The cocktail renaissance has transformed happy hours across the country. Now, it's time to raise your home bar game. No more slapping a bottle of bottom-shelf vodka and a six-pack of tonic on your kitchen counter and calling it a party. This holiday season, you're going to master the fine art of the better home bar experience.
But before you start stressing over your holiday get-together — or wondering if your budget will stretch to a butler — here are a few tips on creating a stress-free soiree.
Open bars are for weddings. To keep your event manageable, limit your guests to a handful of drinks, and let them do the mixology work.
Liz Brusca, spokeswoman for San Francisco's Anchor Distilling Co., which makes and imports liquors, suggests starting by picking a handful of cocktails to serve, shopping for and prepping the ingredients, then arranging each in its own location. For a recent event at San Francisco's Gotham Club, she set out four cocktail stations, each equipped with the tools, glasses, liquor and mixers needed for one drink. When appropriate, she included a framed recipe.
Not only does this approach help you buy only what you need, it also gives your guests something to do — and talk about — during those awkward first moments of acclimatizing to a room full of strangers. So, if you've decided to have guests make their own French 75s, you'd get in Champagne, a good gin, lemon juice, sugar or simple syrup, depending which recipe you favor, and a twist of lemon for the garnish. Add glassware and you're good to go.
Even simpler, a whiskey station with different takes on the brown spirit — think scotch, bourbon and rye — high-quality ice, glasses and water droppers (adding a drop of water to whiskey helps the flavors open up).
When you're deciding what drinks to serve, consider cocktails that can be made up in quantities ahead of time, says Josh Harris, co-founder with Scott Baird of The Bon Vivants, a San Francisco-based cocktail, hospitality, marketing and design consulting firm. This could mean whipping up classic batch drinks, such as punches, in advance, then setting them out so guests can serve themselves.
Or you could take it in a new direction. Consider making large quantities of easily mixed drinks — old fashioneds and Manhattans are good choices — then offering them in attractive bottles for people to pour their own. Just offer the bottled cocktails with ice and glassware. Or strike a mixer middle ground. Offer the ingredients for set cocktails, but include items made in advance, such as flavored simple syrups.
"Last year, I set up an old fashioned bar and had apple spice syrup on hand for people who preferred a flavored cocktail," says Harris.
Mix it up
Want to take a more freewheeling approach? That can be easier — and less expensive — than you think.
Start with a couple bottles of your favorite base spirits. "And don't just buy the cheapest bottle; buy what you like," says Baird. "No matter what you spend, it's going to be cheaper than going out to a bar and paying for drinks there."
Next, add a variety of mixers (soda, tonic water, etc.) in small, single-serving sized bottles. Add fresh juices, a bottle or two of bitters and some basic mixing liqueurs — triple sec, vermouths, etc. This collection — which shouldn't cost that much — should enable most guests to make something delicious no matter what their drink of choice.
And don't forget to pay attention to the quality of the mixers. "When you pour a drink, it's often made two-thirds or more of the mixer and you should use a mixer of the same quality as your spirits," points out Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Drinks.
For the simplest of parties, he recommends getting a few different styles of gin, lemon and lime garnishes and good quality tonic.
Or, go with vodka and along with tonic put out the ingredients for Moscow mules (vodka, ginger beer, lime juice, mint for muddling and as a garnish). Q Drinks has a spicy ginger beer that comes in a frosted bottle, the same type used for white wine, that "looks gorgeous," says Silbert. "Everybody is going to think you did everything to the nines where you really just bought two nice bottles of liquid."
Other possibilities — swap out the mint garnish for rosemary for a seasonal look and float a few cranberries in the gin and tonics.
Dabble in decor
Chances are your 800-square-foot city apartment doesn't come with a fully stocked wet bar. And even a bigger place can feel cramped if the only place to mix drinks is a crowded kitchen table.
Julie Richard, design expert at Ace Hardware, recommends repurposing a piece of furniture as a bar. If you want to go all out, you could paint an old credenza in a bright color, or just use an existing table and cover it with a good-looking cloth.
Bookcases are another option. If the top is too narrow to work as a mixing station, set a table close by, says Richards; you don't want guests juggling glassware. You may need to take out some of the shelves to make room for tall bottles; if you're feeling ambitious, gluing a mirror on the back of the shelf where it will reflect your gleaming bottles is a nice touch.
Trays are a good shortcut to keeping things neat and under control. You might have one for bottles, one for glasses, another for bowls of garnishes, etc.