Planning a cocktail party is a fun undertaking. For the home bartender, it’s an opportunity to dazzle friends by showing off your mixing skills. However, deciding what to make and how to prepare for the evening can get stressful fast. We’re here to help. Here are some tips that will help make your next party a breeze.
Deciding which cocktail or cocktails you want to feature at your party can be a daunting task. You can easily become overwhelmed with options. Choosing a theme helps to narrow down those options. Are you hosting a cookout? Go with tiki drinks. Firing up the smoker? A bourbon-based cocktail would pair well with those ribs.
If your party has a theme based on a movie, book, or TV show, match your cocktail to it. For example, I recently went to a Twin Peaks-themed party celebrating the return of the classic David Lynch series. In addition to serving cherry pie and doughnuts, the host also featured a damn fine coffee Manhattan riff.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a killer cocktail. Depending on the size of your party, your liquor budget can skyrocket fast. Don’t reach for a baller bottle when something more affordable will get the job done. For example, if you’re making Negronis, you’ll want a quality sweet vermouth, but you don’t necessarily need to go big on the gin — Sapphire or Beefeater works fine unless you’re going for a flavor profile only a specific bottle can provide. If you’re going to be mixing for volume, buy smart and don’t worry about trying to impress people.
For bartenders, preparation is essential to working efficiently behind the stick. We’d be in the weeds all night long if we had to juice a lime for every daiquiri order. Set up your work area so all the ingredients you need are ready to go. Cut fruit for garnishes, squeeze juices, stock your ice, and have all your bar tools and glassware handy.
You can even take your prep to the next level by batching cocktails. Many classics like the Negroni, Vieux Carré, and Martini are a snap to make in large batches. Just keep the ratios in proportion and you’re good to go. Batching is the best way to guarantee your guests get a perfect cocktail without being stuck on bar duty all night long. Which is why you should…
Just because you’ve provided the bar doesn’t mean you have to make every cocktail. While any good host will graciously provide another round to keep the party flowing, I know what a drag it is to be the guy everyone calls on every time their glass is empty. So, get people involved by making it easy for them to make their own cocktail. If you’ve batched, keep glasses and ice out so guests can get refills as needed. If you’re mixing drinks to order, post the recipe and encourage guests to try their hand at it. Sometimes people are intimidated, but with a little prodding and encouragement, they’ll realize it’s not that difficult. They might even learn something.
Unless you’re still in college party mode, you probably don’t want your sophisticated cocktail party to devolve into a remake of Animal House. If you’re concerned about guests wearing out their welcome, put an end time on the invitation then start to subtly wind things down as closing time approaches. Cue up some quieter music, take a little longer to refill people’s glasses, or start picking up — all universal signals that the night is drawing to a close.
And remember, not everyone is built for a night of drinking hard liquor. If you’re making something especially boozy, maybe only make enough for a couple rounds. Once it’s spent, encourage guests to transition to wine or beer.
Also make sure everyone is getting home responsibly — if someone can’t drive, get them alternative transportation or welcome them to crash on the couch. The last thing you want to do is send someone out from your house who is a danger to themselves or others.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, cocktail enthusiast, and bar director for The Palms Restaurant in Rutland, VT. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @JimSabataso.