Each year at about this time I get lots of questions about how to set up a cocktail bar for holiday parties, so I’ve worked out a new solution. I want to encourage people to splurge a little on the kinds of spirits that make the best cocktails, but I also want to show home bartenders how a well-edited group of bottles can work together to create multiple drink variations. I know, for instance, that I would be a little irritated if someone told me to buy, say, a $50 bottle of Chartreuse but gave me only one recipe that called for a half-ounce. What can I use the rest of the bottle for, I’d want to know.
To that end, I’ve come up three packages of bottles and mixers that will work for making cocktails at a modest party of eight to 12 people: a three-bottle bar, a four-bottle bar and a five-bottle bar. The booze for each of the three options costs less than $125. Add fresh citrus, bitters, simple syrup and mixers such as ginger beer, tonic and sparkling wine, and the packages each cost about $165 or less.
For each of these bars, I’ve suggested at least eight cocktails you can make: either new recipes or selections from our Recipe Finder archive. From those ideas, a host might offer guests a short menu of three or four cocktails from the assembled bottles, one or two of which the guests could easily make themselves.
The 3-Bottle Bar: Old-fashioned and effervescent
With only slightly more effort than it takes to assemble a basic party bar setup, you can offer a number of simple cocktails, such as the Dark and Stormy or a basic daiquiri or an Old Fashioned. But a step further opens up options. Add Cointreau to the Dark and Stormy, and you have created an Anejo Highball. Open a bottle of sparkling wine and add a splash to make a Seelbach Cocktail (basically a fizzy Manhattan) or an Airmail (basically a fizzy daiquiri).
And don’t worry: Your guests who stick to rum and Coke or bourbon and ginger will still be happy.
The liquor: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Flor de Cana 7 year old Gran Reserva, Cointreau; about $80 total.
The mixers: Inexpensive sparkling wine (such as cava or prosecco), ginger beer, tonic, Coca-Cola, Angostura and Peychaud bitters, honey syrup and simple syrup (which you can make at home), limes, lemons and oranges (for freshly squeezed juice, twists and garnishes); about $40 total.
Cocktails to try:
Airmail, Anejo Highball, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Dark and Stormy, Old-Fashioned, Rum and Tonic, Seelbach Cocktail.
The 4-Bottle Bar: Winter warmers
The focus here is on the drinks people turn to on a cold winter night: rich, higher-proof cocktails, toddies and decadent liqueurs. The selection here leaps from two of my favorite winter cocktails, the Diamondback (rye whiskey, apple brandy and yellow Chartreuse) and the Widow’s Kiss (apple brandy, yellow Chartreuse and Benedictine). The two famous liqueurs from French monasteries, yellow Chartreuse and Benedictine, can be pricey, but they are also versatile. And, hey, this is the time of the year for a little splurge. On the flip side, I’m suggesting two of the best-value spirits in the liquor store: all-American apple brandy and rye whiskey. There’s also an alternative to boring eggnog here, in the frothy Rattlesnake cocktail.
The liquor: Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, Rittenhouse Bonded Rye Whiskey, yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine; about $125 total.
The mixers: Angostura and Peychaud bitters; maraschino cherries, grenadine and simple syrup, all preferably homemade; eggs (pasteurized if you concerned about a risk of salmonella); maple syrup; pumpkin puree; limes and lemons (for freshly squeezed juice, twists and garnishes); about $40 total.
Cocktails to try:
Apple Brandy Old-Fashioned, Diamondback, Jack Rose, Monte Carlo, Pumpkin Toddy, Rattlesnake, Whiskey Toddy, Widow’s Kiss.
The 5-Bottle Bar: Gin joint
This gin-centric package is for a crowd that perhaps already enjoys martinis and their sundry variations and is looking for a little more adventure. To that end, the dry and sweet vermouths are obvious additions; you need them for the martinis. For the liqueurs, I riffed on one of my favorite cocktails, the Last Word, which brings in lime juice, green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur (not to be confused with the juice from maraschino cherries). Chartreuse and maraschino are longtime friends of gin that go well in various early-20th-century drinks such as the Bijou and Ideal cocktails. Again, as an alternative to eggnog, I’ve included both the egg-based Clover Club and the Green Lady as options. Also, there’s a great make-ahead Gin Punch that you can ladle for your guests from this bar. Add a bottle of tonic water and slices of lime so your less adventurous guests can stick to gin and tonics.
The liquor: Gin, preferably Tanqueray or Beefeater; Noilly Prat dry vermouth; Martini (brand) sweet vermouth; Luxardo maraschino liqueur; green Chartreuse; about $111 total.
The mixers: Orange bitters; tonic; maraschino cherries, grenadine and simple syrup, all preferably homemade; eggs (pasteurized if you are concerned about a risk of salmonella); grapefruits, limes and lemons (for freshly squeezed juice, twists and garnishes); about $30 total.
Cocktails to try:
Bijou Cocktail, Clover Club, Fifty-Fifty, Gin Punch, Grapefruit Cocktail, the Green Lady, Ideal Cocktail, Last Word, Original Martini.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.