Cocktail party: A gathering held to enable forty people to talk about themselves at the same time. The man who remains after the liquor is gone is the host.
– Fred Allen
The origin of the term “cocktail” itself is rife with rumor and speculation, so we’ll leave that to the drink historians. We are far more concerned with putting the cocktail into practice. However, for reference, the term was included in the magazine The Balance in May 1806: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters – it is vulgarly called bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion.”
Ah, the cocktail. It is the introduction to “happy hour,” the ice-breaker, the way to finish a long day and start a magnificent evening. Cocktails can be as simple as scotch on the rocks or as complex as one’s imagination will allow, so it is the one type of beverage that allows for utter creativity.
Some cocktails have fallen strictly under the umbrella of “girlie,” i.e. the Cosmopolitan, sweet martinis (chocolate et. al.) and fruit-laced concoctions, while others are very “masculine.” Think of the dry martini, gin and tonics or any kind of strong spirit. We tend to stay away from lines of gender demarcation and bring all varieties of cocktails together for our favorite type of gathering: the cocktail party.
The Cocktail Party
Here’s where we get to the good stuff. Cocktails are so popular that entire parties have been crafted around them, and we are partial to such gatherings this time of year. Cocktail parties are easiest on the schedule of the holiday cook; they do not require the critical timing of service or individual plating, and most dishes can be made in advance. We thus prefer to set up a bar, put out some hors d’oeuvres and let our guests help themselves to the bounty.
If your party is scheduled to take place around the dinner hour, understand that people will probably arrive hungry for dinner. This doesn’t mean you need to feed them dinner, of course, but you should be prepared to serve hors d’oeuvres that are substantial enough to get them through the next couple of hours. There is nothing worse than leaving a party with a hunger pain.
You can estimate recipe quantities by assuming 4 portions per person for light dishes and 3 portions for heartier fare, provided you also serve other nibbles like crudités and a cheese board. (There really is no reason why you shouldn’t, as they are a snap to put together.) However, if you are truly reluctant to do so, double the portions of hors d’oeuvres per person to be safe. Also, if you have vegetarian guests, be sure to include enough portions to compensate for the other dishes they will not be eating, and/or add more to the crudités and cheese board.
The flow of your cocktail party menu should be as follows:
Crudités/Light Hors d’Oeuvres
Hearty Hors d’Oeuvres
Cheese Board/Dessert Items
Here is an example:
The flow of dishes above accounts for two important considerations: (1) early guests have something to nibble until the bulk of the crowd arrives; and (2) hot food can be presented when you have the maximum crowd there, so it can be enjoyed at its peak of temperature and freshness.
We recommend serving the light hors d’oeuvres for the first 20-30 minutes, as most people tend to be “fashionably” late — this is a judgment call you will have to make according to the size of the crowd at that time.
In case you have not yet perused our Entertaining section, our article The Magic of Ambience is full of tips and tricks to set the right mood for your gathering, including lighting, music and table displays.
This is the critical component. For a cocktail party, you will need to decide whether there will be a bartender or self-serve setup. If it is the former, and the barman is a professional, he will likely have a repertoire he prefers to serve. For our purposes here, however, we will assume a self-serve setup.
At its most basic, your bar should include the following items:
Whiskey (at least Bourbon and Scotch)
Common fruit juices – fresh, or those not from concentrates (i.e. lime, cranberry, grapefruit, etc.)
Cocktail olives (you may want to keep the juice in a small glass container for dirty martinis)
Ice (app. 1 pound per guest per hour (for about 3 servings)
[Mixologist’s Notes: Though troublesome, buying a bunch of fun ice molds and making your own ice with mineral water would also be a nice touch. Also, carbonated mixers in cans are easier to chill and manage.]
Wine glasses (champagne, red, white)
[Mixologist’s Note: You may also wish to consider disposable plasticware shaped just like the cocktail and wine glassware and/or champagne flutes.]
For those who might prefer wine to cocktails, it is best to include an assortment of red, white, and sparkling wines (see Alder’s favorite $10 wines for some suggestions).
An alternative to the basic setup suggested above would be to offer about five of the most popular types of cocktails in your city, and simply set up the bar according to that (or if you are serving a crowd of close friends, you might already know which types they prefer.)
In this instance, the alcoholic components could be premixed in a bottle, while the rest of the ingredients could be prepared in another (except for carbonated items). This way, the alcoholic pre-mixes that are not consumed could be used for another occasion, as the more perishable non-alcoholic portions are mixed separately.
For example, in our Lychee Martini recipe, each serving requires about 1¾ ounces of the alcoholic pre-mix (lychee liqueur, vanilla flavored vodka and Cointreau), and about 2 ounces of the non-alcoholic pre-mix (lychee brine blended with fresh lychees). For a self-serve bar, label each bottle with simple instructions and the amount required per serving, and color-code those that are used for the same recipe.
Another possibility to explore is to match the cocktails with the flow of the food. Just like aperitifs are traditionally used as liquid appetizers, one might explore refreshing and/or tart cocktail recipes in the first course (i.e. Lychee Martini, Mojito, Cosmopolitan), followed by stronger & heavier styles (i.e. Pina Colada, Godmother, Manhattan).
For the first course cocktail, start experimenting with tart ingredients such as raspberries, pomegranate or cranberries, and refreshing items such as mint, grapefruit, lemongrass and lychee.
The third course would be great with champagne-based cocktails (i.e. Clove Spiced Champagne, Bellini) with sharp, distinctive notes to add a celebratory note, perhaps for a Christmas or New Year’s countdown toast.
If you have the time and are feeling creative, you can even prepare your own flavored vodkas, i.e. Granny Smith apple and cinnamon. From these bases, you could have a wild adventure of exotic martinis.
Our Cocktails section has a full listing of recipes, including non-alcoholic (virgin) options, so go and explore!