Thinking Big for Summer Party Drinks

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

When you've got guests milling around the yard, looking thirsty, and mounds of ribs, bratwurst, and burgers working their way across the grill, it's no time to shift your focus and start messing around with the cocktail shaker. While I appreciate the DIY margarita stations and the help-yourself mojito tables that pop up at some warm-weather get-togethers, there's a case to be made for having it both ways—for having well-made mixed drinks prepared for your guests, without all the fuss that comes with mixing individual cocktails for a crowd.

Enter the large-format drink, the savior of the summer party. Sure, punches and pre-batched drinks are great during the cool months, too, but when everything heads outdoors starting with Memorial Day weekend, pitcher drinks and cooling punches seem especially welcome, and they can make hosting a barbecue or backyard get-together much more convenient.

Last year about this time I posted a piece about pitcher drinks, which brought some great suggestions from readers, and it's worth dusting off the details in preparation for this season's parties.

  • Dilution matters. Certainly you want some dilution from the ice—that's what keeps everything cold, and a little dilution makes the drink more palatable. But in hot weather, the problem of over-dilution can come on quick; one course of action is to prebatch your drinks and chill everything in the fridge for several hours before guests arrive, then ice it just as the party's starting (an exception is some old-school punches, which are mixed extra potent with the idea that they'll make themselves more presentable as the ice melts; serve these without added water or enough time for some of the ice to melt, and you'll risk the rapid shellacking of your guests).
  • Another course of action: big ice. Icing as guests arrive is fine for the start of the party, but you don't want to be rushing back and forth to the freezer every time a guest gets thirsty. For punches or pitchers that will sit for a while, use large blocks of ice rather than standard cubes (try freezing water overnight in an empty juice-concentrate can for a pitcher drink, or a decorative mold for a punch)—the drink will stay cold longer, and your dilution will be more gradual.
  • Water isn't the only thing that freezes. Try freezing fruit juice instead of water, or simply freezing chunks of fruit, and using these to chill the drink. Be wary, though, of making a drink too sour or sweet with a surplus of fruit juice. I've also encountered ice cubes made of frozen tonic water. Put them in a glass with gin, a squeeze of lime and a little chilled (not frozen) tonic—not a bad idea at all.
  • Add bubbles last. If your punch or pitcher drink has champagne, soda, or other fizzy additions, add those at the time of serving, and mix in small batches.
  • Think light. Mint juleps and rum punches are essential elements in any summer arsenal, but these aren't exactly session drinks. Depending on the party and your tastes, you may wish to aim lower on the alcohol spectrum so guests keep their bearing, not to mention their dignity, until the end. Wine-based drinks can be great for summer parties, as can basic highballs such as a pitcher version of a gin and tonic. A classic summer pitcher drink that's widely popular for a reason is the Pimm's Cup: it's low in octane, big on flavor, and agreeable to almost everyone.

On Friday I'll post a recipe for a warm-weather punch that can effectively irrigate your guests during a Memorial Day weekend party, but I'm also curious to hear from you. What drinks do you prepare for groups of guests to enjoy outside on summer days or evenings?

Any favorite punches or pitcher drinks you've found that keep guests happy without overworking the hosts?