So the home bar is back in fashion, according to the Wall Street Journal. Who knew?
Well, as someone who’s had a basement bar for a decade, and been writing about them for years now, me for one.
To be fair, the segment of the movement on which Helen Kirwan-Taylor (hyphenated last name, a bien sur) reports is likely somewhat more of a new phenomenon: The Rich have discovered the home bar. While the Why of this discovery is more important than the What, the What is the main focus of the WSJ article. I want to focus on the whys, but I’ll first point out a few interesting elements of Basement Bars for the rich that make the article worth reading in its entirety.
The general cocktail revolution has produced public bars that are absolute showpieces of both social graces and design (e.g. Door 74 in Amsterdam, as portrayed here by the inimitable Jay Hepburn). These bars, rather than being seedy watering holes for the hoi poloi, are a good bit nicer than the homes of the rich and famous… and we can’t have that! Some of the best designers of these new showpiece watering holes are building good secondary businesses creating home bars for clients who fell in love with their public creations. Even the self-contained bar in a piece of furniture has moved into the upper price zone, with pieces featured in the article from Armani Casa and Ralph Lauren, among others.
Interestingly, while the gilt bars of the Rich and Famous may cost a lot more than the Basement Bar of Joe Sixpack, or the corner mixing station of Moe Martini, what they are at heart is the same. Cocktail godfather Ernest Hemingway, the master of lyricism though brevity, famously misreported (to greater truth) his interchange with cocktail goduncle F. Scott Fitgerald:
“The rich are different than you and me,” said Fitzgerald.
“Yes, they have more money,” replied Hemingway.
Fitzgerald’s phrase here was taken from The Rich Boy, and Fitzgerald intends what it says on its face, as regards the unique softness of Old Money. Hemingway, however, turns the phrase on its head, reminding us that Rich or Poor, the human condition remains the same. In this case, it means we all need a quiet place to have a drink and be left alone with each other.
Ms. Kirwan-Taylor notes three different explanations as to why the Basement Bar is increasingly popular. Each is a good one.
The first mentioned is the demonization, legal and societal, of smoking. Increasingly, if you want to have a smoke in a bar, the bar has to be in your home. (“They” will cut off this freedom as well, when they can manage it, but for now a good cigar is a powerful incentive to build a lounge at home.) I don’t smoke anything myself, beyond a cigar or so a year, and no one including me smokes in my bar. But if you do smoke, this is really important.
The second reason offered, given voice in the article by french designer India Hudson, is simply: “no SMS”. The implication is that bars are our last great bastion of face to face contact, where the BlackBerry does not rule our lives.
I think I buy this one the least, at least on its face. Like you, I’ve been in many a bar where I’ve glimpsed patrons (sometimes in the mirror, I confess) clasping a glass in one hand and an iPhone in the other. But the electronic leash is a cruel master, and escaping its grasp can be a powerful motivation to visit or build your own bar. And if sitting in a dark, comfortable seat and staring into the depths of a glass of amber liquid while thinking deep thoughts gives you permission to not answer the latest Tweet, there is great value in that. This is psychological rather than practical, but no less real.
The second part of this idea is conversation, rather than isolation. A Basement Bar is a salubrious place to practice the art of conversation in more than 140 characters, whether before, after, or in place of dinner. It’s a better place than the kitchen, which is a place that always holds the air of work needing to be done. (For a good laugh, enjoy paragraph 12 of the article, in which Ms. Kirwan-Taylor tries to get all Victorian up in your face, making distinctions between the proper times to use a drawing room versus a bar….)
The last reason, with which I find myself quite sympathetic, is simply this:
Another factor is age, (London designer, Tara) Bernerd notes. “At a certain point, hanging out at China Whites (or any nightclub) is no longer so appealing” she says.
Age covers a multitude of factors. I for one am too old for a lot of bars, and too old to put up with a lot of others often, or for long. Many of us, along with our friends, have children as well. An evening of conviviality in the basement lounge while the kids rampage overhead can beat a night on the town all hollow. Especially since you can find out about the demise of the fish tank via screams from upstairs instead of a resignation text from the sitter. Plus, demise of said fish tank will not necessarily end the evening when spent in the home bar.
I snark on this because I love. I’m very glad to see the home bar idea spreading wherever it can. Besides the benefits I discussed here, I think home bars contribute to the expansion of craft cocktails and people’s appreciation of same. And a final hat tip to KegWorks, whose blog tipped me to the Wall Street Journal’s article to begin with. As purveyors of home bar equipment, fixtures, and paraphernalia, they are more than ready to encourage anyone with budget to hop on in.
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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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