You can throw a cocktail party that breaks the bank or one that leaves you able to pay the rent and the bills (and happy to wake up in your own skin in the morning).
It isn’t a matter of buying cheap booze, adding mass-market mixers, or using your SodaStream for a river of never-ending highballs. The trick is knowing how to make good drinks that will keep people smiling and conversations flowing, without getting everybody plastered in half an hour, and without having anybody leave a disliked, half-full glass.
The “not getting everybody plastered fast” trick is an obvious one: Don’t make your drinks high-proof. The bonus to this—apart from not having to clean up a mess or let your cousin sleep it off on your sofa bed again—is that it will save you money. Here’s knowledge professional bartenders use: Excellent modifiers are less pricey than excellent spirits. It’s easier to empty your pockets on a case of bourbon than vermouth.
There are plenty of cocktails that use nothing but so-called modifiers. Created in the nineteenth century, the Adonis is made of sherry, vermouth, and bitters. Add ice, stir, strain, and you’ll have a party of happy Negroni and Manhattan lovers asking for your recipe. Another little-known classic, the Country Club Cooler is made with soda, grenadine (pomegranate juice is a nice substitute), and two ounces of dry vermouth. Serve it in a tall glass, over ice. Add a lemon twist, and you’re done.
White port and tonic is every bit as satisfying as gin and tonic, and markedly less expensive. Where tonic and gin bring out a wealth of botanicals, port gives the drink a smoother, rounder feeling. Garnish it with a sprig of fresh basil, instead of lime.
Enjoy your affordable party. Make sangria in red, white, and pink. To create your own sangria, mix wine, sugar, juice if you want it, chopped fruit (a terrific way to use up excess you don’t want spoiled), and a dollop of liquor. Feel like using pineapple in the red sangria? Cucumber in the white? That last bit of peach juice in the rosé? If it tastes good to you, then do it. Sangria is a forgiving liquid. Make as much as you need and stick it in the fridge overnight, so the flavors can get to know each other and settle down. For the party, set up pitchers, ice, glasses, and soda (lemon soda, seltzer, wherever your fancy leads you), and let your guests have at it.
Punch is an affable option. It’s familiar, fun, and pretty, and your guests can serve themselves. It’s also helpful for clearing out: Get rid of that half-bottle of brandy that’s gathering dust on the shelf, use up those last three tea bags, put those nearly overripe strawberries to good use. Punches come in hot and cold, so they’re drinks for all seasons. Clean-up is a matter of washing a bowl, a ladle or two, and some glasses, so the after-party needn’t be a drag.
If it’s hot outside or you live in one of those buildings that’s sizzling in mid-winter, play up the cold side. There are a few bring-out-the-inner-child ways to do this. Make boozy ice cream floats. You can cut back on the liquor for this one. Nobody’s going to notice that there’s only an ounce of rum in that cola with dulce de leche ice cream, or just a dollop of rye in that root beer with a vanilla-flecked scoop on top.
If you have an ice cream maker, then make a boozy ice cream or sorbet—raspberry rosé sorbet, bourbon caramel swirl ice cream, gin and tonic sorbet, eggnog frozen yogurt, etc. Serve them in a tall glass of soda or beer, in a martini glass with a garnish (gin and grapefruit sorbet with chopped candied orange peel is a pleasure to see and to swallow) or a splash of liquor, or as a milkshake with an invisible twist.
Beer cocktails are crowd pleasers. Make honey syrup by warming (not boiling) equal parts of honey and water. To spice it up, add ginger to the syrup while you’re heating it, and then strain it after it cools. To serve, put one ounce of syrup and one ounce of tea in a tall glass. Top with the ale of your choice. Voila! Cocktail.
For a sophisticated exploration, throw a craft vermouth party. You can go local, national, or international. Vermouths have range and depth, so there are plenty of conversation points. Dark and rich, L’Afrique earns its name with the use of Western and Northern African botanicals. Uncouth Vermouth is founded in foraging, so you can taste each bottle’s region and season. Interrobang 47 has notes of intriguing tannic bitterness. Visit your favorite liquor store and explore the shelves. Serve the vermouths as talking-note tastings, or pour it over ice, add soda water, and serve it with an orange twist. A sparkling Mediterranean tradition at home in any celebration, this is worth holding as an aperitif or digestif when you’re serving dinner for two.
You can do the same thing with amaro—the big family of which vermouths are a small part. Get your hands on a few fernets and break the Branca barrier. Investigate different branches of the amaro family tree, setting out Cynar, Cio Ciaro, Ramazzotti, Calisaya, Cardamaro. Have a conversation with your geekiest bartender, and then buy a selection. Here, too, you can serve taste-and-talk samples, or serve amari with sparkling water and ice. Or take this chance to use that adequate, but not worth drinking on its own, bottle of sparkling wine your boss gave you instead of a bonus last year.
Amari are fabulous with coffee, so you can also serve cold brew with amaro floats—simple to serve, beautiful on the palate, and complex enough to impress (and easy on the budget, so you won’t be stressed about throwing the cocktail party of the year).
If the question is “What one food would you like to eat all summer?” the answer might be “Honeydew sake sorbet.” It’s fresh and clean and, courtesy of the sake, not too sweet. You can fleck it up with finely chopped fresh mint. In The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, Karen Page’s honeydew pairings include cayenne, maple syrup, cinnamon, basil, ginger, or white pepper. With imagination and a decent pantry, you can make this sorbet very much your own. Serve it in a tall glass of iced green tea, and you have a chilled, sophisticated cocktail that will sweeten itself as the sorbet melts. Get the recipe.
Guinness milk chocolate ice cream is great as a float–but it is outstanding as the base of a beery milkshake. If you’re feeling fancy, add a drizzle each of chocolate syrup and Irish whiskey across the top. That splash of spirit will give the illusion that there’s more. Get our Guinness Milk Chocolate Ice Cream recipe.
Because the Adonis has no citrus, you can batch it in advance. Multiply the recipe as many times as you like, mix everything but the ice together, and you’re ready to stir and serve. If there’s room in the fridge, then stash it there, and you’re halfway to a frosty cocktail. You’ll still have to stir. Dilution is an important part of cocktail prep. Get our Adonis Cocktail recipe.
Add port, rum, or vodka to this strawberry-basil lemonade, and you have a bright drink to ease into a long summer weekend. Because this drink is perfectly balanced as a virgin, you don’t need to add much–or anything–to make it interesting. All you’re doing is putting in enough to justify calling it a cocktail, without tipping it off-kilter, making it expensive, or getting guests tipsy with two glasses. Go gentle into this good drink. Get our Strawberry Basil Lemonade recipe.
Skip the gin and reach for the sweet vermouth. The Negroni Sbagliato is made with sweet vermouth, Campari, and sparkling wine. This version is built to batch. It couldn’t be easier. Dump in a bottle of vermouth, a bottle of Campari, a bottle of whatever you have that’s cheap and bubbly, a few handfuls of fruit, and you’re done. Get the recipe.
— Head photo: Chowhound.