One afternoon in the summer of 2005, Mr. Joe invited John Cruse and a few others over to the house for cocktails. Mr. Joe hailed from the old school, and he served up no-nonsense Manhattans, which none of his guests had had before. “We were like, ‘Damn, that’s good,’ ” Cruse recalls. The group committed then and there to forming a cocktail club, meeting once a month to explore the classics.
As it happened, they already had a place to meet. In 1997, Cruse, who’s the general manager of a local television station, had built a basic home bar in his garage in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. He and his wife, Melissa, hauled an old and battered bar from his uncle’s backyard. For the first eight years, drinking was confined mostly to shots and beer, but that era concluded in 2005, when Cruse ventured online to advance his knowledge of classic cocktails.
He recalls peering into the screen, like a researcher scanning data for evidence of extraterrestrial life, when he made his discovery. “I said … ‘Hey, guys, we’re not alone. There’s a whole underground out there.’ ”
Cruse had found the early cocktail internet, where unruly bands of geeks traded information on recipes and obscure ingredients. The cocktail club assembled what they needed, met in the garage, and served up their first drink: a Pimm’s Cup.
The original garage would not recognize today’s garage. The old bar—which toppled over if anyone thought to lean on it—has been replaced by a full-size L-shaped bar that was crow-barred out of a racetrack facility days before demolition. There’s an ice machine and full-size refrigerator (the freezer filled with coupes and Nick and Nora glasses). Virtually every surface inside is adorned with something—beer signs, family photos, and paintings of Elvis and John Wayne. “People would always want to give us something, so they could be part of it,” says Melissa. They’ve since implemented a one-in, one-out policy.
About a dozen years on, the classic cocktail club continues to meet 10 times or so each year as they sip their way through the canon. They recently sampled the Fog Cutter, their 101st cocktail recipe (and 111th overall—some drinks bear repeating).
The cocktail renaissance of the previous two decades has gotten plenty of ink, much of it focused on iconic bars—Milk &Honey, PDT, Zig-Zag Café—and pioneers like Dick Bradsell in London; Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan in New York; and Murray Stenson in Seattle. These places and people prodded the world to rethink how to imbibe and socialize in public.
At the same time, a similar movement was taking place out of view—in garages, basements, living room alcoves, and on front stoops, where groups gathered to create their own bars and make their own drinks. Some were motivated by design—to revamp a dowdy space and make it high-style, like they’d seen on home makeover shows. Some were driven by an innate desire to mingle and host. And others were simply marooned in two-stoplight towns where the creative ferment underway in major cities hadn’t yet percolated. Was it too much to ask for a good cocktail?
So they joined a counterculture revolution fueled by passion and curiosity. And while the still-proliferating cocktail bars are flourishing, at times they seem more driven by pop culture—chasing after social-media fame—than a subculture fueled by obsessives, which is where they started. Twenty years in, the home bartending scene remains driven by personal passion and curiosity.
No Place Like Home
The seed behind a home bar is often a bar cart. This can be simple or fancy, classy or kitschy. But acquiring one is often the first step toward saying: I will take cocktails more seriously. (Then again, it may also be saying: I have no more room in my kitchen cupboard, and my spouse says all the bottles are getting ridiculous.)
“I have a bar cart that’s pretty packed,” says Meg Moorhouse, a Brooklyn-based designer who got interested in cocktails when managing a restaurant about a decade ago. When she and her husband had a daughter, their going-out days were curtailed, so they started entertaining more at home—having people over once or twice a month, with parties for as many as 80. They’d focus on one or two cocktails, preparing them in decanters for the night—often setting up the cart so visitors could pour themselves Boulevardiers, Negronis or Aviations.
Creating an inviting space for drinking is the sole goal of a public bar. For a home bar, that’s usually lower on the priority list. It’s in the entertainment category—like adding a game room or a six-burner outdoor grill.
Melissa Watson, who works at Bitters + Bottles, a liquor store and cocktail supply shop in South San Francisco, says her interest took root during a year in Europe, when she became fascinated by aperitivo culture. After returning home eight years ago, she started attending cocktail classes to hone her skills, including Monday-night sessions at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco.
She started inviting about a dozen people at a time to her Belmont home, where she’d repurposed an Ikea kitchen island as a bar. She made mini cocktails of an ounce or so, putting them in labeled cups so the uninitiated could sample widely. “It’s cool when I get people who want to explore,” she says. “But many don’t really know what they want to order.”
Louise Pemberton, who lives in New Orleans with her husband, Michael, remembers her dad making Beefeater Martinis in the evenings when he came home from work. “I would eat the olive, and I’ve been on the road to this bar ever since,” she says.
In the mid-1990s, the Pembertons took to the web to learn about classic cocktails. Their friend, Chuck Taggart, was writing his Gumbo Pages website about drinking and dining, which led them to Sazeracs. During a trip to San Francisco they went to Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on a friend’s advice, met bartender Julio Bermejo (a leading tequila authority), and drank one of his Margaritas. “I’d never had a cocktail with fresh juice before, and from there it just started steamrolling,” Michael says.
The couple bought an antique creole cottage just south of the French Quarter in 2002, and by 2008 decided that their “useless” back room should be a bar. They recruited a craftsman friend to build a solid bar topped with lacewood, which has grain that looks like alligator skin. The Beefeater bric-a-brac went on the shelves beside a growing assortment of bottles.
They dubbed it the Stand Up Double (a nod to the Pemberton’s passion for baseball) and threw open their doors to friends. While they host a few big parties each year, it’s more designed to mimic an old-school neighborhood bar, the kind where they like to meet up with friends a few times a week. “We weren’t interested in creating an event space; we wanted to create a space where we really wanted to hang out,” says Michael. “The key for us is how it has become an integral part of our daily life.”
That innate drive in some to create a welcoming space can be ruinously seductive. Brian Robinson, a financial planner who lives outside Washington, D.C., got interested in spirits while working at a high-end restaurant. He started collecting vintage spirits about two decades ago, looking for “dusties” at estate sales and remote liquor stores. He now has around 4,000 bottles, some of which he shares with the public as spirits curator at D.C. bar The Columbia Room.
At home, he hosts monthly spirits and cocktail tastings for about a dozen guests at a time. His basement setup was cramped, so he hired an architect to redesign it, better displaying his collection and offering a more comfortable space for tasting.
Construction started this winter. He estimates the price tag will hit about $100,000—with the bulk of that on cabinetry work. “It’s definitely a lot, but it comes down to the fact that I love trying new and old things, so I’m willing to spend the money to store and display it properly,” he says. “It’s awesome to see someone’s face when they’re drinking a Cognac from the 1800s, or a pre-ban absinthe.”
In 1960, Harvard sociologist David Riesman co-authored a study entitled “The Vanishing Host.” (A decade earlier, he had co-authored a groundbreaking book called The Lonely Crowd, which sold more than a million copies and made him the best-selling sociologist in America.) The study was based on reports from 80 cocktail parties, of which 26 “were subjected to detailed qualitative analysis.”
Among the conclusions: “The current vogue of non-conformity has curious consequences for sociability” (damn beatniks!), and the loosey-goosey nature of parties ungoverned by strong hosts led to something “more like a 24-hour cafeteria than a three-act play.”
A host doesn’t just mix and serve drinks but also serves as impresario of the evening, maintaining activity and flow. For some, perfecting that art is every bit as rewarding as mixing up the perfect Manhattan. “I like having friends over,” says Humuhumu Trott, a software developer in San Francisco who serves cocktails for upwards of a dozen friends a couple of times each month. “I love sharing experiences, and luring people with alcohol is a good way to get them to your house.”
She’s long hosted cocktail gatherings, starting in the 1990s when she lived in Seattle. “Back then, my idea of home entertaining was shaped by the Martha Stewart model,” she says. “It was kind of a personal challenge: Can I pull it off?”
But she soon embraced a tropical/Hawaiian sensibility because it was … well, Hawaiian (“Who doesn’t love Hawaii when they’re little?”). That opened doors to the endless marvels of tiki culture, then being rediscovered in earnest. By 2003 she had launched a popular tiki reference site called Critiki.
After moving to San Francisco and meeting her husband, she shaped a space in their home for entertaining. “I’m now much more mindful of it as an enveloping experience,” she says. Guests enter from an upstairs hallway through a dim portal and walk down a stairway. They pass over a wooden boardwalk and through an indoor jungle crammed with plants and dappled with faux moonlight, before emerging into a tiki wonderland (built in a space that in more mundane houses would function as an ordinary basement). “It’s colorful and warm, and there’s a sense of release,” she says. “There’s a destination! It really breaks down barriers.”
Her ideal party is one in which “everyone is cross-pollinating, and I see breakout conversations and not just one big awkward mega-conversation,” she says. “And I love to see on Facebook that so many of my friends have later become friends with one another.”
Across the country, Nicole and Joe Desmond set off into the exit-less jungle of tiki in 2006. They were soon making their own falernum and orgeat by the quart, and curious bartenders were making pilgrimages to their Rhum Rhum Room, as they called it, complete with branded swizzles and glassware, to talk about the ins and outs of tiki drinks.
In recent years they’ve opened up to guests five or six times a year, and they aim to have about 30 guests at each party. Inside, visitors find an adventurer’s club vibe, complete with artwork and exotic masks and three live parrots squawking during the festivities. “I always like a good party,” Nicole says. “And these are the kind of parties I like to go to—but they’re in my own home.”
Bartender Sandy De Almeida got serious about cocktails around 2006 but also had the misfortune of living in a city that didn’t much care about them. She was in Toronto, where liquor sales are controlled by the province. Even though it’s the world’s largest purchaser of beverage alcohol, for decades the focus was on high-volume spirits, eschewing niche products. “At the time, we had maybe two vermouths, and only a few amari,” De Almeida says.
The experimentation erupting across North America remained visible only at a distance from Toronto. So De Almeida traveled to New York about five times a year to visit bars like Little Branch and Death & Co., stocking up on bottles to bring home. De Almeida couldn’t sell her treasures through the bar where she worked, but nothing stopped her from sharing with friends at home. So liquor accumulated and her shelves overflowed. “Bottles started piling up around my couch,” she says. Eventually, a designer friend, Elan Marks, got a lead on some planks from a 200-year-old barn that was being torn down, and he constructed a bar with soaring shelves in her apartment, which has 16-foot ceilings.
At the outset, she hosted gatherings to introduce other bartenders to unfamiliar spirits. Four or five friends would drop by after work, and they could experiment and test out drinks they couldn’t make at their own places The impetus for such gatherings diminished as Toronto eventually caught up with the rest of the North American cocktail scene. But even a decade on, the momentum persists. De Almeida still regularly invites friends from inside and outside the industry, as they explore spirits both familiar and not.
For every home, there’s a different set of motivations, none of which involve fame or money. But one commonality is a deep desire to share what makes a great cocktail sing, or what makes one spirit stand out above the rest. It’s the same sort of drive that pushes others to share an indie band they’ve discovered, or insist friends come out to a new and overlooked restaurant serving amazing meals.
Today’s cocktail scene may have taken root in soil fertilized by experimentation and passion. But as it’s matured, it has, well … matured. (As one bar owner once joked to me, “When I started I was really into ingredients. Now I’m really into saving for my kid’s college education.”) But the home bars and the people behind them still retain much of the spirit in which this whole enterprise initially blossomed. “It’s like getting a tattoo,” says Joe Desmond, about hosting their regular parties in New York. “In the middle of it you’re wondering, ‘Why did I do this?’ But at the end, you’re happy you did.”
Desmond especially likes the moments when most but not all of the guests have left. “That’s my favorite time of the night,” he says. “When it starts to wind down and there are just six to eight people left and we can talk. There’s a sense of victory—an adrenaline rush. It’s over, and everybody had fun.”
Like what you see? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for our bi-monthly magazine. Subscribe now and save up to 59%—it’s just $21.95 for one year or $32.95 for two years. Click here for details.