Dear Helena,

My friend invited me to his house for a cocktail party. I was one of the first guests to arrive. He hadn’t prepped anything—he just had a few bottles of cranberry juice and random bottles of booze, college-style, on a table, and some ice in plastic wrap crammed into his freezer. I started stressing out, and ran to the store to get limes and cut them, boil up some simple syrup on the stove, and get some liqueurs (Cointreau) and other more interesting mixers. He didn’t seem to appreciate it that much, just thought I was being neurotic. But come on, we’re in our late 30s, and it’s time to step it up, right? If you throw a cocktail party, shouldn’t you have some basic drinks on tap ready to go, classy-like? —Cocktail Connoisseur

Dear Cocktail Connoisseur,

It’s hard not to judge when someone in his late 30s is too clueless to whip up a basic margarita. But when you go to people’s houses, you have to accept what they give you. You can’t rush to the store for extra mixers just because you don’t like what’s on offer, any more than you can shove them out of the way and show them how to cook dinner.

Nonetheless, when you arrive at a cocktail party, you shouldn’t have to make your own cocktail. Your host should give it to you within five minutes of your arrival. Later in the evening, it’s OK if the bar becomes self-service. But a good host never allows a guest to make his or her first drink.

When a drink is made for you, it gives you something better than a buzz—it gives you the feeling of being taken care of. This is vitally important, because plunging into a cocktail party can be stressful. You’ll encounter people you don’t know, people whose names you can’t remember, and people you know but don’t like. On top of that, you may be frazzled from a long day at work, or from rushing to get to the party on time. “There’s parking issues, cab fares, the baby-sitter, and who knows what,” says Duggan McDonnell, a bartender at Cantina in San Francisco.

It doesn’t matter whether your first drink is a masterpiece of molecular mixology or a humble vodka and cranberry juice, as long as you get it quickly. You shouldn’t have to stand around while the host squeezes limes or searches the Internet to find out what goes into a Mojito.

Serving drinks pronto doesn’t take much effort. In order to be ready to do so, a host need only follow the steps below:

Decant booze and noncarbonated mixers into pitchers. This looks better, and shows that the host cares. Plus, if he’s using cheap liquor, the guests won’t know.

Chill the drink ingredients. Cocktails taste better chilled. The host should keep the stuff in the fridge and take it out just before guests arrive.

Prep garnishes. Guests shouldn’t have to hunt in the host’s kitchen for a knife and chopping board so they can slice a lemon or lime.

Put the ice in a bowl. Ice tongs are nice too, but regular tongs or even a cup or spoon will do. Guests shouldn’t be forced to rummage in the host’s freezer, confronting sad-looking frost-furred Boca burgers, and wondering if the ice has picked up odors.

Consider premixing a cocktail. This isn’t required, but it makes the host’s life easier. When guests arrive, the host simply pours the cocktail over ice. The drink could even be a conversation-starter.

Clear space for beer. Some guests will inevitably bring it, so the host should make room in his fridge or have an ice-filled plastic cooler ready.

Next time your friend wants to throw a cocktail party, offer to show up early to help with prep. Then demonstrate the steps above. If your friend can master these, he’s earned the right to call his shindig a cocktail party—otherwise it’s just hanging out.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

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