Surrule No. 1: Never run out of booze.
Surrule No. 2: Never run out of ice.
The art of the cocktail and the ceremony of uncorking a nice bottle of wine are an integral part of the dinner party. Although drinking may no longer be politically correct, the reality is that many people still savor the pleasure.
For the majority of people, wine is like sex: they've been partaking for years, deriving tremendous pleasure from it, but they still do not come close to understanding all of its complexities.
Fortunately for us, in both cases the fundamentals are simple. Unfortunately, the stigma of selecting "the right" wine can be the cause of great angst. The first step toward selecting appropriate wines is learning to trust your own palate. Make a point of noting wines that you enjoy. Write down their names or peel off the label. A good place to start is at restaurants that serve "house" wine. These wines are selected because they are good values, have wide appeal and are easily available.
If you have a mix of fine wines and plonk (wine snob vernacular for inexpensive table wine), serve the good bottles first, while the tastebuds are sober.
quantity . If wine is the prime liquid being consumed, a safe range is from one half up to a full bottle (standard 750ml bottle) of wine per person. (A 750ml wine bottle contains 5 to 6 glasses.) Increase the estimate if the party is on a Friday or Saturday. Decrease it if the guest list includes pregnant women, athletes in training or teetotalers. Err on the high side -- leftover uncorked wines are rarely orphaned for long.
color . It is courteous to always have some of each wine color on hand. More people tend to drink white than red in the summer. If the entree is something that traditionally calls for a red wine (such as red meat), or if the weather is cold, red is usually the color of preference. Despite these guidelines, the only thing you can really count on is that your guests will always drink more of the color you have less of.
preparation . Chill all of the white wine (ideally, serve at 45 degrees Fahrenheit). Fine reds improve after being exposed to air. Letting a wine "breathe" by simply uncorking the bottle doesn't do much good, because of the limited surface area of wine actually exposed to the air. Either decant the bottle by pouring it slowly into a carafe or pitcher, or fill your guests' wineglasses and tell them not to drink it for ten minutes -- good luck!
grand opening . Bringing a bottle of fine wine to a party is a bit like bringing a gift-wrapped present. The presenter secretly desires to see it opened. If you sense a guest has gone out of their way to bring a special wine, acknowledge the gift in the kindest way possible -- by sharing it.
If the wine snobs haven't succeeded in making you feel inadequate, then the big beer companies will take their turn by insisting that there is a distinguishable difference between the popular domestic brands.
There are three true categories of beer: mass-produced domestic beer; flavorful beer; and light beer. Mass-produced domestics are the familiar names advertised by women in bikinis and guys doing the macho bonding thing. It's a good idea to keep a six-pack of this type of beer on hand in case your guests uncontrollably break into a game of Nerf football in the living room before dinner is served. Flavorful, full-bodied beers used to be the sole domain of imports. Thanks to the "micro-brewing" revolution, the landscape of flavorful beer drinking has changed dramatically. These traditionally small microbreweries have targeted discriminating beer drinkers (the ones who like their beer to taste like beer). They offer lagers, "pale" ales, etc., which are made in small batches -- and in most cases are a pleasure to drink.
Imported beers from around the world are now available in most grocery stores. A few of my personal favorites distinctive in taste are Grolsch (Holland), Kirin (Japan), Labatts (Canada) and Bass (U.K.) Stock a variety.
Light beer is a relatively recent invention, but unlike the latest faux "brewing breakthroughs" (i.e., "Dry" beer or "Ice" beer) it actually has a raison d'etre. Light beer usually contains two thirds of the calories of regular beer (I have never been able to understand the "less filling" part of the claim) and less alcohol. Women, athletes in training and people trying to reduce their alcohol or calorie intake tend to prefer light beers. Many of the flavorful imports have light spin-offs. I recommend these.
liquors & liqueurs
In the Surreal world of partydom, wine is perfectly adequate as the sole alcoholic beverage. However, "smart" cocktails before dinner, out-of-the-ordinary concoctions and after dinner liqueurs can add an adventurous dimension. If you choose hard liquor, I highly recommend the following liquors and liqueurs to stock:
Dry vermouth (for martinis)
Grand Marnier (or Cointreau, my favorite)
Bailey's Irish Cream
Madison Avenue will probably have more influence on your brand selection than will your tastebuds. To exercise more of a vote, conduct a blind taste test, or simply look for the best value. Or, swallow the bait and purchase the brand that promises to increase your popularity.
quantity . If wine is being served with dinner, most guests will have one cocktail before the meal. As a sweeping generalization, figure on twice as many guests drinking vodka as Scotch or gin. Note: It is a popular misconception that a strong mixed drink is a good one. 1-1/4 ounces of hard liquor and 4 to 6 ounces of mixer is a perfect cocktail. More alcohol upsets the balance and kills the flavor -- and thus the pleasure -- of the drink. If you can't eyeball 1-1/4 ounces, use a shot glass -- most bartenders do. One to 2 ounces of after-dinner liqueurs should satiate most guests.
mixers & nonalcoholic drinks
To cover most of the bases, stock orange juice, tomato juice, cranberry juice, sparkling mineral water or soda water, tonic water, cola, un-cola, ginger ale and their diet equivalents. It is very important to make nonimbibing guests feel comfortable. In addition to the standard aforementioned mixers, it is courteous to provide guests with an assortment of flavored mineral waters, fresh juices and nonalcoholic beers (available in most grocery stores). Adventure Club members should brew up a fruity tea, then add honey, fresh mint leaves and citrus slices, and ice it down in a festive pitcher.
Lemons, limes, martini olives, ice, bottle opener, corkscrew, shot glass, stirring spoon, stainless steel Martini shaker and strainer.
coffee & tea
Freshly ground freshly brewed coffee is the vice of the nineties. At the end of a long might of food and wine, a strongly brewed French or Colombian roast is a welcome sight. Be prepared -- someone will always want decaf and someone else will want tea. Borrowing a second coffee maker for decaf is a good way to serve everyone at the same time. Another option for a back-up brewer is a glass carafe-style "French press," or "plunger." These brew up a great thick cup of coffee. Avoid mentioning that you own an espresso machine unless you're a glutton for punishment. Don't forget fresh cream, milk, sugar, sugar substitute, honey and lemon.