|Deja Vu All Over Again
In the flash and glitter seventies, while big-city parties were hustling in a haze of cocaine and sequined tube tops, the social scene of choice in my middle-class suburban neighborhood was The Cocktail Party. Always trailing a few light years behind the pop culture rocket, the disco years found my parents and their upwardly mobile friends still more Sinatra than Studio 54, more canapé than sushi, more Manhattan than Pina Colada. As a child of a hopelessly time-warped cocktail set, I spent many contented evenings wandering through parties with gin-soaked olives stuck on my fingers, intrigued by how a few couples in dress-up clothes and some jazz on the stereo transformed our ordinary living room into a scene as glamorous and sophisticated as old black-and-white movies. I sipped my ginger ale, jumped on a bed strewn with guests' coats, and dreamed that one day the cocktail world of chrome shakers and short black dresses would be mine.
Of course, by the time I reached a reasonable drinking age, cocktail parties were decidedly unhip. A nineties girl looking for a night of social drinking had two basic options: tapping a keg on the roof of a frat house or braving a brew pub rife with fruity beers and high numbers of pool-cue-related injuries. These venues offered plastic pint cups rather than sexy highball glasses, pretzels instead of canapés and attire leaning not toward silk and suits but plaid flannel and engineer boots. Not what I'd had in mind.
Though the state of drinking improved slightly over the next few years, with retro-fever making martini bars hip and reviving the word cocktail in the bartending lexicon, I nearly closed out my twenties still longing for a cocktail party worthy of Bogey and Bacall. Only recently, with the current trend toward elegant, glamorous nightlife making it cool to have class, has the true cocktail party made a comeback. Everyone from college students to CEOs are throwing classic cocktail parties and the approaching holiday season may be just the beginning of an all out living room entertainment revival. Dahling, grab a swizzle stick and let's get mixin'.
So, what exactly separates a cocktail party from less lofty soirees? While many casual gatherings are left to take on a life of their own, cocktail parties thrive on carefully orchestrated atmosphere. Elegant outfits, music that compliments the flow of conversation and an emphasis on enjoying libations rather than getting sloppy all contribute to a cocktail party's sophisticated vibe. In short, a cocktail party is for grown-ups. Or, at least, for those pretending to be for the night.
Though hosting a cocktail party requires more planning and attention to detail than simply filling the bathtub with ice and hucking in six packs, it's a surprisingly manageable task-provided one has the proper knowledge and equipment. While the novice host's first concern cocktail preparation, it's not necessary to attend a crash course in mixing or to stock up on every booze available. According to Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead, alchemists at Wired Magazine's Cocktail site and authors of Cocktail, The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (Viking, 1998), most great cocktails can be made with a little knowledge and a few bottles.
It's wise to start off with some basic equipment and glassware (see sidebar for home bar equipment must-haves). Believe it or not, glassware can be the most difficult part of throwing a cocktail party. Don't even think about paper and plastic cups. Not only are they utterly declasse, they aren't good compliments to a cocktail. Harrington and Moorhead suggest having between 20 and 100 six-ounce glasses on hand, depending on the number of guests. If the party is small and friends don't mind washing their glass once or twice, the cost of renting additional glasses can probably be avoided. But if you must rent glassware, figure on paying about 45 cents per item. If beer and wine will be offered as well as cocktails, 8-ounce glasses are ideal for all three. (Yes, you can drink wine out of regular glasses!)
Once the glasses are taken care of, it's time to move on to the libations that’ll fill them. Depending on the type of cocktail party and the host's mixing ability, decide on a three-, six-, nine- or 12-bottle bar (see sidebar). In addition to base spirits, a few popular mixers are necessary to concoct many of the world's cocktails. Dry and sweet vermouth (also known as French and Italian vermouth, respectively) are essential. Maraschino and Cointreau are expensive but great additions for those ready to venture into mixing fruity, refreshing cocktails. Fresh fruit juices should be purchased on the day of the party. Buy mixers such as soda in small bottles, as large bottles tend to go flat before the end of the party.
Though experience is the best teacher, a thorough, no-nonsense bartending guide is the ticket to mixing balanced cocktails. Remember, much like cooking and composing, mixing is an art -- no one can achieve greatness overnight. Most everyone can, however, make a few drinks well from the very start. For help, check out on-line guides such as The Webtender at http://www.webtender.com, or hit the local bookstore. Make this trip truly productive by picking up a book of hors d'oeuvres recipes and some swellegant classic tunes. Suddenly, all that's needed for a memorable cocktail party are a few suavely dressed guests.
They may just be another phase of the pop culture moon, but whether they're trend or tradition, cocktail parties are a welcome diversion from the strip-mall microbrewery madness of fin de siecle drinking. This holiday season, forgo the local bar and treat your friends and yourself to some civilized nightlife in the comfort of your own humble home. Cheers! (And don't forget to leave a Whiskey Sour for Santa.)
Equipment for the Home Bar
20-24 ounce metal or glass shaker
Stainless steel strainer
Dull knife or ice pick
Stocking the Home Bar
Six Bottle BarRum
Nine Bottle Bar
Twelve Bottle Bar