Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.

How to Plan and Host a Cocktail Party

Editor's Note: You may know Michael Dietsch from his excellent cocktail blog, A Dash of Bitters. He'll be swinging by this holiday season with helpful cocktail tips for your winter entertaining.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

So, you're planning a cocktail party? Commendable, friend, commendable. Now's the perfect time, with all these holidays falling down around us. Careful planning and a few tips should help relieve the stress you're undoubtedly starting to feel. Let's start with the essentials: glassware, liquor, mixers, and ice.

Glassware

One of the trickiest parts of planning a party is knowing how much glassware to have on hand. First, consider simplifying your drinks menu. If the only wine you're offering is champagne, the only wine glasses you need are flutes. A highball glass, in a pinch, can hold beer or water.

If you think you'll be hosting parties with some regularity, consider ordering glassware online, in sets of 12 or 16. A set of 12 champagne flutes, for example, will cost you about $40; a set of V-shaped cocktail glasses will run about the same.

You may want to buy charms for the stem of each glass so guests can keep track of their glass and reuse it for the next round.

Expect breakage; we lose one or two glasses at every party. Just keep a small broom handy and a smile on your face.

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Don't worry if all your glasses don't match. Older glassware with some character to it is a great conversation starter. Keep an eye out on ebay and at thrift stores for good deals on vintage glassware.

Liquor

Another challenge in party planning is figuring out how much hooch to have on hand. Choosing a cocktail menu can help. You can print up a menu of a few signature drinks in advance, and buy your booze according to what you need for each drink. I'll have more details on making batches of cocktails in my next post.

As for the number of bottles you'll need to buy, the general rule of thumb is to expect each guest to consume 1 or 2 drinks per hour. So multiply the number of guests by the number of hours your party will last, and then multiply that by 2, just to be safe. If you're having 20 guests for two hours, you'll need 80 drinks. Keep in mind, this number includes cocktails as well as wine, beer, and non-alcoholic beverages.

A standard bottle of wine or liquor—what we used to call a fifth—holds 750 milliliters, or a little over 25 ounces. If you're pre-batching a pitcher (or carafe or bottle) of margaritas that uses 8.5 oz. of tequila, you'll get almost 3 pitchers of margaritas from one bottle of tequila.

Essential Liquor and Mixers

Even if you're serving one or two cocktails that you've mixed up in advance, you should plan on having these spirits on hand:

  • Whisk(e)y (at the holidays, either bourbon or a good blended Scotch)
  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • Tequila
  • Rum
  • Brandy

Your guests will come to your party with varying tastes: some will be in love with your cocktails, whereas others will prefer scotch on the rocks or a gin and tonic. Be prepared by stocking the following mixers:

  • Tonic water
  • Seltzer or club soda
  • Cola
  • Lemonade or lemon-lime soda
  • Ginger ale or ginger beer

Be sure to have lots of lemons and limes on hand for these renegade drinkers, too.

Ice

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[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

The frozen stuff chills your drinks in several different ways, and the types of ice you'll want to have on hand will vary based on what it's doing.

Bagged Ice

Bagged ice is perfect for keeping a bunch of bottles and cans of beverages chilled in a cooler or tub. Send someone out the morning of your party to buy ice—a bag or two per cooler or tub. If you have ample freezer space to store extra bags, then go ahead and have a few extras on hand.

Break up the ice a bit and pour it into the cooler or tub. Fill with water and add your bottles. Beverages chill faster and colder in ice water than they do in ice alone, but you'll have to replenish the ice as it melts so the drinks don't warm up too much.

Cubed Ice

Consider investing in silicon ice-cube trays, such as those made by Tovolo. Large, heavy cubes of ice melt more slowly in rocks drinks than smaller cubes do, and they look more festive in a glass. If you have enough freezer space, you can start freezing ice several days in advance and store it until the day of the party.

Molded Ice

Great for chilling bowls of punch, molded ice also gives you a canvas for a bit of creativity. Here's what you do:

Fill a large bowl, or several small bowls, with a mix of water and fruit juice. If you're making a punch recipe that calls for pineapple or lime juice, for example, you can add pineapple or lime juice to the ice. Add slices of lime or chunks of pineapple to the bowl as well and freeze, at least overnight.

As the ice melts, it will "water" your punch down with juicy flavor instead of just water. You can even add edible flowers (or other edible garnishes) to the ice, if they're in season. When you're ready to serve the punch, simply dip the ice bowl in warm water until the ice loosens from the bowl.

More Party Planning Tips...

How to mix batches of cocktails in advance »

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and technographer. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.

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