Easy Cocktail Parties

Tips for Hosting a Successful Gathering

We both love to entertain. Whether it is a full-blown event that has been planned for weeks or friends coming over on the fly, we really enjoy inviting people over. Having back­grounds in cocktails, wines, and food, we’ve learned quite a few things over the years for hosting nearly any style of cocktail party. Here are some tips and techniques for mak­ing your next event a huge success.

Who and What?

The first order of business for a successful cocktail party is to create your guest list and theme. When developing a theme, consider the time of day and season. In summer, an afternoon barbecue can be a lot of fun, and during the holi­days, you may want to host a formal evening event. Once the “who and what” are in place, it’s time to select the food and beverages.

Your Party Menu

So, what to serve? First consider your guest list. Your menu should include items your guests will enjoy, and it should relate to your theme. The amount of food served and the types of ingredients should correlate to the time of day. For example, if you are hosting an afternoon tea/cocktail party, serve fewer items since your guests will later have dinner elsewhere. And for a formal evening reception, ensure that your guests have enough variety and selection to satisfy their appetites. Also, remember to include dishes that meet any dietary restrictions your guests may have.

Once you’ve finalized the menu, you may find it helpful to set out the silverware and china (including platters and serving bowls) that you’ll need for the event. On each serv­ing dish, place a sticky note labeled with the menu item it will hold.

Something to Drink?

Think variety. It’s always a good idea to offer a selection of drinks (including a non-alcoholic option), but that doesn’t mean that you have to feature a full bar. Again, your guest list and theme should help you create your beverage list. We have groups of friends who only drink wine, and although we could offer them the next big thing in cocktails, they wouldn’t even bat an eye at it. On the other hand, if we’re hosting a small neighborhood gathering, our beverage list may consist of wine, beer, and cocktails. If you know your guests well, you can figure out their drink preferences; if you don’t, be sure to select a few safe options, such as a white and a brown spirit. Vodka or gin can turn into a cocktail, or can be combined with a mixer such as tonic water. A safe brown spirit like Bourbon whiskey can be drunk neat, on the rocks, with a mixer, or in a cocktail.

Once the base spirits are selected, you can create a special featured cocktail; showcasing it may entice your guests to try it, so plan for a higher consumption of that drink. Figure out how many drinks you’ll need per person, and this will assist you in knowing how much of the ingredients you’ll need to have on hand.

Plan ahead when it comes to glassware, too. You should have a selection of glasses associated with each style of bev­erage. For example, if all the drinks are served in martini glasses, you will need a quantity of that type of glass—clean and on hand. If you vary between a highball for one drink and a martini for another, you will likely not need to worry about quantity or cleaning glassware throughout your party.

Wines, Beers… Cheers!

If wine is on the menu, select popular styles. Sparklers will please wine drinkers, and you can create fun cocktails with them, too. The sparkling wine you serve does not necessar­ily have to be from Champagne. Cava from Spain or sparkling wines from the U.S. are good quality, value-priced for quantity, and, most important, tasty. Instead of a big “meal in a glass” like over-oaked Chardonnay, you should lean towards a moderately oaked Chardonnay or a white wine blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The Semillon adds body and richness to the Sauvignon Blanc, which brings out the food-enhancing qualities of the blend. For a red wine, try to choose one in the moderate richness/body level, such as a Pinot Noir or Grenache (or Garnacha, depending on the growing region).

As with your wine and cocktails, select a moderate style of beer. The type of beer will affect the pairing with food. A local or regional beer is fun to focus on as a topic of discus­sion, but you still want to offer a variety that is lighter in body style, such as a lager; or a little heartier, like an ale.

It’s Showtime

The day has arrived and it’s party time—time for you to enjoy the fruits of your planning and efforts. You’ve pre­pared the food and have it beautifully laid out. Your bever­ages are chilled. One last tip: before your guests arrive, we recommend you open a bottle each of white and red wine to offer, ready to pour. Now, step out of the kitchen and go enjoy your guests!

Husband-and-wife team Douglass Miller and Cheryl Stanley teach hospitality and service management at the CIA. Mr. Miller is a 1989 graduate of the college, a Certified Specialist of Spirits, and a Certified Hospitality Educator. Ms. Stanley is a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine.

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