For a standout cocktail party, don't settle for what's around the house. Look to modifiers like liqueurs, bitters, vermouths and fortified wines to give mixed drinks a professional look and flavor.
Last winter, before we moved, my husband and I decided to toast our neighbors with a farewell cocktail party. We opted for a full bar, not just because we love our friends so much, but because we didn’t want to pack and move boxes of liquor. We figured we could just drink all of it in one shot.
We wanted to relax and enjoy our party. We feared that with all those different bottles, there would be requests for specialty cocktails. (Though don’t get me wrong. I know how to mix a cocktail. I grew up above a tavern and was practically tending bar by the time I was 5.)
Just this once, I didn’t want to be in charge. I decided I needed a professional.
But how to go about hiring a bartender? Would it cost a small fortune? Would we come off as too fancy-schmancy? And was I really grown-up enough to hire a bartender? I was past the kegger stage of life, but what next? Place cards and catering?
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After a few false starts, we called an old neighborhood friend of my husband’s, Josh Foster, who runs Stone Park Cafe in New York City. He put us in touch with one of his bartenders, a woman named Shea Berry, who happened to be off the night of our party.
Berry, a redhead with wit and considerable cocktail knowledge, arrived an hour before the party started to set up. She took a quick inventory and sent my husband on an ice run. She had me text a friend to bring more lemons.
When our guests arrived, it felt very low-key, in a good way; not the least bit as if we were putting on airs. Most of our partygoers thought Berry was just another friend (a very accommodating friend who kept asking them what they would like to drink).
“They kept asking, ‘How do you know Helene?’ ” she said with a laugh. They were impressed when she told them she was our bartender. It gave the party a sophisticated touch and left me feeling slightly less stressed. And it was not too expensive, for a special occasion: Berry charged $25 an hour, with a five-hour minimum (although she wound up staying seven).
We didn’t plan any signature cocktails, although most people wound up drinking old fashioneds because that’s what we were drinking. Then one person ordered a Sazerac, having spied a dusty bottle of absinthe we were given as a gift from my father-in-law a few years back. And that set off a Sazerac chain reaction.
“It got a little crazy,” Berry said. “But it was fun because there was this array of ingredients, so I could play around.”
With just a few phone calls, we lucked out with a consummate professional. But what about everybody else? If the cocktail craze makes having a bartender a good idea, how best to go about it?
Paul Clarke, a cocktail historian from Seattle who writes the Cocktail Chronicles blog (http://www.cocktailchronicles.com/), recommends a version of what we did: going to your local haunt and asking your favorite bartender to work the party. “If they can’t do it, they might have a colleague who’s looking for a gig,” he said. “This is someone who sees you on a regular basis, so they want to make sure you’re happy.”
It is also a good idea to feature one or two specialty drinks, he said, so you don’t have to stock a full bar, as we did. Theme parties can be fun, and narrow the liquor choices, he said. “You can do a speakeasy theme, or a ’70s party with pina coladas worth drinking,” he said.
He has learned through experience, though, that you want to avoid serving only high-octane drinks like martinis and manhattans. “That makes for a fantastic party, but everybody will be on the floor,” he said. “Rule No. 1 is not to incapacitate your guests.”
He told the tale of one friend’s outdoor tiki party where strong rum drinks were served. “In the morning, it was like that scene out of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ with bodies all over the ground,” he said. Offer a variety aimed at keeping the partygoers on their feet, he said. Don’t forget some nonalcoholic and low-alcohol choices.
Berry said to stock up on seltzer, juice and plenty of mixers and make sure you have a shaker, a strainer and a good cocktail mixing glass: basically a very thick 16-ounce pint glass that won’t break when you knock a stirrer and some ice around in it.
Mardee Haidin, the author of “The Bartender’s Best Friend” and a veteran of dozens of New York parties, suggested stripping it all down and serving only martinis, beer and red wine. “Then you’re just shopping for gin, vodka, red wine and one label of beer,” she said. A martini is almost impossible to do wrong, she said, “so you can hire a less-experienced, less-expensive bartender.” Martini drinkers generally know their limits, Haidin said, but a good host will know who has had one too many.
“By the third one, you want to start cutting it with some water,” she said. “Key the bartender to shake it extra long, to get more ice to melt.”
If expense is an issue, most cities have bartending schools that can help you find a rookie for as little as minimum wage and tips. But Clarke said that could be hit or miss. “You can end up with someone great,” he said, “or someone who knows only how to mix vodka sodas and open beer bottles.”
A friend once hired a bartender through Columbia University, which runs its own agency of student bartenders, charging a base of $18 an hour. The students are all graduates of the School of Mixology course at the university. The highest scorers on the mixology exam are eligible for an interview with the agency, which takes requests from the public, then tweets the party details to its young bartenders.
“We question the host on what drinks are being served,” said Zhaarn Maheswaran, the agency manager. “That way, we can better pair them with a bartender. The more information the client gives us, the better their bartender will match their event.” My friend was pleased with her young bartender, who seemed barely of drinking age herself. (Bartenders need only be 18 in New York State.)
Haidin also suggested discussing before the party starts what you want your bartender to do, like clean up or help serve food. “Some people do it naturally, but others won’t,” she said. Columbia, for instance, charges an extra $2 an hour for dishwashing.
Berry helped me throw away empties, put out the dips and wash up. We used real glasses until they ran out, then turned to clear plastic.
The party was a great success, so much so that I was afraid the floor might cave in, it was so crowded. Luckily, the few incredibly drunk stragglers lived in our apartment building, so all they had to do was roll home.
But our plan to clean out our liquor cabinet backfired. Although we asked people not to bring gifts, we received a few dozen new bottles: tequila, Pimm’s, Scotch and lots of Champagne and wine.
A housewarming party is in order, on a night when Berry is free.