How to host an amazing cocktail partyBobby R. Presents Friday, September 9th, 2011
In the immortal words of The Nanny theme song, it was “style and flair” that got Fran Drescher the gig as nanny in the Sheffield’s home. With the addition of style and flair to a common house gathering, you can get the gig as an all-star host or hostess (hopefully sans the nasal voice) of a kick-ass cocktail party.
I have been a guest at, and have hosted, some pretty amazing cocktail parties over the years, but I have been to some egregious ones too. As I was recently putting a cocktail party together for a summer themed event at the end of this month, I found myself outlining the elements and essentials one needs to make (or break) the party. Though a small list: Atmosphere, food, cocktail supplies and guest choice, any one of these items chosen poorly will surely throw your party off kilter. Each contains many subtopics for delineation, however there is one string that ties them all together and that is the cocktail party theme.
Now don’t go out and buy a bunch of teepee items for an Indian summer theme (unless you really want to). When I develop ideas for parties I usually lean toward more abstract elements such as color and texture. One of my Christmas cocktail parties was planned with purple ostrich feathers and gold leaf in mind. Another, “baby cheetah” and no I was not high. Other elements that are a bit more concrete could include: a music genre, artist, song, time period or even a book. Regardless of the inspiration is the ultimate maintenance of the idea in atmosphere, food and libation making you the ultimate party dominatrix (insert sinister laugh here).
Atmosphere: I could never touch on all elements associated with atmosphere but there are certain things that are the easiest to manipulate and are essential for me. I like to have a lot of candles burning with minimal artificial light (except in the kitchen). I personally prefer a more sedate music choice, such as jazz or the newer “lounge” mixes. A silent visual on the television can also provide a subtle distraction. Lastly, it is important to specify attire. You do not want shorts and flip flop clad guests to feel out of place in a room full of cocktail dresses.
For my upcoming “end of summer” cocktail party I will play rock and roll songs that are appropriately chosen, Suddenly Last Summer will be screened without sound and I will suggest guests wear mostly white as uniforms for the croquet tournament that will be going on.
Food: While developing this portion of your cocktail menu it is important to think three tiered. The first being stationary food plate(s) coupled with hors d’oeuvres. Having stationary food allows the guests to nosh on their own accord when they first arrive and start to socialize. The hors d’oeuvres provide an elapsed food experience during the cocktail party time frame. The second is the ease in preparation; you will want most everything prepared in advance so that you can enjoy the party too. Last, food volume should be based upon start time. A cocktail party is not designed to provide a meal, but keep in mind that if you plan to throw it at six, guests may not have eaten dinner and may be hungrier than at a cocktail party with an eight o’clock start time.
For my stationary plate, I usually choose a wedge of brie topped with warmed compote whose ingredients match the season, served with a couple of roasted heads of garlic (that will make the place smell great by the way) and some toasted crostini and crackers. However elaborate or simple you choose, the stationary food is now out of your sight and mind so that you can focus on the hors d’oeuvres.
Depending on the theme and space, you can choose to tray pass or set out the hors d’oeuvres in strategic places so that all guests can access them from where they are currently located. The latter requires more trays with less food on them to cover the whole area of the party where the former can be placed on one tray and distributed to all the guests by someone carrying it around (I usually choose to do this myself but you could always outsource to a willing friend.) Of course, all this is assuming you have serving trays. If you do not, many things in the kitchen can suffice including a cutting board or cookie sheet lined with a linen napkin. Be creative and don’t forget to provide cocktail napkins (or a close facsimile thereof).
Cocktail: I prefer to have a signature cocktail served to everyone as they arrive. Guests can bring booze they prefer or even decline the cocktail (how gauche) but the initial distribution is fun and shows that they are in the hands of a good host. Wine spritzers are a good choice for ease, budget and general (non) intoxication of the guests but are not the most fancy of beverages. I will use one at the aforementioned summer celebration that will mix gewürztraminer, green tea, ginger ale and peach schnapps.
If you have a friend who considers themselves a mixologist, solicit them for cocktail recipe advice. If they have come up with the cocktail recipe, then they may be eager to bartend at the party too. While developing the cocktail flavor, keep your foods in mind giving a profile that will maintain the mood. There are so many artesian liqueurs on the market now that you may have difficulty choosing. Great liqueurs I have used often are: Canton (ginger flavor), St. Germain (elderflower infused brandy), Benedictine, Chartreuse and Poma (pomegranate flavor). The nice thing about liqueurs is that they are not the primary ingredient in a cocktail so, although the bottle might be expensive, you will have quite a bit left over for the next endeavor. Under-used mixers such as ginger ale, lemonade, iced rooibos or green tea or coconut milk can also dress up otherwise boring cocktails.
I think the most manageable amount of hors d’oeuvres to plan on is three. Selecting choices of meat, vegetable and fish base will cover the whole range of picky guests’ dietary restrictions and gives a nice variety to those that will eat every one. I usually plan to do two “rounds” of each hors d’oeuvres, staggered to last the first third or half of the projected party time frame. The last hors d’oeuvres I did were shrimp and fennel ceviche on endive spears, grilled fillet on a crostini with arugula and aioli and small servings of melon gazpacho.
Once the ingredients are decided, you’ll need ice. Get lots of ice! Did I mention ice? I have been to so many parties, cocktail or not, where the ice has run out or wasn’t even there to begin with. Cocktails need ice, whether provided or brought by guests, so stock the freezer or cooler to the brim, store it in the sink; I don’t care how, just have lots of ice and then enjoy a libation to help loosen up after all that planning.
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