Bartending 101 for Your Next Cocktail Party

If you can spin synchronized shakers like Tom Cruise and Brian Brown, you’re already too sophisticated for this story. However, here are a few tips for amateurs to both cut booze budgets and look like pros. Whether you’re throwing an inaugural fete for your new home, a holiday shindig, or just stocking up for impromptu parties, follow a few simple rules:

1. dedicate space
Commit a small area to your craft. Keeping everything in one place, and keeping thirsty guests out of our kitchen, will help your sanity. Cocktail carts are great for serving and storage, but are hard to bend over. Breakfast bars work well, or even free-standing cheapie bookshelves: towards you for extra storage, away for a literati look. For the frequent entertainers, Cost Plus World Market offers gorgeous carved hardwood home bars for under $500.

2. the right tools for the right job
Though alligator-handled jiggers are stylish, look for function over form in your bar tools. You will need a double-sided jigger, preferably with a handle to keep your sleeves out of the libations. Consistent measures keep you from the expensive habit of free pouring, and once you’ve figured out your recipes you can duplicate without estimating.

A clear plastic cocktail shaker is a good bet, too, at about one-third the price of stainless steel. They usually have a good seal, but not too tight to get open, and aren’t as cold or sweaty to hold. Grab a few, so you can dedicate one to each martinis, cosmos, etc. to avoid constant washing during the night. The cap and straining lid of the shaker also make great measuring devices (ex: one capped strainer of gin to one cap vermouth makes two short martinis). You’ll also need a small knife and a citrus zester. OXO makes easy-to-use accessories with fat rubber grips. Buy long plastic swizzle sticks from a party supply source, so you can leave one in each guest’s drink. No extra cleaning and glasses are easier to identify. (You can use those goofy wine charms if you’d prefer…) Those really expensive paper towels (the ones you usually pass over at Target) are worth the extra dollar here. Far from the fridge? Galvanized garden tubs, $8 to $17 at The Container Store, hold ice for “on the rocks” and chilling both bottles and glasses.

3. stick to the classics
Friends don’t let friends drink Peppermint Schnapps. Start your bar with vodka, rum, and gin. For mixers, stock dry vermouth for martinis, cranberry juice for the ubiquitous Cosmo, tomato for the Bloody Mary, grapefruit, orange, and lemon or lime juice, plus cola, tonic, club soda, and 7-Up or ginger ale.

4. spend on the straights
As you restock before each event, add one new item to your stash. Drinks which are taken straight are where better quality counts. Invest in top-shelf tequila, scotch, bourbon, whiskey, and cognac as your budget allows.

5. do the math
Count on at least two drinks per guest for a cocktail party, and at least four for a full-night affair. A 750 ml. bottle will yield about 16 cocktails, a liter bottle will yield 22, and a 1.5 liter will yield 39. Liquor won’t spoil, so plan generously and avoid running out or running to the store.

6. develop signature style
Use garnishes to doll up the gin and juice. A little lime or lemon zest or a couple of cherries work fine, but find a few accents that are uniquely yours. Try frozen grapes, mint leaves, colored sugar, licorice twists, or edible blossoms. Add one fun drink: Ginger Cosmo, Sake-tini, Red Bull and whatever. Just taste test first!

It’s always a challenge trying to be an accommodating host while actually enjoying your own party. Keep it simple and lively, and don’t forget to enlist the help of friends so you can step out from behind the bar and make the rounds. Learn a few “a man walks into a bar” anecdotes and you’re ready to shake with the best!

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