One result of my Instagram photos featuring my latest cocktail shenanigans is that when Mrs. Wonk and I are invited to social gatherings, I often get tasked with bringing cocktails, rather than the traditional, say, bottle of wine or dessert. And I’m certainly not one to slack off with something simple like a Dark & Stormy – the Cocktail Wonk must represent! Sometimes a punch I’ve make in advance is the ticket. But I also enjoy rising to the challenge and making the same cocktails I’d make at home, but on the road. A batch of 1944 Mai Tais for eight? No problem!
As you might imagine, bartending away from your home set-up requires a bit of pre-planning and toting lots of equipment with me. For the aforementioned Mai Tais, for example, I’d need the following:
- Two bottles of rum
- Bottle of dry curacao
- Bottle of orgeat
- Bottle of simple syrup
- Knife to cut the limes
- Handheld lime squeezer
- Lewis bag and mallet for crushed ice
And depending on the location, perhaps even bags of ice from ice maker or cocktail glasses. That’s a lot of equipment to bring! Suddenly a pie seems a lot easier.
My trusty workhorse for hauling bottles and tools around has been the crafty use of a soft-sided picnic cooler with a shoulder strap. With strategic packing I can wedge in the bottles so that they don’t jostle around too much, but for taller bottles this means laying them on their side, leading to potential spillage. My shaker doubles as a hard-sided container for smaller items like straws, knives, bitters bottles, etc. By the time it’s fully loaded, the cooler is heavy and uncomfortable to lug around by the shoulder strap. I often thought there had to be a better way to do this, but my trusty cooler was free so I didn’t pay much attention to improving my situation.
A little over a year ago I saw a Kickstarter effort for a new a new bartender’s bag from Seattle-based Mavenhal (they launched under the name Barkeeper & Co.). Their waxed canvas bags in the form factor of a duffle bag are designed for bartenders by a professional bartender. Looking at the photos online, I was impressed by the features and attention to detail. All that said, the Kickstarter was a bit more money than I wanted to drop at that particular time. If I worked as a bartender or brand ambassador, I wouldn’t have blinked, however– a well-designed, task-specific bag that you use every day is worth its weight in gold. The Kickstarter was successful, and soon I saw customized Mavenhal bags pop up in the social media feeds of various bar industry luminaries.
Fast forward to late 2015. I’d started writing product reviews here and I figured the Mavenhal Bartender Bag would be perfect to review. I reached out the Mavenhal’s founder, Craig Allan Krueger, and he suggested that he had something even better for me to review – Mavenhal’s second product, the Bar Back, a model quite different than the original Bartender Bag. Craig graciously lent me a new preproduction unit to try out for this review. When I met up with Craig to make the handoff, he explained that the goal for the new model was a more “urban ready” bag. Whereas the Bartender Bag looks like a sturdy duffle bag that your grandfather might have handed down to you, the Bar Back is a stylized backpack, making it much more amenable to biking through town or commuting long distances.
The initial visual impression of the Bar Back is slightly boxy, yet sleek and modern. The outer shell is made from water-resistant 1680 denier nylon (ballistic) fabric, quite a big change in style and texture from the waxed canvas of the original Bartender Bag. Another key difference is that the Bar Back’s heavy duty zippers (#10 YKK) are plastic, rather than metal—and there’s no shortage of zippers to be had! Unlike a typical backpack with a single zipper opening across the top, the Bar Back has two parallel zippers, one towards the front of the bag, the other at the back. The two zippers allow the entire top of the bag, as well as about two-thirds of the side panels to be rolled up and tucked out of the way. This makes it substantially easier to see and access the inside of the bag, especially important given its large capacity.
The bag’s inside lining is lighter, 200 denier fabric, and also water resistant like you’d expect. An especially thoughtful touch is that the padding between the outer and inner fabric is closed-cell foam. Should liquid manage to get through the water-resistant fabric, it won’t be absorbed and cause a smelly mess.
In addition to the main compartment, the Bar Back has a large front compartment that zippers completely open to expose ten pockets of various sizes, intended for holding various bar implements – strainers, muddlers, spoons, small bottles, and so on. In my experimentation, I found a usable pocket for nearly all of the typical bar tools I’d want to travel with. Two small areas I’d improve: It would be nice if some or all of the pockets had a bit of elastic at the top to hold tools just a bit more snugly. And I struggled to find a tool that fit into the two slimmest pockets. They easily hold a pen or a very small paring knife, but many of my “skinny” items like muddlers and knives were just a bit too large to squeeze in. On the bag’s back is a large, thin zippered back pocket ideal for papers or the compartment dividers and straps when not in use.
What’s this about dividers and straps? The bag comes with five rigid divider panels (one large, four smaller) that fit into the bottom of the bag, letting you create up to six custom-sized rectangular compartments, ideal for keeping bottles from banging against each other. Metal clips with two prongs push into holes on the ends of the panels, binding one panel to another. Personally I’d make the clip prongs just a little bit longer to bind the panels even tighter, but that’s a minor concern.
The Bar Back comes with two detachable padded shoulder straps. Two sturdy cast-aluminum clips at the ends of each strap slip into heavy-duty fabric loops sewn onto the bag. The bag wisely features loops on nearly every corner, allowing you to configure the straps on the back like a backpack or across the top like a handle or a shoulder strap. It can be a challenge to get the strap clip through the fabric loop, as it’s a tight fit, but that’s preferable to having the strap unexpectedly fall off, which these won’t. When a strap or divider panel isn’t needed, they tuck neatly into the flat back pocket.
More general feedback: The main compartment of the bag has great capacity. However, it’s a little taller than you’ll typically need. The tallest of bottles fits with ease in this bag, however, with typical bottles, you’ll have an air pocket at the top of the compartment. If you have items like clothes that can go in the space above your bottles, fantastic. But barring that, one idea would be to add a few extra pockets or straps to the upper parts of the inside front and back walls to let you anchor or hold bigger items in that space. Another idea would be some sort of fabric “shelf” that could split the compartment into upper and lower sections when desired.
Mrs. Wonk points out that the brightly colored inside lining (intense orange on the bag I reviewed) makes it easier to spot things when rummaging through the bag in a dark bar. She much prefers the orange to a black interior lining—and as a designer herself (and a fan of black anything), that’s saying something.
The construction of the bag appears very sturdy and easily holds everything I would need for a well-equipped portable bar, and looking smart while doing so. I’d have no worries about it coming apart after just a few expeditions. It would surely relegate my soft-side picnic cooler bag to actual cooler duties. Even if I wasn’t transporting bar materials, the bag’s configurable enough and sufficiently sized that I could travel with it as a carry-on tote. While not as easy to lug around as a traditional backpack due to its larger size and padding, it’s still portable enough that I can imagine riding a bike or motorcycle with it on my back when not loaded to the gills with heavy bottles. I imagine brand ambassadors and bartenders who travel frequently to gigs will love the Bar Back.
Like the original Bartender Bag, the Bar Back will be hand-made in the Seattle area. No pricing is set as of yet, but Craig says he expects it to be a fair bit less expensive than the $349 Bartender Bag. Look for the Kickstarter to start up some time in February 2016.
UPDATE 2/25/216: The Bar Back bag kickstarter is now live. Here’s the link.