Cocktail parties don't require hired help, but guests deserve more than jug wine

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 12:33 PM

"If you don't have a bartender at your party, you're a loser."

That was the opinion of one young man from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, quoted last week in another newspaper. The article reported on a supposed trend among a crowd of 30-something Brooklynites who live in tiny apartments yet "won't invite friends over for cocktails without the assistance of a bartender."

Not that good cocktails seemed to be the point; the bartender just poured vodka punch into plastic cups. It seemed more about the perceived status symbol of hired help. The quoted gentleman (who stated that his job was "to get models and Saudi royalty into hot clubs") added this thought: "If you can't afford to hire a bartender, you shouldn't be having a party."

Wow. There are so many issues to unpack here. Among them: Do models have a hard time getting into clubs? At what point did hipsters turn into old-school yuppies? Or perhaps the most pressing question for this edition of the Food section: Why throw a "cocktail party" at all if you care so little about the cocktails?

This time of the year, I see all kinds of cocktail party primers that focus on "E-Z" hors d'oeuvres, effort-saving strategies and shortcuts. The tone of these articles attempts to soothe the seemingly eggshell-fragile ego of the harried host. Which is in stark contrast with what appears during the rest of the year in food sections published across the country, which urge you to pickle your own vegetables, make your own ice cream and pasta, and engage in feats of molecular gastronomy.

In these cocktail party articles, the drinks themselves are almost always an afterthought: something along the lines of "toss some booze and fruit juice in a pitcher" and let your guests fend for themselves.

I've even been bitten by this end-of-year malaise myself, penning an ode to lazy bartending two winters ago in this space. Then, I suggested a one-plus-one approach that involved opening, say, a bottle of grapefruit soda and blanco tequila to make the E-Z Paloma or chinotto and apple brandy to make a Della Mela.

The next year, as if in penance, I offered my holiday party guests a menu with six intricate cocktails to choose from, all of which I shook and stirred to order - yes, like a maniac. My only excuse: My guests have certain, you know, expectations when they come to the Spirits columnist's home.

Anyway, maybe I just hang out with a bad crowd, but my friends come to a cocktail party looking for a good drink as well as good food and conversation. I will never understand the host who has slaved over eight expensive dishes and then puts out a few jugs of Yellowtail.

Okay, so perhaps a middle road is in order. In fact, let's establish a rule of 21st-century cocktail party etiquette. I believe that a good host should, at the very least, make the first drink for each guest as he or she arrives. And then there should be both a punch bowl or pitcher and a thoughtfully stocked bar that will allow guests to take care of themselves after that.

This year, I'm suggesting a trio of sparkling wine cocktails, each of which calls for an interesting liqueur or eau de vie; consider those eccentric bottles of sloe gin or kirschwasser or creme de cassis conversation starters. If you served all three drinks, you'd need to buy five bottles of booze, a few bottles of sparkling wine and squeeze some grapefruit juice. Not too much to ask, right? One of the nice things about sparkling wine cocktails, by the way, is that guests who don't like cocktails can still be poured a glass of bubbly.

In addition to the cocktails, I suggest you make a punch that guests can ladle themselves. Over the years, I've published recipes for rum punches and cachaca punches and tequila punches and pisco punches and pear eau-de-vie punches. Just a few weeks ago, I posted my new favorite, the Boston Club Punch, which calls for cognac, rum, Grand Marnier, kirschwasser and champagne, along with some citrus and syrups.

I'll say it for millionth time: Serving nice drinks to your guests is not that difficult. And it is always appreciated.

Sure, you could hire a bartender - and please do, if you need to feel like a Williamsburg hipster. But unless you're hiring one who works at a good bar that specializes in cocktails, he or she will probably know less about cocktailmaking than the dedicated readers of this column.


Bitter French

Ostend Fizz Royale

Purple Fizz Royale

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound" (Ten Speed, 2010). He can be reached at Follow him at

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company