cocktail-party Cuisine

How to Host a Killer Cocktail Party: PART 1 – Raising the Bar

There is something really special about a party–bringing people together to create a shared experience. But what separates a casual gathering of friends from a party worthy of hosting? While a good party, no matter the size, is simply and ultimately about the getting together (that’s why we call them “get-togethers” in the South), there is a big difference in throwing a party and hosting one.

In your early 20s, you are likely to have your fair share of get-togethers where a few people might BYOB, and others raid the kitchen for whatever cheap beer/wine/liquor can be scavenged, but how do you transition from throwing those loosely-titled “parties” to hosting a real, bonafide, grown-up event?

I’m not talking about breaking the bank or hiring bartenders and caterers. There is a middle ground between the ragers of your youth and the stuffy punch-bowl parties of your parents’ generation. With a few relatively simple upgrades, the transition can be easy and rewarding. Your friends will appreciate the extra effort, the stories will be more memorable, and you may just find yourself feeling like a younger, hipper Martha Stewart.

I (vaguely) remember the first party I threw in college: I lived in a decent apartment on the fringe of downtown Athens, Georgia, and decided to throw a birthday bash for my bestie. I probably didn’t serve anything more than potato chips and PBR, but I distinctly remember two things from that first fateful fete:

I only decorated in the kitchen, but I had confetti and a table runner (so chic! and cheaper than a tablecloth). It was the first of many of what I like to call a “vignette”–a single, festive scene that provides the focal point for a party. And the second thing I remember from that night is that although lots of people left to go barhopping, they came back. The party was that good, and it was a revelation for me. I was hooked.

These days I host a handful of serious parties each year with 50 or so of my nearest and dearest, and often their nearest and dearest as well. Some are themed, some are for holidays, but all have become annual traditions that my friends look forward to and even ask about before I send the Evite. Then there are a smattering of more intimate dinners and brunches, the occasional wedding or baby shower, a few impromptu birthday get-togethers, and even my family’s Christmas dinner.

Now I find myself standing on the edge of 30 looking back on the parties of my 20s, and in all honesty I’m nodding my head and thinking not too shabby. I’ve come a long way from the college days of kegs and bar snacks, and if I do say so myself I have developed a pretty well-seasoned eye for the things that really elevate a gathering to “party” status–and the things that are ultimately unnecessary and will only be a hassle when all is said and done.

In order to be a good host/hostess, you really just need to provide a few basics: a little booze, a little sustenance, and a little something special in the way of decorations. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for some simple ideas sure to step up any celebration.

PART 1: Raising the Bar

The first step to raising the bar is actually providing a bar; seems simple, no? Once when I was at a couple friend’s party, I noticed they had a tiny table brimming with booze: It turns out the collection was mostly leftovers from Sundays watching football, which grew every time people came over and left their open bottles behind. Genius, I thought, the bar regenerates itself the more you entertain.

So rather than buying a bottle of liquor and a case of beer each time I invite people over, I started keeping the dining room stocked with basics: clear liquor, brown liquor, bitters and soda. Now my little bar holds a smattering of other spirits, liqueurs and apertifs brought and abandoned by friends at this party or that. I keep it all on a nice silver tray on the sideboard, but if you live in a small space or entertain often, I highly recommend investing in a bar cart.

It’s a good idea to keep a tray of wine selections elsewhere, especially if you are expecting more than a dozen or so guests. If the bar becomes too congested you can always move people around to the lower-traffic areas of the party with the lure of different libations. Likewise, beer can be kept on ice in a cooler or bucket, either outside or in another room.

What exactly should you serve on the bar? A favorite Southern hostess-muse of mine, Julia Reed, has said, “You can never have too much wine and whiskey.” I would agree wholeheartedly as a whiskey drinker myself, but know that many people will prefer a clear liquor like vodka or gin. For the most part, though, whiskey, vodka, club soda and ginger ale will make everyone happy at the bar.

To step things up, try serving bourbon whiskey with ginger beer, Angostura bitters and a squeeze of lime for a modern take on the traditional Horse’s Neck cocktail. Or, to serve a crowd, you can always whip up a Brown Derby punch with whiskey, honey syrup, and grapefruit juice (club soda optional). A signature drink and some basic options will keep people circulating. If you don’t want to pre-mix or man the bar, you can always jot the instructions on a folded card on the bar so that guests can make their own.

TIP: Beware the “vintage” punch recipe! Those classic punch recipes from your mom’s cookbooks were concocted for sipping, and are not necessarily appropriate (or safe, or even enjoyable) for today’s 20- and 30-something swillers. Because, let’s be honest, if your drink tastes good, as it should, and is served at the right temperature (preferably over large chunks of ice that won’t melt too fast, but at least chilled and certainly not tepid), you will want to drink it, not sip it. And so you should, and it should not leave you mid-conversation with your mouth feeling like either the Sahara or the swamp.

For wine, I like to stick with a basic red wine and some version of a sparkling white. My friends usually prefer a big, gulpable Cabernet, Shiraz, or Zinfandel. Save the Merlot for the wedding bar, thankyouverymuch. If the party is going to last all day (or all night), think about making a basic sangria to cut down on the alcohol intake and the cost (leave out the brandy). People especially love a cold weather sangria, made with wintry spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove) and ginger ale.

Instead of the serving chardonnay or another standard white, I always keep a bottle or two of bubbly around for parties–because let’s face it, sparkling wine just makes everything feel more festive. No matter if it’s champagne, cava, or prosecco, as long as it bubbles the ladies will love it. I usually serve whatever sparkling white I have on hand with a few assorted juices for an easy mimosa bar. Try cranberry juice and apple cider for fall and winter parties, and citrus juices during warmer weather.

I’m also of the opinion that any cocktail which calls for club soda or seltzer will be exponentially better when served with champagne instead. For an extra-special soiree (and an adventurous crowd), try spiking the Brown Derby punch with sparkling white wine and Aperol, an herbaceous Italian liqueur that lends a delicious complexity to both bubbly and bourbon (served alone or in tandem).

TIP: Don’t feel like you have to splurge on the bar staples. A pretty glass bottle or decanter can mask a cheap brand of wine or liquor, and even boxed wine tastes just fine when poured from glass bottles like these from IKEA. No one will notice, trust me–just call it “table wine.”

Of course, you should always provide some non-alcoholic beverages; bottled water is nice but not necessary especially if you have some large bottles like the ones above that can be filled with tap water in advance. It is also nice to have something caffeinated, like soda or coffee, for those who don’t drink or who may be driving home.

What’s your favorite cocktail or party beverage?

Check back next week for PART 2: Party Food Made Easy.


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