Kingsley Amis, in Tools of the Trade (you can read the whole thing in Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, look for a full review soon), says the following about essential elements for your bar:
1. A refrigerator. All to yourself, I mean. There is really no way round this. Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like food.
Making any kind of variety of drinks needs refrigeration. Heck, just keeping beer on hand takes a cold box of some kind. And your Basement Bar needs its own refrigerator for a variety of reasons, not just Mr. Amis’s very cogent observation on the fate of kitchen fridges.
Yeah I hate it when the oldand suchfills up the freezer with peas and chicken…
You do remember that she reads this blog too, don’t you?
You really do not have room in your kitchen fridge for all that you want to keep for your bar. Really. I mean it. Go look, I’ll wait.
And if, by some miracle, you do temporarily have room, remember that your basement bar will be isolated from your kitchen. Do you want to schlep back and forth for your fresh and colds all the time? I’m going to talk about schlepping and its implications a lot in this series, so get used to it.
Let’s talk about what you need refrigeration for, then we can better examine what kind of device will do the job for you.
Much more below the fold:
First off, there are the things that simply must be kept cold, if you don’t want to be kept cold yourself.
- Milk and cream.
- Juices such as Orange, Lime, Lemon, and Cranberry. (Trendy juices such as Pomegranite and Acai will probably go out of style before they spoil…)
- Eggs and/or egg whites.
Second, there are things that will last you much longer if kept cold.
- Grenadine, Rose’s, etc.
- Olives, onions, maraschino cherries.
- Fresh fruit like (especially) limes and lemons.
- Homemade ingredients like simple syrup, etc.
Third, there are bottles that ought to be kept cold.
- White wine.
- Rosé. (Remember, Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink White Zinfandel!)
- Lillet, etc.
Last, there are things that need to be kept frozen.
So what are your options?
Let’s start with something that nearly all of you, if you are old enough to drink anything that this blog writes about, have seen and probably owned: The basic
Dorm Fridge. You may even still have one of these little ubiquitous beauties tucked away somewhere. I have one. It lives in our garage where it keeps a ready supply of VitaminWater for me to grab on the way to tennis matches, as well as providing temporary overflow storage when we have a big party. It is about twenty years old and still chugs gamely along.
You can buy one like thisfor about $250 or even less.
- Freezer. You can make and keep ice in it. Some models may be large enough to keep your Stoli syrupy cold.
- Provides both vertical and horizontal storage. You will be putting lots of different stuff in your cold box, and it will come in all shapes and sizes.
- Undercounter size. Whether you build it in or leave it free-standing, counter height give you lots of options for design.
- Low cost. Depending on your budget, stop here.
- Freezer. This little thing will for most people be worse than not having one. It doesn’t let you store nearly enough ice to be useful for any but a single round of drinks, and not even that if you are popular, or plan on being. If you do put a bottle in there, you will likely lose what ice capacity you have. Meanwhile, the freezer unit will take up a lot of space in the thing, and you can’t store anything right up against it or it will freeze.
- Noise. These models are built cheap, and don’t spend a lot of money and effort on being silent.
- Shelves will almost certainly not be adjustable. What you have is what you get. You can’t move things as your needs change. Also, these are designed for college kids or very small apartment dwellers. Your storage needs will be very different. The internal layout is an inevitable compromise of storage needs, and like any law coming out of Congress, it will look fine until you put it into action.
The last pro and the last con pretty much sum up this option. It is an economical compromise. You can probably afford it, but if you can afford one of the options below, you’ll most likely be happier. If you can’t afford this, you are not likely to be happy with whatever Basement Bar you put together.
So how about a full sized refrigerator? These come in a variety of sizes, from petit apartment size, to big honking built-ins. You definitely have one of these in your kitchen, in some form. Let’s look at these.
- Big Freezer. You can make lots of ice, and store several bottles in here, if you like.
- Space. Even with a small one of these, you are going to have room for all the limes and cocktail olives you could wish to keep.
- Flexibility. Some have adjustable shelves, but even if the one you get doesn’t, it will still have enough vertical and horizontal spaces to cover all your needs.
- Too much space inside. Remember Kingsley’s warning above? You will not be able to fill such a fridge or its freezer with your bar stuff. First
and suchwill come with ice cream and a watermelon. Then you’ll find a few extra boxes of frozen peas in there, blocking your bottle of frozen Ultimat. In a month, you won’t have room for your lemons.
- Too much space outside. Something this big will take up a lot of space, physically and visually. It will require a lot of permutations to make it fit in the (probably limited) space you will have, as well as into the design you want.
- Cost. A full size cold box will cost upwards of $800, sometimes a lot upwards. And they chew a lot more energy, which ain’t cheap these days. Besides, do you want Gweneth Paltrow to look down on your house as she flies over in her private jet and shake her oh so pretty head at your profligacy?
- Appearance. A full sized fridge doesn’t tuck away neatly under the counter. It will end up being a visual focus in your bar. If you want one that looks nice, we are going to get rapidly into that
sometimes a lot upwardswe were talking about in Cost.
As you can see, I’m not real high on either option above. Fortunately, there is a whole class of appliance just for our purposes: The beverage refrigeration system, or, as Stan the guy at Central City Appliance World will say,
a wine fridge. These boxes range from full-height, multi-temperature-zone wine cellars, suitable for storing your entire collection of Puligny-Montrachet Referts, 1er Cru and Opus One, to 15″ wide undercounter models that hold eighteen bottles. I have one of the latter in my kitchen. The pure wine cellars don’t really merit consideration for our Basement Bar, however. They have storage only for horizontal bottles of a certain size. If you have a great wine collection, or drink mostly wine, one of these is a great choice. But if you are a wine snob, or everyday wine guy for that matter, you probably aren’t into cocktails, and probably not reading this blog. We are building a cocktail bar. But many manufacturers also make a variety of models called beverage centers. These usually have a shelf or two to keep around a case of wine chilled, as well as having some shelving of varying heights, sometimes adjustable, for your other stuff.
- Size. Most are big enough for our needs, without being so big as to invite encroachment.
- Flexibility. You can keep both wine and beer on hand and cold, while still having enough storage of the correct configuration to keep your mixers, fruits, and the odd bottle ready and cold.
- Aesthetics. These appliances are built at least in part for show. As such, you have a lot of options in doors and trim. They are quiet as a tomb. If you get a glass door model, like mine pictured above, it will look really cool, but remember you will need to clean the glass often to keep it looking good.
Looks like you need to take your own advice there, Buster. That door looks pretty grungy.
OK, I’m back. The fridge looks good again! Where were we?
- Price. You are looking at a grand-plus for most models, especially from the specialist brands like Marvel or U-Line.
- No freezer. You will have to deal with the fairly large issue of ice in some other manner. See my ice post in this series, forthcoming.
To sum up, there are three basic options: Dorm Fridge, Big Fridge, and Dorm Fridge on ‘Roids; the beverage center. I think the full sized box’s considerable advantages are outweighed by its problems. Buy one at your peril. After that, it comes down to what your budget is. If it is tight, the dorm fridge will do just fine. And if you buy one in a standard size, you can replace it with a standard sized beverage center in a few years when you get your boss’s job. If you already have your boss’s job, go for the beverage center and build your bar around it. Happy mixing!
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Here’s a list of the other articles in this series that have been posted so far:
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