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If you checked out our May/June 2009 cover story on how to stock your dream home bar, you should be reading this while gazing proudly at your shelves of well-considered bottles and gear. But all that collecting is for naught if you don't put it to use, so why not have a party to enjoy the fruits of your labor? But how do you throw a cocktail party without losing your cool? Here are some fail-safe entertaining tips to help you have as much fun as your guests.
The surest way to make yourself miserable at your own party is to try to make six different drinks simultaneously. “My biggest cocktail party tip is to focus your offerings to your guests,” says Adam Lantheaume, owner of the Boston barware store The Boston Shaker.
“If you were to have a dinner party, you wouldn’t offer your guests a four-page menu with 30 different options—don't do it for cocktails either. Pick a few cocktails you’re going to focus on, make sure you have the makings, and that’s what you offer to your guests.”
Jerry Gonto, owner of the online barware store MartiniArt.com, agrees. “Typically, we’re going to have a menu with three to four options, and stick to those,” he says. “When we have a party, we ask guests for their input ahead of time, so we can plan for cocktails they’ll enjoy.” Gonto likes to print out the menu—you can even it include it with your invitation—so guests can see their choices.
A set cocktail list also allows you to batch major ingredients ahead of time. (Trust us, squeezing grapefruits and limes individually for each Hemingway Daiquiri is going to keep you at your prep area all night—mix up the two in correct proportions ahead of time, and keep the pitcher at the bar.) You can even batch spirits ahead of time for, say, a pitcher of Manhattans, and keep them in a sealed container until it’s showtime: Then, pour the mixture over ice in a glass pitcher, stir and strain into glasses. But be warned that there are two drawbacks to this method. One is that it’s not very impressive to pour a bottle onto ice; leave out one ingredient, like bitters, so that you can show off a little craftsmanship by adding it at the last minute, or assemble this one in the kitchen away from your guests’ eyes. The other problem is that this method only works if you have enough guests to empty the entire pitcher in one round of serving, as any spirit remaining in the pitcher will get watery and, eventually, lukewarm. No one wants that.
A cocktail menu is also economical, since it means you don’t have to stock every spirit under the sun on the off-chance that a guest will want, say, a Pisco Sour. Instead, you can stock just what you’ll need for the few drinks you’re offering.
Never Let Them See You Sweat
“The more organized you are, the better,” advises Joe Keeper, owner of Bar Keeper, a Los Angeles barware store. “Just as a mechanic has his tools arranged before he starts working on a car, you want to have everything on hand. If your guests see you searching for a tool or a garnish, they’ll say, ‘Never mind, I’ll just have a Vodka Tonic.’ ”
This is key: If your guests think that making them a drink is too much work, they’ll politely head toward the open bottle of Chardonnay someone brought. Practice making all your drinks ahead of time, so you have the proportions memorized and the motions mastered. Set all your garnishes out in glass bowls and your mixers in pitchers—not only does this help you assemble drinks quickly, but your guests are more likely to ask for a drink if they see all the ingredients set out. (Plus, it allows them to help themselves to an extra onion for their Gibson without feeling like they’re bothering you.)
Ideally, you want a shaker for every drink you’re making, so you don’t have to wash them every time. (Try asking friends if they can lend you spares.) Put your glasses in the fridge or freezer, or fill them with ice water or cubes so you start your cocktail in a clean, cold glass. And, above all, have enough ice. “I can’t tell you how quickly ice goes when you’re making cocktails at home,” says Kevin Diedrich of Bourbon & Branch and the Beverage Academy, both in San Francisco. Bags of large, solid cubes are fine, though you may find yourself eventually opting to make your own. “You don’t have to get fancy ice molds,” counsels Don Lee, head bartender at Momofuku in New York City and an instructor at the Astor Center. “Just go to the hardware store, buy one of those plastic tool organizers with the different-sized square compartments, and rip the top off.” This will give you both large cubes for shaking and big spears for tall drinks or crushing.
“I finally invested in a small chest freezer,” adds Lee. “All week long, I freeze cubes and dump them in there. Then, by the weekend, I have all the ice I need.” Diedrich has his eye on another option. “Call me crazy, but Kold Draft is coming out with a home machine,” he says. “Can you imagine having Kold Draft at home?”
However you manage it, having enough ice on hand will help keep you (no pun intended) cool during the party. And that, in turn, will make the party better. As Keeper puts it, “If you present yourself like you know what you’re doing, your drinks will taste better.”
Be a Host
Rule Number One of hosting a party: Remember it’s a party. Your chief role is to make sure your guests have a good time and have everything they need. Some guests are going to want beer, no matter how appealing your cocktail list is. Some will not budge on that Vodka Cranberry. So stock good vodka, and good wine and beer, and don’t try to force a Last Word or a Blood and Sand on someone who clearly isn’t interested.
Have plenty of food available—alcohol and empty stomachs don’t mix. And be sure to make at least one really good non-alcoholic beverage so your non-drinking friends have something interesting and delicious to drink.
Designate a friend to pass out cocktails and to collect used glassware, so that you have time to mingle with your guests. If that’s not an option, consider making a punch instead of individual cocktails. “I'm not talking spiked punches with nothing more than bubbles and too much sugar,” says Lantheaume. “I'm talking Fish-House Punch or a traditional Champagne Punch. Going with punches for a cocktail party allows a few things: First, you get to enjoy the party with your guests instead of being stuck preparing beverages all night. Second, similar to sharing a bottle of wine, everyone gets to taste the same drink and share the experience. If you’re looking for togetherness, there's a lot more community in sipping punch with each other than with everyone having a different cocktail. And last, due to economy of scale, it can work out to be cheaper for the host instead of buying the makings for three different cocktails.”
Some parties need a host more than they need a flaming orange peel, while others create their own momentum and leave you plenty of time to show off your fancy bartending skills. Let the flow of the party dictate your actions. After all, as Diedrich puts it, “I think being the ultimate host is the best party trick.”
Check out our picks on the best buys for your home bar.
Get more expert tips and recipes tailored for every level of your home bar in our May/June 2009 issue.
Browse our online collection of cocktail recipes, from classic to contemporary.