There’s nothing like staying in with a dozen or so of your nearest and dearest and having a cocktail party. No queuing to get into bars, no waiting for cabs or having to pay huge sums for the tastiest drinks. The at-home cocktail party is the ultimate in cocktail expression, as your drinks are completely up to you. Having a cocktail party at home needn’t be difficult, and there are a few tricks to keeping things elegant, delicious, and most importantly - easy.
The idea of an entire evening of cocktails may be a little daunting, with plenty of preparation and outlay expected to go with the territory. It needn’t be scary though, and I always like to start with something low in alcohol. The beginning of the evening is important because you want to set the mood and make sure you can get everyone a drink without spending too much time in the kitchen preparing, so ‘mise en place’ is your game plan. That’s a fancy French term for ‘do lots of prep’. Chop your citrus, pick your herbs, salt-rim your glasses and make your sugar syrup; in other words, do whatever you feasibly can in advance. I always like to get food out quite early too, just a little something to ease those first tipples into the belly.
For a roughly-themed entrée, let’s do Aperol Spritz served alongside mini bocconcini and cherry tomato with basil on toothpicks. It’s bright, has loads of flavour, and the Aperol works as a perfect aperitivo. This can be made before everyone arrives, which also takes some pressure off. The classic Aperol Spritz is 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda. Add ice and a slice of orange and you’re done. If you want to make it lower in alcohol, just do Aperol and Soda, and if anyone is sans alcohol for the evening, buy some San bitter, a non-alcoholic Campari / Aperol-type drink that is quite divine, and use that in place of Aperol.
Next up, I like to keep things citrusy with something like a Tom Collins. You’ll need gin, soda water, lemon juice and sugar. This is kind of like the Riesling of cocktails, so work the food in a similar way. If you have some kitchen help, do a little deep fried fish gougeres and mayonnaise to blow your guests away. A basic batter recipe is easy to find and you only need a couple of bite-sized morsels of fish per person. Don’t go overboard. To make your Tom Collins, simply shake 60mls of gin, 30mls of lemon juice and 1 tsp of castor sugar in a cocktail shaker. Obviously this is for one drink, so adjust the measure for everyone. Once you have shaken the gin, lemon and sugar mix, top up with 90mls of soda and garnish with a maraschino cherry and a slice of orange. Again, you can make your gin, lemon and sugar mix beforehand and keep in the fridge so you’re free to cook your fish while your guests relax to your chosen soundtrack.
Head into something richer with a classic Manhattan, and complete the New York theme by serving them alongside some mini hotdogs (your local butcher likely has tiny sausages that will play the same role without imparting that pinkish frankfurt aftertaste). For a standard Manhattan, 60mls of Whiskey (you can use which ever kind you like, but keeping it North American I suggest bourbon this time), 30mls of sweet vermouth and 2 dashes of bitters. In keeping with the idea of preparation, this can be pre-mixed before everyone arrives - your only duty then is to serve it cold.
By now, if you are doing full measures, everyone will have had quite a bit to drink, including the hosts. With this in mind, I like to keep the dessert cocktail simple. It’s actually less cocktail than dessert, but it ticks the boxes nonetheless. Take one ball of quality vanilla ice cream and dribble over some crème
de cacoa and Rutherglen Muscat. Sprinkle over some ground coffee and you have your own little take on a classic chimney sweep dessert.
In addition to the small amounts of served food, avail your guests of a more permanent spread; breads, cheeses, dips and antipasto, or perhaps even some pastries. And remember that not everyone will be excited by drinking cocktails for the evening (particularly a designated driver), so ensure there are some other staples available like a choice of beer, both light and standard, and perhaps a table wine. A cocktail party is guaranteed fun but can also be seriously hangover-inducing. Unless you have a room full of dedicated purists, I recommend half-portions of all the drinks so people can try them and get into the spirit of it, if you’ll take the pun - but also remember where they live at the end of the night.