Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pack & Pour: A Guide to Nomadic Bartending


If you enjoy making cocktails (and if you're one of the five people who read this blog, then it's a safe bet you do), sooner or later someone will ask you to bartend at a party, cookout, tailgate, or other similar gathering. Providing adult refreshment at these kinds of events can be a lot of fun, especially if you're asked to make cocktails from scratch. We're not talking about just needing someone to pop open beers or crack a few wine bottles ... we're talking events where you'll actually be mixing drinks and need the equipment necessary to do so.

A big issue with making drinks somewhere other than your usual spot is trying to figure out what you'll need to bring with you in order to pull it off. Some places may have a fully-equipped bar, and all you'll need to bring are your smile and your know-how. Other places will require you to essentially bring an entire bar with you. It all depends on the event. Ideally, the organizer(s) will be supplying the booze, mixers, garnishes, and other stuff that's going in the drinks, but you'll probably need to provide at least some of the other necessities.

Aside from obvious items like shakers, strainers, bar spoons, etc., what other miscellaneous stuff should you bring when you're mixing away from home? I've bartended at several events big and small, casual and formal, and I quickly learned to operate under the following rule:

Assume the place you're working won't have what you need.

If someone tells you they'll have something you'll need, bring it with you anyway. Never count on your host to provide important equipment. Even the most organized, detail-oriented person can forget things or miscommunicate, so cover your bases, anticipate what you'll need, and bring it yourself (Even if they do have it, it never hurts to have extra).

The list below is not exhaustive, but just offers up a few things I've found handy. I don't bring everything with me every time, but I've used each of them at one time or another and was glad I had it.

Drink Recipes

Depending on what you're serving, you'll likely want to have a few recipes jotted down. Whether you're preparing traditional favorites or a selection of original recipes, write 'em down somewhere. Bring a little notebook, a pile of Post-its, or something you can easily refer to when it's time to start pouring.


"They said they'll have ice."

People say a lot of things.

I once worked an event where I was assured I'd have all the ice I'd need because the place had an ice machine. When I arrived, I discovered the machine was extremely small and had already been thoroughly emptied of its contents by the many other vendors working the event. Since then, I always bring a bag or two with me. That ensures I can get started making drinks while the hosts/organizers go scrounge up more ice.


It sounds silly, but when you're somewhere without easy access to water (like the middle of a stadium parking lot) washing your barware becomes a problem. Bring a gallon or two with you if a convenient water source looks unlikely.

Ice Scoop

Much classier than using your hands or a keg cup.

5-Gallon Bucket

There's nothing like the feeling of making the first drink of the evening ... and realizing there's nowhere to dump out your shaker. 5-gallon buckets work great as portable sinks. I always bring at least two, using one as a dump sink and the others to clean barware in.

Cooler/Ice Chest

As the name suggests, this is where you put your ice. Also handy for storage and carrying stuff in and out of the venue. Basically, they're insulated steamer trunks. And just like your 5-gallon buckets, you can use them as makeshift sinks.

Bar/Side Towels

Always, always, always bring these- they'll be one of the very first things you reach for, and in all likelihood the venue won't provide them. I bring a dozen or so. You'll need them to clean up spills, dry off barware, and a bunch of other stuff. You can usually find them in bulk at restaurant supply stores, so grab a pack or two before you head out.

OXO Mini-measure

Their easy-to-read markings and pour-friendly shape make these little guys a favorite of many professional and home bartenders. I use standard jiggers, but I usually bring one of these along as a backup or in case a non-bartending-type guest wants to help out.


These are the little nozzles you see in the tops of bottles at pretty much every bar. You can get by without them, but they definitely make pouring faster and easier. Get them from restaurant supply stores or online barware vendors and throw a handful into your bag.


Even if you're mainly serving cocktails, always have something to open wine and beer bottles with.


Not mandatory, but useful as hell. Having some combination of pliers, knife, screwdrivers etc. in one convenient package can be a lifesaver. There are expensive ones and cheap ones, so buy according to your budget and preferences. I like the Leatherman Wave (which I have with me every time I bartend, no matter where), but there's a bunch of good options out there.

Duct Tape

Self-explanatory. It fixes everything.

Swing-top Bottles

If you're bringing any of your own liquid ingredients (juices, syrups, etc.) invest in a few of these. They're not expensive, and they pay for themselves in not having to keep track of a bunch of little caps all night long.

Energy Bars

Because you might get hungry ... and they might not have food for you.

Serrated Knife

Serrated knives do a better job than straight-edged knives at cutting fruit like limes, lemons or anything with a rind or a thick peel. Since it's likely that's exactly the kind of stuff you'll be dealing with, bring a knife you're comfortable with. I like the cheap ones that come with their own sheath like this one because I can just chuck them in my bag and not worry about them punching holes in stuff or people.

Small Cutting Board

Bring this along so your knife doesn't get lonely. It also prevents disapproving looks from your host when he notices you slicing lime wedges on top of his Xbox.

Channel Knife/Vegetable Peeler

Handy for making spiffy-looking garnishes, if you're a spiffy garnish kind of person.

Folding Table

I know it sounds strange to bring your own work surface with you, but anyone who has ever had to make a ton of drinks on a cramped kitchen counter or wobbly patio table can attest to how frustrating an experience it can be. For those (like me) who don't happen to own one of those high-end portable bars, I suggest using a folding table like this.

I was fortunate enough to have a couple of these donated to me by a neighbor who was moving, and they're great. The only drawbacks are their size and weight. They don't fit in smaller cars and can be unwieldy for one person to carry. However, there are similar models that fold up to smaller size and come with a handle so you can carry 'em around like a suitcase.

Stuff to Write With

I like to bring a ballpoint pen, a Sharpie, and a few sheets of paper with me. I use them mainly to write up on-the-spot menus, because everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) will ask you what drinks you have on offer. Writing up a quick sign with the drink names and ingredients will save you having to recite the particulars of your drink list over and over every time someone steps to the bar.

Oh, and I use ballpoint pens and Sharpies specifically because their ink isn't water-soluble. Remember that everything in a bar will get wet at some point, including your carefully-written menu.

Small Funnel

You won't realize you need it until it's too late.

Measuring Cup

Useful mainly if you're making batches of something like punch or sangria. Get a 2 or 4-cup size (unless you enjoy measuring out a bowl of punch 2 ounces at a time).

Ice Crusher/Lewis Bag & Mallet

Not necessary unless you know you're going to be making things like juleps, swizzles, and tiki drinks. I prefer the mechanical hand-cranked type over the bag & mallet, but both work fine.

First Aid Kit

I'm not talking an EMT-grade extravaganza with aspirin, burn cream, antiseptic, 15 different sizes of bandages, and all the other goodies. My first-aid kit is an Altoids tin full of band-aids and the roll of duct tape mentioned above. Basically, just bring something to keep from bleeding into people's drinks when you cut yourself (and you will cut yourself, eventually).

Plastic Grocery Bags

Toss a few of these in your kit. They're great for packing up wet/sticky stuff at the end of the night. Again, like duct tape and 5 -gallon buckets, they're a cheap, simple item with lots of uses.

Business Cards

If you find it pleasurable to make drinks for strangers, have something with your contact info on it you can give them. Assuming you've done your job somewhat competently, it's entirely possible someone will ask you to make drinks again at a future event. Make it easy for them.

One last tip: I don't recommend bringing particularly expensive or valuable equipment on the road if you can manage it. As tempting as it may be to show off your Uncle Herbert's one-of-a-kind antique cocktail shaker, you'll probably want to leave it at home unless you're OK with family heirlooms being lost, broken, or stolen.