The term “set-up” is synonymous with the city of New Orleans. A half-pint bottle of booze, a bowl of ice, perhaps a few garnishes (maraschino cherries, lime wedges), your mixer of choice and plastic cups. Surely it can be for one (however inadvisable), but the set-up is all about informal sharing. As Sarah Baird writes, “There are some mighty fine cocktail bars in New Orleans, but what the city does best is allow people to use drinks, like the set-up, as a conduit for larger conversation—a way to listen, talk and gather.”
The soul of the set-up belongs to the Crescent City’s dive bars, music venues and senior centers, but the intimate, communal aspect of letting people mix their own drinks and share them is also purpose-built for at-home gatherings. Sure, it’s nice to batch and bottle ahead of time, or dole out well-considered cocktails à la minute, but what if you don’t have to? In its hometown, the set-up resists baroque touches; in fact, that is among its defining features. So, by all means, keep it minimal. But if you want to add a few flourishes to your DIY bar set-up, here’s where to begin.
Consider this your party’s lighthouse. Place it someplace central and accessible and load it with all your mixers, liqueurs and spirits. Chilling all the ingredients down will ensure that everyone’s drink is already cold when it hits their glass. We like this large party bucket or a more affordable galvanized steel option.
Ice Bucket and Scoop
Anyone who has set out a bucket of ice at a party knows that it is the single factor that might dissuade one from leaning into the DIY bar. Most are too small and not quite insulated enough to keep the ice, well, ice. A duo of a larger bucket with a drain tray and an ice scoop gets the job done.
There’s a reason why the Picardie glass from Duralex, founded in 1945, is timeless: It’s functional, durable, stackable and can slot into any set-up aesthetic. They come in a variety of sizes, including a 12-ounce glass that works for highballs. We’re also huge fans of the affordable CB2 Marta line, especially the highball-appropriate juice glass. If you’re looking for a more elaborate glassware ensemble, we have you covered.
From small-batch producers of bitter soda waters (Casamara Club) to a variety of Italian bittersweet sodas (Crodino, Sanbitter, Stappi) to an explosion of craft tonics, there has never been a better time to make a bubbly two-ingredient cocktail. These are some of our go-tos for topping just about any spirit.
Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water: The perfect balance of bitterness with measured sweetness, Fever-Tree’s flagship tonic is as at home with gin in a classic G&T as it is with dry vermouth, mezcal or Campari.
Casamara Club Como: The entire line of Casamara Club’s bitter botanical sodas is worth stocking, but we love Como’s citrus- and mint-forward profile, which pairs well with gin and dry vermouth or is an N/A cocktail unto itself.
Topo Chico: No other soda water holds its effervescence quite like Topo, even in its larger format, making it an ideal set-up companion.
Q Grapefruit: Q prides itself on mixers that are generally drier and more bracing than their counterparts. This is no exception, offering just the bitter, acidic bite you might hope for with less sweetness. Pair it with gin, mezcal, tequila or Campari—or drink it on its own with a few dashes of bitters.
Bundaberg Ginger Beer: There’s no shortage of good ginger beer on shelves today, but for something with a particularly pronounced ginger kick we turn to Bundaberg, which is brewed with fresh ginger root and cane sugar, for topping whiskey or rum.
Spirits and Liqueurs
The key to building a great DIY set-up is pairing your mixers and spirits so that you maximize the number of cocktails that can be made from the fewest number of bottles. We like to make sure we have at least one bitter liqueur on hand; both sweet and dry vermouth so anyone can throw together a 50/50 Martini or Manhattan on the rocks; at least one clear spirit, like gin, vodka or tequila/mezcal; a brown spirit, like whiskey or aged rum; and aromatic bitters. (If you’re in an aperitivo state of mind, throw a bottle of Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco, our spritz go-to, in your party bucket for good measure.) This is really your place to express yourself and your preferences.
Campari: While Campari typically proves to be most versatile in a set-up scenario, swap in any aperitivo liqueur of your choice (Suze, too, is a great option). Use it in a Negroni, a spritz or an Americano.
Gin: Pair it with tonic for a G&T, a measure of dry vermouth for a Martini on the rocks, or with a hefty dose of aromatic bitters for a Pink Gin.
Whiskey: Which style of whiskey you choose (bourbon, rye, Japanese, Scotch) is a matter of preference. Make it a highball, a Manhattan or simply top with ginger beer.
Vermouth: The easiest way to get more mileage out of your set-up (and to give guests the option of a few key classics, like the Negroni and the Martini) is to make sure you have one sweet vermouth and one dry on hand. We love Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Dolin dry.
Mezcal/tequila: Doctor up your tequila or mezcal with plenty of lime and Topo Chico for Ranch Water, top with grapefruit soda for a Paloma, or swap with gin to take your Negroni on vacation.
Bitters: Whether Angostura, Peychaud’s or Fee Brothers, make sure to keep a bottle of classic aromatic bitters on hand for N/A options and a rocks Manhattan.
When conceiving of your set-up, keep in mind the drink you expect guests to mix themselves when selecting garnishes, embellishing just a bit to inspire creativity. Citrus twists (lemon, orange, grapefruit) are a must, as are wedges of lemon and lime so guests can adjust acidity to taste. Add olives to signal Martini time and brandied cherries to suggest a Manhattan may be in order. Herbs, like rosemary or mint, can upgrade a G&T or add a bit of flair to a Paloma.
How you style your set-up can be as minimal or elaborate as your spirit desires. Stock up on linen cocktail napkins, procure an eye-catching water jug, a handsome Danish drink tray, colorful cups for garnishes and biodegradable or metal straws.