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Sarah Ward

How to Start a Cocktail Bar: 6 Keys to Building a Business

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Whether you’re a budding bar owner or someone who is curious about cocktail bars, you may be thinking about how to start a cocktail bar-similar to an old-fashioned speakeasy. Opening up a bar takes a lot of work, cocktail or not. The process of how to open a bar includes:

… and much more! Luckily, there are plenty of resources available, from the best bar books to guides on bar planning. 

Outside of opening a cocktail bar for commercial use, you may be interested in how to make a home cocktail bar to make use of your many collected types of rum. That’s a far easier endeavor, with fewer steps and more personal choices. 

You may be looking to open a cocktail bar to bring in customers. You may just want to create a cocktail space in your own home to enjoy some vegan drinks, gluten-free cocktails, or regular drinks with alcohol and tonic water. Either way, there’s a lot to learn about creating a spot for cocktail fans.

Knowing how to start a cocktail bar goes beyond great cocktail recipes and garnishes to stock up on. It's about so much more than knowing your cocktail ingredients. It may seem daunting at first, but with this guide, you’ll be entertaining your guests of choice in no time.

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Opening Up A Bar

There are many aspects of how to start a cocktail bar that are part of how to open up a bar in general. We have several guides and templates to help you open up a bar, including a how to open a bar checklist and a bar inventory spreadsheet. Within those resources, you’ll find the ultimate guide to everything you need as you open up your own cocktail bar. 

For now, we’ll give you a full list of everything you’ll need. Your cocktail bar opening checklist includes:

Depending on your location and your exact bar plan, there will be other things you need to consider. You can do research for your own location by visiting the site of The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The TTB is a good place to learn about rules and regulations surrounding alcohol sales and service.

How to Make A Home Cocktail Bar

If your plan for opening up a bar is only for personal enjoyment, you’ll find the road ahead to be much simpler. The question of how to make a home cocktail bar can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. You can make your home cocktail bar feel like a true cocktail lounge, with:

  • Soft lighting
  • Mood music
  • Decked-out bar design
  • Booth seating

You could also go for a simple home bar setup that just happens to be your own cocktail space. For either a simple home bar or something a bit fancier, the items you’ll need are:

  • A bar cart, shelving, or display cabinets
  • Drink mixing tools, like a shaker, jigger, and a variety of glassware
  • Liquor options, including the basics for most cocktails, and any liquors you personally love
  • Garnishes for your favorite drinks, plus bar snacks 
  • Great cocktail books to mix up new drinks whenever you want something different
  • Seating options, with room to spare for any home-bar patrons you may have

Creating a home cocktail bar gives you all the fun of designing a bar without the work of opening a bar as a business. 

4 Things Every Cocktail Bar Needs

A lot of what goes into opening up a bar is the same for any bar–cocktail or otherwise. The specifics of a cocktail bar are less about the business aspect and more about the aesthetics of the bar. Any bar can serve cocktails, but the term cocktail bar generally refers to a place that has an atmosphere of cozy sophistication. Of course, for a cocktail bar you’ll need everything you need for any bar, but here are your specific needs:

  • Bartenders who know how to mix up some great drinks
  • Some of the best cocktail recipe books of all time, to help your bartenders learn even more
  • A bar equipment layout and design plan that suits the mood
  • A prominently displayed liquor collection

If you can strike the balance between a practical bar and a space that embodies everything people love about cocktails, you have done well. An extra tip is, a lot of cocktail bars do well with a menu fitting the a la carte meaning, as individual bites go well with drinks.

The Best Cocktail Bars

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to set up your cocktail bar, you can always look to current successful cocktail bars. There are several cocktail bars across the world, taking numerous actions to stand out and draw in the crowds.

While this competition is daunting for new bar owners, it’s also helpful. While you may have plenty of ideas on what you want for your bar design, it never hurts to see what others are up to. 

There are cocktail bars out there covering a range of options. The question “What is a cocktail bar?” generally conjures up images of a smoky lounge. That said, a cocktail bar can be any type of bar. You can search for inspiration in:

  • Dive bars
  • Themed bars
  • Hotel bars
  • Sport bars
  • Live music bars
  • Nightclubs
  • Nostalgia bars

You can also draw from your favorite bars, or look into the best bars in the country to see what is already working. When it comes to finding inspiration for your cocktail bar, the list is endless.

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The Best Cocktail Bars NYC

New York City is a good place to start looking at the most diverse cocktail bars. The bar scene in New York is often in flux, as new places open and marketing approaches change old spots. Eater NY took a look at the best cocktail bars NYC has to offer for 2022, and their list stands as follows:

  • Bar Pendry
  • S Bar
  • Thyme Bar
  • Mace
  • Bandits
  • Temple Bar
  • Etérea
  • Bar Chrystie
  • Philomena's
  • Overstory
  • Sunken Harbor Club
  • All Night Skate
  • Dingaling
  • El Pingüino
  • Pebble Bar

If you live in New York, you may have your own locations to add to that list. Overall, the list shows that there are plenty of options for inspiration out in the Big Apple.

Cocktail Bars Chicago

New York is consistently hailed as a place with everything you could want when it comes to places to visit. However, there are lots of interesting spots in the US that offer just as much diversity in cocktail bars.

One such place is Chicago. Chicago is known for its variety of places and people, and that is reflected in the Chicago cocktail bar scene. Eater Chicago has their own list of the best cocktail bars in the Windy City. That list includes:

  • The Sixth
  • Mordecai
  • Lost Lake
  • Billy Sunday
  • Todos Santos
  • The Whistler
  • Scofflaw
  • Weegee's Lounge
  • The Violet Hour
  • Bordel
  • Sportsman's Club
  • The Matchbox
  • The Drifter
  • Sable Kitchen & Bar
  • Bar Sótano
  • Three Dots and a Dash
  • The Aviary
  • Kumiko
  • Milk Room

This list of Chicago’s best cocktail spots showcases the personality you find on the streets of Chicago. When it comes to your own cocktail bar, it’s a good idea to consider the personality of your location.

From there you can choose some bar design elements that suit your city. Your theme can be based on the history of your city, or on small design details that only locals would notice. Whatever you choose, showing some locational personality will suit any cocktail bar. 

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Start A Cocktail Bar

Starting a bar is a lot of work in general, and that applies to cocktail bars as well. A lot of what you need to know has already been answered in this article, but you may have more questions. A few commonly asked questions include:

What Makes A Cocktail Bar?

A cocktail bar is made great by excellent customer service, great cocktails for a great price, and a cozy atmosphere. Excellent customer service includes the standard for customer service, as well as bartenders who are knowledgeable about cocktails.

Great cocktails for a great price? That’s an easy one. That said, make sure you invest in your cocktail development at the beginning to impress patrons right off the bat.

A cozy atmosphere is the best feeling for a cocktail bar. It makes people want to hang out and have a few drinks in a comfortable environment. Creating a great bar layout should be one of your top priorities.

What Equipment Do You Need for A Cocktail Bar?

The equipment you need for a cocktail bar includes drink-making equipment and general bar tools. We have a free bar equipment list that tells you everything you need for a good bar. Some of the basic needs specific to a cocktail bar are:

  • Glassware for the cocktails you serve
  • Drink-making equipment, like shakers, jiggers, and cocktail spoons
  • Garnish trays and items like toothpicks and tiny umbrellas

Our bar equipment list includes the rest of the items you should obtain. 

How Profitable Is Owning A Bar?

Owning a bar is profitable, as the average gross profit margin for a bar is between 70 and 80%. When people start to plan their bar, one of the most common questions asked is “Are bars profitable?” The answer is yes.

The potential to make money on alcohol sales is huge. This is because the cost of liquor for a bar is so low compared to the average cost of a drink. On average, the annual profit of a bar comes out to about $39,600 after all costs have been factored in. Of course, there are always ways to increase bar profits beyond drink sales.

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How to Start a Cocktail Bar: Time To Put The Lime In The Coconut

Now you know how to start a cocktail bar, but there will always be more to learn as you open and operate your bar. From learning about well liquor to mastering popular cocktail names, come back to the BinWise blog whenever you find yourself needing to learn more. Don't forget to spend some time studying up on great bartender cover letter options, as hiring great staff should be top of mind as well.

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