the bartender how to shake a martini. An wonderful, wonderful scene…

    • Rebecca,

      What a wonderful suggestion. Let me do a bit of research on that. Perhaps it’s already on youtube. Think it might make a great post.

  7. “Now a Martini you shake to a waltz…” I believe that’s the quote. A Manhattan to a Foxtrot. Now there is another…. Oh Hello!

    EA, you don’t own the set of Thin Man movies? Constant inspiration. Continuous fun. Not to be missed.

  8. […] Via The Errant AEsthete, Style Redux, and […]

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