In the original 1950 version of Father of the Bride, Spencer Tracy throws a huge party at his home to celebrate his daughter’s engagement. He dutifully mans the bar, serving up cocktails made to order all night. As soon as he gets a break, he comes out to greet his guests–but the party is over and everyone is heading home.
That’s my cocktail party nightmare. When I invite people over, it’s because I want to see them and catch up! I’ve thrown maybe a hundred cocktail parties in my time, and I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way… so here are my five keys to throwing a fabulous, stylish cocktail hour for 20+ that you can actually participate in.
1. Plan ahead for ice. Making great cocktails means paying attention to everything in the glass, and that includes the ice. A few days before your party, start stockpiling square whiskey ice cubes (use something like this to make them). Keep them all in a big Ziploc bag in your freezer. For extra credit, you can also make ice balls for all-liquor drinks like martinis.
2. Don’t mess around with fancy schmancy glassware. Purists may argue with me, but I don’t think it’s worth the trouble to serve all of your drinks in their proper stemware at a large cocktail party. If you’re only having a handful of people over and you’re willing to take the time to make drinks to order, then fine–but with 20+ guests, go simple. I usually use these Ikea glasses because they’re small (so no one gets sauced), they’re cheap, and you can throw them in the dishwasher.
3. Get dressed early. Like, really early. Because if you wait until you’re done prepping everything else before you shower and do your hair and put on your cute little hostess dress, Murphy’s Law will definitely find a way to bite you in the ass. Guests WILL show up 45 minutes before your event starts, and you’ll still be wearing your bathrobe. (This has happened to me twice. Awkward.)
Make a point of getting presentable at least two hours before the start time. You’ll probably still be mixing cocktails and plating hors d’oeuvres when the inevitable super-early guest arrives, but at least it’ll look like you planned it that way.
4. Make cocktails in batches. Nothing kills the party atmosphere faster than making people wait while you shake up drinks two at a time. And if you’re behind the bar all night like poor Spencer Tracy, you’ll never get to talk to anyone.
The best candidates for batching are classic still cocktails like the Last Word, negronis, Manhattans, and whiskey sours. Chill the pitchers in the fridge for a few hours before the party and just pour each drink over one of your premade square ice cubes when you serve it.
5. Make at least one nonalcoholic cocktail–and not some cop-out soda-water-with-lime, either. Create a real cocktail! People who aren’t drinking alcohol at your shindig deserve delicious and complex libations as much as any other guest. Having at least one really amazing nonalcoholic drink shows that you’re thinking about entertaining ALL your guests–always a good quality in a host(ess). Try this one:
Chai Tea Sour
2 parts chilled double-strength Indian chai tea
1 part light coconut milk
1 part cinnamon-nutmeg simple syrup
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part fresh Meyer lemon or Satsuma mandarin juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Mix and chill, then serve over ice.