How to Throw a Cocktail Party

With the holidays approaching, it’s high time we address the prime time moment for adult beverages:  the cocktail party.  While there are endless ways, hows, and variations to a successful party, some basic considerations lie at the core of a truly memorable evening.  These tips come from practical experience as well as from the advice of a few learned friends.

Know the Occasion
The first step toward a successful cocktail party is to stop and think.  Ask yourself two important questions:  What’s the occasion, and what food will be served? The answers to these questions will define the type(s) of drinks to be served.  Mother’s Day brunch merits different libations than an all-night poker party.

If the primary focus of the event is a meal, with cocktails beforehand, focus on drier drinks.  Sweet drinks tend to fill you up, and if you or someone else has put a great deal of effort into the meal itself, there’s no sense in ruining it by serving 12oz Painkillers just before.  Hard alcohol also tends to deaden the palate.  As much as I like a Vesper before a juicy rib eye, it’s not doing my taste buds any good.  Plus it’s getting me too bombed too quickly.  The best before-meal drinks tend to be traditional aperitifs or slightly herbal cocktails.  Something with a little Absinthe is a nice idea.

In the case of the poker party or a traditional cocktail party, you have a lot more leeway.  This is the time to present a wider variety of drinks (taking into account the points below, of course).

Time of year, time of day, and weather should also be considered.  Daiquiris during Christmas in John o’ Groats just don’t seem right.

Make a Menu, and Make it Limited
Lesley and I have never thrown a dinner party without meticulous planning beforehand.  Key to a meal, of course, is a menu that works.  If the meal is complicated, we’ll pair dishes that can be prepared ahead with those that need to be made on the spot.  This helps balance the workload.  The same general theory applies to the cocktail party.

If you’re offering a choice of drinks, create a limited menu.  Not only does it add a sense of occasion to the affair, it also puts you in control of the situation.  There’s nothing worse than a guest asking for a drink that you don’t know how to make or for which you’re ill prepared.  One “drink of the night” is a great way to start.  If you’re comfortable juggling more recipes, offer between 3 and 6 choices.  If necessary, limit the spirit choices to those you already have on hand, which will help to control your expenses.

I print out two versions of the menu — one with recipes to keep at the bar, and one for guests that looks like our Drinks Menu page.  Even if you’re a world champion bartender, there’s no shame in keeping your recipes handy.  I can make several hundred cocktails, but I make most of them so infrequently that it’s easy to mistake a 1/2 tsp for a 1/2 ounce.  As a successfully made drink is the goal, feel free to keep a cheat sheet nearby.  Should you get busy elsewhere and a guest want to make themselves a drink, this will prove additionally handy.

Be Prepared
Well before the party itself, do some planning:

Do the Math
There are 25 ounces in a standard bottle of booze.  The average cocktail (Martini-style drinks aside) contains roughly 1.5 to 2 ounces of base spirit.  By creating a menu and figuring out how many guests you’ll be having, you’ll be able to figure out how much alcohol you’ll need.  Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette (1978 ed.) tells us to plan on three drinks per person; I find that two is good number.  It’s obviously better to have too much liquor than too little. (At a night of cards, we once had a guest bring six quarts of ice cream for six people because she didn’t know how much people ate).  Once you have a menu, do the actual math on how much liquor, mixers, juice, and syrup you’ll need — then have a little bit more, just in case.

Knowing your guests is also key.  Do they drink like fish, or are they teetotalers?  Plan accordingly.

Control Costs
Planning ahead and creating a menu lets you control your costs.  For example, Redbreast Irish Whiskey costs about twice as much as Rittenhouse Rye.  I’d be happy if you served me either.  If costs are a factor, devise your menu accordingly.

Sour type drinks are popular because half the drink is a combination of citrus juice and simple syrup, both relatively inexpensive items.  Creating a menu with a good deal of ingredient overlap also helps.  If you’re making raspberry syrup, make sure at least two drinks need that ingredient.

Have Everything Ready
Have your syrups made, your citrus juiced, your bottles out, and your equipment ready about an hour before the party starts.  The only real volatile ingredient is fresh juice, but recent studies show that it actually tastes better after a few hours (too many hours can kill it, however, so don’t get too far ahead of yourself).  Figure out what glassware you’ll need and have that accessible too.

In a professional kitchen, most cooks operate within a small “box” of space; you should too.  Mixing drinks is theater, and your guests will want to gather ’round to watch and chat.  By having everything within arm’s reach, you won’t be jostling guests to grab a lime.

Note that garnishes will dry out very quickly, so I seldom cut them before the party starts.  In general, for a home party, I limit garnishes to those that are necessary for the drink or are meant to be consumed.

Location, Location, Location
It’s a fact of entertaining that guests will hang out either where you are or where the food and drink are.  Place your bar somewhere convenient but somewhere that can handle the flow of traffic.  Also, if you or someone else needs to be preparing a meal while the guests are present, do not place the bar in the kitchen.

If necessary, rearrange your furniture to facilitate a better flow of traffic.  Living and entertaining are two very different pursuits; set the stage appropriately.  Amy Vanderbilt warns us that “a large cocktail party at home inevitably means some damage to your furnishings.  If you have a prized object (read: original “Planet of the Apes” Dr. Zaius action figure), put it away.  Clear all the surfaces of small bric-a-brac.”  Remove things over which people could trip.  Vanderbilt also advises that “children (unless they are big enough to help) and pets should be sent elsewhere for the duration of your cocktail party.”  If you’d prefer the event to be adults only, don’t be afraid to inform your guests (but do so well ahead of time).

Above All Else, Be a Good Host
When hosting any type of function, your number one job is to be the best host possible.  Take care of your guests; you are responsible for them.

Don’t Force Drinks
If your guests don’t want a drink, respect that.  H.i. Williams tells us, “Be grateful when they (your guests) know their capacity.  The difficult ones are those who don’t.  What has little effect on one may be dynamite to another and the smart host senses this and thinks up a tactful way to pass by the latter.”

The most important tip herein (one that I’d consider a “rule”): offer a non-alcoholic alternative.  No matter how much work you’ve put into your evening, have soda or sparkling water on hand.  If you’re making Sours and have water on the premises, you have the makings for lemonade (tell guests if you’ve shocked your syrups with alcohol, or keep alcohol-free syrup on hand, especially if children are present).  One caution here is that lemonade will eat up your juice and syrup supply rather quickly, and if one guest sees another having it, an unanticipated domino effect may occur.  Separate and independent alcohol-free choices are the best way to go.

If You Serve Alcohol, Serve Food
This would be the second “rule”.  Don’t serve alcohol without some sort of food.  It’s just plain irresponsible.

Inform Guests of Drink Ingredients
Unless you’re a triage doctor (and even then), inform your guests of ingredients like raw eggs, nut-based syrups, and whatnot.  An easy way to accomplish this is to include all suspect items on your menu.  When someone asks for a drink for the first time, you can also verbally walk through its execution.  These steps don’t excuse you from asking, point blank, if the guest has allergies, but they do help reinforce things.

Have Beer and Wine on Hand
No matter how fancy your cocktail party, someone’s going to want a beer.  Pick one or two brands that you like and keep them in the fridge just in case.  The same goes for a nice bottle each of red and white wine — just make sure they pair well with the occasion.  Red wine also gives you the ability to make a lovely New York Sour.

Suffer Bad Guests
Your job is to be a good host.  Their job is to be a good guest.  If they complain about the quality of your drinks, brag about their own abilities, their job, their life, pour their own drinks, insist you make something off of the menu, polish off your best Scotch, or pour coke in their Lafite – accept it, as long as it doesn’t hurt or bother others.  If they get truly disruptive, speak with them in private.

Don’t Be a Bore
If you’re passionate about what you’re making (food or drink), it’s way too easy to go from being an enthusiast to being a bore.  Remind yourself to stop talking and to be humble.  When you’re a host, you’re in service.  Even though it’s your house and your affair, your responsibility is to your guests.  Set the stage, and let them be the players.

Don’t Stay Trapped Behind the Bar
Your job is host, not bartender.  Once your guests are served, be sure to mingle.  It’s important to take a break.  Leave a menu with recipes out and show others how to make the drinks of the night, or appoint a trusted guest temporary bartender (a good buddy will usually jump at the chance).  Sir Kingsley Amis had a rule at the parties he hosted, and while it may seem a little impolite on the surface, it’s really rather welcoming: “I’ll pour you the first one and after that, if you don’t have one, it’s your own f***ing fault.  You know where it is.”  In his own way, Amis was saying that his home was his guest’s home.  He was also rather skilled at throwing a cocktail party and knew that his job was to mingle.

Consider Punch
Anyone who has hosted a few cocktail parties will sing the praises of a good punch.  Punches are designed for parties.  They can be made ahead, and they specifically dilute overtime, so that the punch weakens as the night goes on, as it should.

Make Sure Everyone Gets Home Safely
As the event winds down, your chief responsibility is to make sure that everyone is in a position to make it home safely.  Intervene if necessary; even going so far as to call for and pay for a taxi to take a guest home.  If you have the room, offer a bed or a couch.  If you are concerned as to whether a guest got home safely, call them either later that evening (if appropriate) or the next day.  Safety trumps propriety.

There are certainly more tips to keep in mind when hosting your first or your fiftieth cocktail party, but this set will get you started and keep you on the right course.  Gary Regan, barman extraordinaire, regularly reminds us that “the core chore of the bartender – to make people happy, welcome and cared for – will never vary”.  The same goes for a host.

Remember your guests, and your guests will remember your party.

5 responses to “How to Throw a Cocktail Party

  1. Great article. Makes me want to throw a party right now. Will you be offering up recipes for different types of punch as the holiday season approaches?

    • Within the next two weeks, we’ll be featuring two punches — one with rum and one non-alcoholic. November 2nd, David Wondrich’s punch book comes out, so they’ll be more shortly thereafter.

  2. I was also going to ask if you had any punch recipes. I look forward to those when they come out.

  3. Pingback: Poison Apple Punch | 12 Bottle Bar

  4. Pingback: POM Wonderful Dinner Party – Part Five: The POM Gin Fizz | 12 Bottle Bar

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