Forget what you know about cocktail parties. The tales your grandparents told you about their epic cocktail parties (women in pearls and men in dinner jackets), along with our new obsession with the Mad Men standard of entertaining, build up the cocktail party as a beast that requires heroic effort to tame and control.
That’s all well and good if you have lots of free time to plan and execute the perfect cocktail party. But most people don’t. Most of us have full-time jobs (sometimes two or three jobs!) and a little too much stress in our lives.
This is where a modern approach to hosting cocktail parties comes in handy. Food and entertainment writer A.J. Rathbun has thought a lot about this. He’s the author of Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz and many other books on cocktails and parties, and he’s an ardent party host himself.
“You want your party to stand out from the party pack,” says Rathbun, but you don’t have to go overboard to host a memorable cocktail party. You need great cocktails, a little planning, and a lot of fun.
Great Cocktails with a Local Twist
“I think the collective consciousness of party throwers has realized that if you want to have a party that people love, you’re going to have to up the cocktail ante a little bit,” Rathbun says.
This means you can’t get away with cheap tonic and a bottle of gin these days. “What I always suggest,” advises Rathbun, is “that you pick two or three signature cocktails” for your party: one classic cocktail and something new.
“It’s always fun to introduce your friends to a new drink, a new liqueur, or a new spirit brand they haven’t had.” Rathbun is a huge fan of using local spirits in cocktails as a way to get to know what your own city has to offer. He’s especially fond of his Earl of 15th Avenue cocktail (Ebb + Flow vodka, Earl Grey syrup, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice), which uses mostly local spirits and ingredients from Seattle, where he lives.
Simple, Creative Themes
“Without getting too theme-y, planning around the seasons” is an easy way to put together a cocktail party, and seasonal parties are among Rathbun’s stand-by options. For a summery party, Rathbun suggests choosing bubbly, refreshing drinks: a classic like an Italian Spritz, as well as “something else that’s summery but maybe people haven’t heard of.”
Rathbun likes to host everything from seasonal cocktail parties and holiday parties to his favorite theme: “faux” tailgate parties which include all the fun, sporting elements but “that aren’t around any sporting event at all,” he explains with a chuckle.
Choosing a simple theme is as much for the host as it is for the guests. It’s much easier to decide which cocktails to serve when you’ve narrowed down the options. When you coordinate your signature drinks with the food, it “sets the bar a little higher,” says Rathbun.
Less Stress, More Fun
“One of the things people always forget is that the party isn’t going to be fun for the guests if it’s not fun for the host,” Rathbun tells us, so don’t think you have to “stay in the kitchen and watch Julia Child videos for a month” in order to throw a great party.
Narrowing down your drink menu to just a couple signature cocktails, testing the recipes ahead of time, and prepping the ingredients before the guests arrive, advises Rathbun, all go a long way toward helping you enjoy your own party.
This ties into Rathbun’s “party slogan” which he discovered in a fortune cookie: “proper prior planning prevents poor performance.” Once you get past the rather distracting alliteration (who writes these fortunes anyway?), it’s actually really good advice. “Anything you can do in advance [cutting lime slices, making simple syrup, mixing fruit juice], get done,” he says.
If you don’t feel like stirring and shaking a hundred drinks in a single evening, Rathbun says that punch is a delicious alternative: “it’s really tasty, punch bowls look really fantastic…and it gives you more time to mingle with your friends.”
Rathbun’s final piece of advice: “Don’t forget the taxi driver number…make sure your party doesn’t end in a bent fender.”
A.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others.