ColumnsThe Collection

How the drinks trolley became the new status symbol

The resurrection of the home drinks trolley gives us a chance to pass judgment on what is on offer and to ask what it says of the curator, says Joel Harrison

Words by Joel Harrison

home bar cart
The Collection

A room without books is like a body without a soul.’ This enduring quote is attributed – somewhat incongruously – to the ancient thinker and philosopher Cicero. Given that Cicero died in 43 BCE, around 1,500 years before the invention of the printing press, it is likely the Roman republican was surrounded more by parchment than paperbacks. Nonetheless, he had a point.

We’ve all been seduced by a room with shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, their spines ripe for scanning. And consider just the imposing, heavyweight tomes that decorate the coffee tables of today’s hippest hotels. These are not just there for show; they give the space an identity, a personality, a sense of style.

But while coffee table books also have a place at home, other forms of literature are increasingly reduced to the soulless form of a tablet. In similar fashion, the onset of music streaming has meant the eroding of CD collections and a streamlining of stereo systems – once the centrepiece of a living room – to a small speaker connected to Spotify. As a consequence, the chance to advertise one’s refined tastes in plain sight is limited to a three-hour playlist.

Technology – in particular tablets - has meant bookshelves slowly disappearing from some living rooms. Could the drinks trolley take their place as a conspicuous style indicator?

We are living in an age when many physical cultural markers are being lost. Art remains a constant, of course. And even if there are only so many paintings one can hang in a room, they do at least lend atmosphere and personality to their surroundings. Consider the loneliness and solemnity of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, showing a dark, deserted downtown diner, in comparison to the vitality that bursts from the frame in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which, despite the distracted look on the barmaid’s face, is brimming with energy. Both paintings have a remarkable third dimension, imparting a soundtrack to the viewer. In Hopper’s, silence resonates, while Manet’s radiates noise; you can almost hear the hustle and bustle of the bar through the brushstrokes. They are both masterpieces, but what is it that gives one life and spirit over the other? For me, it is the simple presence of bottles. Where books give a room soul, bottles add verve, be it at the Folies- Bergère at the end of the 18th century, or through the rejuvenation of the drinks trolley at home in the first part of the 21st.

Put your bottles on display; let them reflect your personality, travels, taste and experiences

The resurrection of the drinks trolley – a classic mid-20th-century living room staple – has once again legitimised having a selection of spirits on constant display. The result is an exhibition of a carefully curated collection designed not just for drinking and mixing but as a status play, too. It also, of course, gives those of us with a keen eye a chance to pass judgment on what is on offer and to silently ask what it says of the curator.

With that in mind – and notwithstanding my colleague Alice Lascelles’s well-argued defence of less glamorous brands in her column – nobody wants to be seen dead these days with a standard bottle of Stoli on their trolley or a boring Bombay Sapphire on their sideboard. If your spirits selection is going to be there for all to see, you need to consider it an extension of yourself – and it needs to step up to the mark.

home bar
Many spirits collections are crying out for a drink trolley to lend added status – if filled with suitably chic bottles

So, gone are supermarket standards. In their place, vessels of value: cheap Tequila is switched out for posh Patrón; Eminente rum emanates class; single-malt Scotch stands as a statue to success. These spirits are the windows on the world, interactive souvenirs that, like a good painting or book, can transport us to another place from the comfort of our own home. An artisanal mezcal purchased direct from the distiller at a farmers’ market in Oaxaca; a gin sourced from a small distillery in the Atlas Mountains; the simple presence of a bottle of pisco.

Once, it was a line-up of Lonely Planet guides that marked their owner out as well travelled. Today, it is a clutch of cosmopolitan spirits that indicates an adventurous type. So, don’t hide your bottles away. Put them on display; let them reflect your personality, travels, taste and experiences. Show them off. Let them carry you to exotic and interesting places. Because, while books in a room may add soul, bottles add spirit.

Illustration of Joel Harrison with whisky in hand
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and consultant editor (spirits) for Club Oenologique magazine.