Raise the bar: How to stock and style an outdoor bar cart 

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An outdoor bar cart is an easy, elegant and efficient element to add to your summer entertaining. Prepare drinks that impress without missing out on time with your guests. Whether it’s a cookout, an evening soiree or simply appetizers on the patio before dinner inside, entertaining al fresco is a highlight of summertime. With these tips, you can master the art of the perfectly stocked bar cart. 

An outdoor bar cart stocked with beer and glassware.
Photo credit: Pexels.

Entertaining al fresco is a highlight of summertime. From picnics to parties, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy the summer weather with friends and family. 

The food is easy to figure out: You could grill burgers or set up a taco bar

Drinks, on the other hand, are a little more ambiguous. You’ll need a few options for guests — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic — and a way to keep the drinks cool in the heat. And you certainly don’t want to run back and forth to the fridge inside while your guests enjoy themselves on the patio.

Outdoor bar carts

An outdoor bar cart makes serving drinks a lot easier when dining outdoors. You can have several cold drink options ready to go and at arm’s length.

While a simple cooler filled with ice is great for sodas and beer, with a bar cart, you can have wine, champagne, cocktails and pitchers of flavored water ready to go.

Plus, bar carts add a touch of elegance to your deck, balcony or patio.

“I love my guests to arrive to a signature cocktail al fresco before the dinner party comes inside and starts. I keep my bar carts simple with just the ingredients for one cocktail, garnish and maybe a bottle of red or white wine. Keeping it simple and stocking the bar cart means I can spend more time with my company.”

— Kita Roberts, Pass the Sushi

If you don’t have a bar cart, you can set up a table to use as a drinks station. You could also place an indoor bar cart outside for the party.

A woman and a man prepare drinks at a bar cart in a backyard.
Photo credit: Pexels.

How to stage an outdoor bar cart

Bar carts typically have two or three tiers, which makes it easy to stock extra bottles and glasses below while having ready-to-go drinks on the top shelf.

What to put on the top shelf

The top shelf is the easiest to reach, so put things on this tier that are easy for you to serve and for guests to grab, such as:

  • pitchers for water and batch drinks
  • open wine bottles
  • ice bucket
  • a few cups or glasses
  • a wine opener and bottle opener
  • bowls of garnishes (like lime wedges or fresh mint)
  • straws
  • drink napkins
  • decorations, flowers or a plant
  • a kitchen towel (for wiping up spills)

What goes on the bottom shelves

The bottom shelves should contain extras or things you might not need frequently but might want to grab once or twice during the party, such as:

  • extra glasses
  • a few bottles of different types of alcohol, if desired
  • extra bottles of red wine (white wine should stay in the fridge)
  • bowls and plates
Two clear cocktails with lemon garnishes next to a cocktail shaker on a patio table.
Photo credit: Yayimages.

Drinks for bar carts

When deciding on your drink menu, consider the size of your party.

For a small get-together, you can offer a few limited options. Since it’s smaller, you’ll have time to make guests their favorite drink while you chat.

A signature cocktail works best for a larger gathering. You could make homemade sangria or a big batch of margaritas. You can quickly pour each guest a glass and add a garnish without spending a lot of time on each drink.

Don’t miss this guide to stocking a bar on a budget to help you plan your shopping list.

What to serve

A variety of options is ideal for any party, so guests can feel free to choose what sounds good to them.

Beer: Keep bottles and cans in a large ice bucket, cooler or indoor fridge as long as you make it clear to guests where they can find them. The same goes for hard seltzer, cider, soda and sparkling water.

Wine: Offer two types of wine — typically a red and a white, though rosé is popular for summer parties. Use a wine bottle chiller on the bar cart to keep white wine, rosé and champagne cold.

Mixed drinks: If you offer liquor drinks, add a few common spirits, like vodka, gin and bourbon, to the top shelf of your bar cart for easy access. A bottle of bitters or a jar of simple syrup might be helpful too. Put any cocktail mixers on the bottom shelf.

Signature cocktail: Prepare a pitcher for punch, sangria or a batched cocktail to quickly and easily prepare drinks. You don’t have to serve mixed drinks if you make a signature cocktail.

Non-alcoholic drinks: Always serve a non-alcoholic drink option — not just water — to anyone who isn’t drinking. Batched mocktails and iced tea are an impressive step up from soda and seltzer, but those work too.

Water: Guests need to stay hydrated, especially in the summer. Ice water or flavored water should be easy for them to locate.

Five people toast with beers and cocktails.
Photo credit: Yayimages.

Outdoor bar cart tips

Know your audience. For example, if your friends aren’t beer drinkers, you can skip it. But if you don’t know your guests well, putting a few choices on the menu is wise.

Save time and pre-batch a cocktail you can serve in a pitcher from the bar cart, especially for larger parties. Your time should be spent mingling with guests, not mixing up drinks.

But if you plan to shake up a few cocktails on the spot, a bar tool set with a shaker, jigger and strainer should go on the top shelf for easy access. Put it below if you think you might need it, or leave it off entirely if you don’t plan to serve liquor drinks.

How to keep an outdoor bar cart clean

Bar carts can get dirty if left outside. Remove everything from the shelves and store it out of the elements when not in use to keep it looking nice for longer. 

If you must store it outside, invest in a protective cover. No matter what, always wipe it down with a cloth and a cleaner before re-stocking.

The fun doesn’t stop when summer ends: Your outdoor bar cart can easily transition to other seasons. In the fall and winter, you can serve apple cider or hot chocolate from a slow cooker perched on the top shelf. Don’t miss these tips for stocking a winter bar.

Based in Charlotte, N.C., Susannah Brinkley Henry is the cocktail content creator behind the blog Feast + West. Her work has been featured in Southern Living, Oprah Daily, Buzzfeed and more. In 2019, her website was a finalist in the Saveur Blog Awards for Best Entertaining Blog. As a professional graphic designer, photographer, writer, and recipe developer, Susannah helps home bartenders and drink enthusiasts level up their cocktail skills. 

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