We used to do it quite often. Invite friends (or they invited themselves), mix cocktails, serve finger foods, and we’d munch and drink and chat in the garden under the mango tree until the wee hours of the morning. Nothing too structured. Nothing fancy. All very casual, in fact. A get-together, after all, is about the company. The drinks and the food are just the backdrop.
Backdrop they may be but, us being us, serving bad food and drinks makes us cringe. Me, especially. Even last-minute plans to get together threw me into a frenzy in the kitchen. It helped, of course, that we kept a well-stocked freezer and pantry (most of the time, anyway) so it was rarely difficult to whip up a light meal that often consisted of finger foods.
Speedy, who was always in charge of mixing the drinks, had a bar full of liquor and mixers. Lime and mint leaves were plentiful in the garden. Speedy was very experimental with drinks and, at each get-together, he’d serve one or more of his new concoctions. One time, my girl friends from law school were here, and he impressed them with his version of the blue-eyed blonde. On another occasion, he served several cocktails with Absolut Vodka as the main ingredient. Another time, we opened several bottles of wine and experimented with which kind formed more “legs“. In the photo above, the “theme” was mixing two versions of every drink—one with cachaça and the other with rum—and comparing which was better.
For us, a cocktail party is about unwinding with good food and drinks, but minus the physical set-up and dress code of the more formal luncheon or dinner. No setting the table with plates and all kinds of cutlery. No worrying about the order in which dishes and drinks should be served. It’s more of put everything on the table and let everyone reach for whatever he wants whenever. If someone wants to try his hand at mixing drinks, let him. In fact, that was what happened when Speedy and Sam learned to make Brain Hemorrhage. They mixed the drinks on the dining table, cocktail mixing demonstration style, and Speedy’s brother, Buddy, was so awed that he started making Brain Hemorrhage too. Relaxing, friendly, intimate.
Looking back, I wonder if anything we did was truly ever random. Perhaps, subconsciously, because we knew our food and drinks well, there was a pattern to the way we did our little cocktail parties. We chose finger foods based on the cocktails we intended to serve, or vice versa. If I were to outline my thoughts about get-togethers that center on cocktail drinks and finger foods, this is how it will go.
Drinks can be personalized
Some people have tried breaking down cocktail drinks into major categories or families. For instance, Paul Clarke and Gary Regan whose lists are summarized on Serious Eats.
So much information, huh? How do all that that relate to hosting a cocktail party?
At home, although we’ve experimented with a wide array of cocktails over the years, we have found that we like “sours” with their fruit juice base best. Sweet, sour, boozy. Guests like them too because the fruit juice taste is familiar and that makes a cocktail drink less intimidating. It’s just like a spiked drink. For the host who takes cocktail mixing a little more seriously, it’s more than that. Proportions and blends can make or unmake a cocktail drink.
Bon Apétit and Liquor.com both offer their “secret formula” for mixing sours. But one thing to understand about mixing cocktail drinks is that, like food, there is no strict formula. You can make a Margarita by following a standard recipe, and some people will find it too sweet, too sour or too boozy. It’s all a matter of taste.
The trick is this.
Unless you hired a bartender to mix the drinks, chances are, it is you, the hosts, who will do the mixing. You don’t want to tear your hair out with confusion by having too many ingredients in front of you. Try to limit the choices of drinks to ones with related or similar ingredients.
For example, a Mojito-themed cocktail party.
Make a master mix of each drink.
On the table, place the individual ingredients so that guests can add one or more of these. For the three drinks, these will be:
1. Lime juice
2. Iced tea
3. Passion fruit juice
4. Rum (white or gold, or both)
5. Club soda
6. Lime wedges
7. Mint leaves
Isn’t that more relaxing that having to mix each drink individually each and every time a guest’s glass goes empty?
Finger foods that can truly be picked up with the fingers
What about the finger foods to go with the cocktails? Unless you have an army of domestic helpers and kitchen staff, remember two important tips:
1. Choose finger foods that can be cooked and plated ahead of time but will taste just as good at room temperature or even chilled. I mean, seriously, you don’t want to be rushing between your guests and COOKING in the kitchen every time the finger food plates are half-empty, do you? Trust me, been there and done that, and I couldn’t even enjoy my own party.
2. The best finger foods for a cocktail party are those that don’t require a ton of plates, bowls, spoons and forks. In other words, finger foods that are just that exactly—ones that can be picked up with the fingers.
A cold meat and cheese platter is just perfect
Arrange the cold meat and cheese slices on a tray, cover with cling film and keep in the fridge until needed.
To serve, provide cocktail bamboo forks (disposable yet eco-friendly) rather than metal forks (they need to be washed later).
Canapés also fit the requirements
Canapés can be plated, covered with cling film and kept in the fridge until needed. Prepare several plates and take out a new one when the last one is almost empty.
Yakiniku-style finger foods
For a smallish cocktail party with people that can be seated on one table, another idea is to place a tabletop grill at the center, surround it with seasoned meats (skewered or not) and seafood, and let everyone have fun grilling his or her food.
Provide each guest with a small plate and a pair of tongs.
So, you see, throwing a cocktail party can be fun, creative and elegant with minimal stress. After all, the host and hostess deserve to enjoy the party too.
Ready to host one this summer?