Pop Your Cocktail Party Cherry with Advice from Chow Bella's Resident Bartender

Since I sling drinks for a living, I get to hear quite a bit about people planning soirées at their houses. These descriptions of upcoming cocktail parties always come with an implication that they are looking for feedback on how to better throw their party. So, since many of you likely have the same burning questions, here are my tips on how to throw a great cocktail party.

Keep it simple! I know you want to look generous with a full bar, but you're already generous by inviting folks over and giving them drinks. Remember, Martha Stewart has an army of assistants! Keep your drinks to one or two choices, providing contrast if you have two offerings. When in doubt, pick two of the following: accessible beer (lager or light to medium ale), white wine, and a batch of cocktails made in advance (more about that later).

On average, a guest has two drinks, one of each if you have two offerings. I've done all kinds of parties; it always works out this way. Stock up on bottled water, one bottle per person. If you have some left over when the party winds down, offer it as people leave. Remember the ice, have 1/2 pound of ice per person plus some to chill bottled drinks. Oh, speaking of drinks on ice: use your washing machine to store iced bottled drinks. After the party, run the rinse cycle to drain.

Making cocktails in advance is a snap. The day before the party, mix a scaled-up recipe in a large container. Add water to simulate the water added by melting ice as a drink is shaken. Start with a fourth of the total volume. Taste, and add more water as necessary until the drink is a hair stronger than the usual finished product. Stick it in the fridge to chill until party time. At the party, your guests can serve themselves.

Send invitations two weeks in advance. Any later and they'll already be booked; any sooner and they'll forget. An ideal cocktail party happens from 8:30 to 11:30 on Friday or Saturday evening. It sounds silly, but here's why: Three hours is a good length. People show up for the first hour, the party is in full swing the second hour, and people gradually leave in the last hour. Have an end time; it's OK to run long, but a scheduled end lets you push people out the door. 8:30 is an ideal start time because it's after dinner. If you start earlier and take up people's dinner hour (like on a school night, which is why Friday or Saturday are best), provide food, 10 bites per person. Store-bought food is fine, but unless it's one of those huge arranged deli trays, arrange it on your own plates. If you run out of food in the third hour, it's fine! That means people enjoyed themselves.

To keep the party moving, spread things out. Put drinks in one corner, and food in the other. Big party? Use three or four corners. Small signs pointing to the restroom are appreciated. When people arrive, get a drink in their hand immediately (even if it's a water bottle) to distract them from getting self-conscious, then turn 'em loose. Be careful trying to organize everyone for an activity like a game of Pictionary; you'll either disrupt the natural flow of a good party, or come across as desperate to save a party you think is going downhill. See someone off on their own looking lonely? Refresh their drink and introduce them to an interesting guest, "Have you met Boris? He wrangles chinchillas in his spare time..."

What tips do you have for a first-timer? I'd love to hear them in the comments.

Mai Tais for a Crowd makes 12 drinks

1 750 ml bottle dark Jamaican rum (Appleton Estate is great) 1/2 cup orgeat syrup 1/2 cup orange curaçao 1/4 cup simple syrup 1-1/4 cups fresh-squeezed lime juice 1-1/2 cups water Mix, adding more water to taste. Chill at least 3 hours, or overnight. Pour into ice-filled glasses. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

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