Editor's note: Thanks to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, I was able to attend the San Antonio Cocktail Conference January 26 through 29th. Here's a bit of what I experienced there.
It's not often you get to ask the cocktail elite for advice about parties you throw at home, but at the recent San Antonio Cocktail Conference, Sasha Petraske, the proprietor of New York's acclaimed Milk & Honey, opened up the floor to questions. And this top barkeep has been thinking a lot about home cocktail parties lately—he's working on a book on the topic. Here are a few gems of advice that Petraske offered for those looking to serve delicious drinks at their next shindig.
When you're making cocktails at home, the quality doesn't have to give. Using high-quality ingredients you can make something tastier at home than most people would find in any bar near them. But you do have to make one sacrifice: selection. You could never stock a home bar so that you could whip up every single cocktail anyone might request—it would cost too much, and it would slow your party down significantly. "It's not good service to offer a half-assed version of everything," said Petraske, so he suggests that you limit your party to 2 to 4 signature drinks (that you can print up on a little menu so you don't have to explain them to every thirsty guest.)
2. Too Much Is Better Than Not Enough
"Your party's success," says Petraske, "isn't about whether you're a good bartender." Instead, he says, it will hinge on whether you've planned properly. Most importantly, make sure that you have more than enough ice. Get 5 pounds of ice per person—you're not going to use it all up, but the extra will help keep the ice you really need frozen and cold. Ordering ice is easy, but if you're making your own in the freezer, make sure there's no non-packaged frozen food that could make your ice smell and taste bad. (Move that salmon you caught in Alaska somewhere else.)
Also make sure you have more than enough garbage bags, bottle openers and corkscrews, and napkins. (Petraske says he learned about the importance of having more than one working corkscrew the hard way—you gonna open that bottle of wine with your teeth?) You should have a separate cocktail shaker for each kind of drink you're making, so you don't have to clean shakers after pouring each drink.
3. Batch It
"Making people wait is bad bartending," says Petraske. Shaken drinks should be shaken one or two at a time, but they can be pre-measured so you're not fussing with each ingredient when your guests ask for a drink.
Each 750 mL bottle of booze has about 25.4 ounces in it. If your drink recipe calls for 2 ounces of spirit, then you'll need about 12 times the rest of the ingredients such as sweetener, vermouth, or citrus to make a full batch. (You can measure out any other ingredients, but squeeze all your citrus juice at the last minute before your guests arrive.)
Keep a mixed batch cold in a pitcher on ice, then shake 3.5 ounces of the mixture with ice—or 7 ounces if you're making 2 drinks at a time. If you're making a drink with eggwhites, be sure to add that to order.
Stirred drinks are a bit easier. If no citrus is involved, you can mix a batch in advance in a large bottle, with about a quarter of the total volume of the bottle filled with water. (The water mimics how much water would be added if you stirred over ice.) Keep it in the freezer until the party, and keep on ice while serving.
4. Chill Out
Say you're making daiquiris for your party. These drinks, shaken and served up without ice, get warm (and thus, gross) fast. Petraske recommends keeping your booze in the freezer to get it as cold as possible, and chilling your glasses. Don't worry—it's easier and less fussy than it sounds. Set up your bar so there's a table or counter behind you, and line up your glasses in rows there. Fill the first row of glasses with icewater, and when you're ready to use a glass, pour the ice water from that glass into a glass in the next row. Instant chill.
5. While We're Talking Glassware: Rent It
If you're having a dinner party for six, you might have enough glasses for everyone, but if you're inviting a big group over, it's unlikely that you have enough, and you shouldn't count on washing glasses as you go. Unless you're hiding a Hobart industrial-strength in your kitchen, your dishwasher just isn't fast enough. If you figure that each person might have 4 drinks, you'll need about 80 glasses. (If you're getting fancy and serving one cocktail that goes in a coupe or martini glass and another that goes in a highball and a third that goes in a rocks glass, you'll need many more, since you can't predict that your guests will order equal numbers of each drink.)
6. Don't Forget The Virgins
You must offer at least one non-alcoholic option for designated drivers and those who don't imbibe. Make a virgin version of any cocktail by removing the alcohol from the recipe and doubling citrus and simple syrup, or choose a dedicated signature non-alcoholic drink (here at Serious Eats, we're partial to shrub syrups with ginger beer or club soda.)
As a host, you also shouldn't snub those who just want to drink a Scotch and soda or a gin and tonic. Not everyone wants your fancy Honeysuckle cocktail or Blackberry Rickey, no matter how much you like them. Have standard spirits and mixers available for people to make one-and-ones, plus at least one kind each of beer, red wine, and white wine.
7. Be Responsible
Someone at your party (and this is probably the host) needs to be in a position to keep people safe, to talk to upset neighbors, or to deal with the cops if need be. The buck stops with you if someone is overserved and something bad happens.