How to Plan the Ultimate Cocktail Party With Our Booze-o-Matic Drink Calculator

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Planning tips for the party host. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Fall has always been my favorite time of the year. As a kid I loved it because my birthday is in the fall. Now that I'm grown, I still enjoy that, but I also love fall's crisp air, the colors, the crunchy leaves. Every year, I look forward to picking apples, taking long walks on cool afternoons, and pulling my favorite sweaters out of storage.

But most of all, I love drinking in the fall. Each year, I pick out a bottle of single malt that I've never tried before, open it on my birthday, and nurse it through to New Year's Day. I sip cider and apple brandy and hunt down limited-edition releases from my favorite bourbon makers. Fall is when I start mixing cocktails with warm, spicy liqueurs like Benedictine and Chartreuse; drinks that go well with hearty autumn cooking.

Over the next few weeks, I'll discuss specific tips for holiday-themed cocktail parties, but to start, I wanted to offer some general advice for autumnal and early-winter party planning. Follow the advice I offer here, and you can throw a heck of a bash without blowing all the cash you'll need for your office's Secret Santa routine.

Party Planning on a Budget

You could spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars gathering supplies for an epic cocktail party, but that would be silly. You don't want to sink all that money into random booze, and your friends want your wallet to live to host another party. So forget about creating a whole bar at home and offering an 'open bar' to your guests. They'll just start mixing random spirits and liqueurs in combinations that weren't meant to be drunk. Instead, I advise choosing a signature cocktail or two, mixing it up in advance, and letting people pour their own.

This way, you can relax and enjoy the party, rather than feeling compelled to stand by the bar throughout, making drinks for people or keeping an open bar restocked. (Or keeping them from making a heavy-poured combination of Cointreau and absinthe and rum and Scotch and Galliano.) Rather than buying a bottle of everything, you can focus your shopping on the ingredients you need for your signature cocktail. Plan your shopping well, and you could turn out great drinks for mere pennies per serving.

Say you want to go classic and classy with martinis. To make a big batch, you'll need an empty 1-liter bottle, 20 ounces of gin (at $20 for 750 mL, the original Bombay—not the Sapphire—is a bargain in classic London dry style), six ounces of dry vermouth (try Martini & Rossi for about $8 a bottle, or Noilly Prat for about $10, though tasty Dolin Dry isn't that much more), and 6 ounces of filtered water. (You could dash in some orange bitters, too, but that's optional.) Add all your booze and water to the liter bottle and shake it up to mix. Store in the fridge until the day of your party (it will keep for a week), and then stash it in a tub of ice to keep it cold during the bash.

A big batch of Manhattans is also easy as pie (mmm, alcoholic pie.) Get another 1-liter bottle. Slam in 18 ounces of rye whiskey (my preference is Rittenhouse, at about $25 a bottle; Old Overholt at about $21 is good, too) and 9 ounces sweet vermouth (Cinzano and Martini & Rossi both sell for about $8 a bottle). Dash the Angostura bottle 18 times. Add 5 ounces filtered water. Shake it up and chill it, and then stash it in a tub of ice to keep it cold during the party.

And then you can chill because if you do both the martini and the Manhattan, you have about 20 servings of cocktail already ready for your guests. (Of course, you may need multiple batches...jump on down below for the math.)

Planning ahead gives you the chance to go shopping for inexpensive glassware. Sure, it's fine to use those red plastic cups, but real glassware seriously classes up a party and it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Ikea, for example, offers a box of six glasses for about five bucks, and a range of other cheap options. Check the sales: T.J.Maxx, Pier 1, Crate & Barrel, and local housewares stores sometimes have great bargains on discontinued glassware, so keep an eye out. One other advantage of inexpensive glassware: you can almost think of it as disposable. If it breaks, no sweat!

If You Don't Want to Buy It, Rent It!

If you don't have the storage space for all those glasses, you may want to consider just borrowing them from a party supply store. Glasses, plates, flatware, linens, and even tables are all available for rent. A party-supply store near me, for example, offers martini glasses for 69 cents per glass per day, or about $20 for 30 glasses. Sure, if you shop well, you can buy the glasses for about that price, but then you have to find a place to tuck them safely after the party.

Most rental warehouses allow you to return the stuff without cleaning it, though you should still rinse everything quickly to remove any caked-on food. (Be sure to ask in advance whether you need to wash the dishes, though, or check the shop's FAQs.)

Excuse Me, But I Think That Was My Glass!

Ever pick up a glass you thought was yours, only to find a lipstick smear on it, and worse, it's not your color? As a host, though, you can plan ways to tag the glasses so people can keep track of which is which. (This is especially important if you don't have tons of extra glasses.) Your guests can write their names on with a Sharpee, though you'll have to scrub that off after, so be warned. You can also use colored bag clips, twist ties, or wine tags.

How Many Drinks?

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If you host a cocktail party and run out of booze, you'll be shunned for life. Well, probably not. Probably someone will go on a beer run and save the day. But just to avoid possible embarrassment, consider this rule of thumb: expect your guests to drink two drinks in the first hour, and one in each hour thereafter. The math is easy, but plugging the numbers into our handy Booze-o-Matic Party Time Drink Calculator is even easier.
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Serious Eats Booze-o-matic Party Time Drink Calculator

Say your party is three hours, and you're having 20 guests. Then you'll need 80 drinks. Some of your friends will likely drink beer, some might choose wine, and some will have cocktails. If you don't mind the possibility of having leftover batched cocktails around, it's smart to make 80 servings of batched cocktails and then just have a couple of bottles each of white wine and red wine on hand, along with about four sixpacks of beer.

If your friends are generous and offer to bring something, you can assign them the task of bringing wine or beer—just make sure at least a few of those folks are the arrive-on-time type, or else make sure you have a few bottles ready before the party starts.

How Much Ice?

You're going to need a couple of different types of ice. If you have ample planning time, the first thing I'd do is get in a couple of the Tovolo King Cube molds I mentioned earlier. Freeze up enough of those cube to fill a gallon-sized freezer bag or two and use those cubes for Old Fashioneds (or other cocktails you're serving on the rocks.) Martinis and Manhattans aren't generally served on the rocks, and so if you've batched those up, you don't need ice for them. Have a few gallon-sized bags of smaller ice cubes ready for water: figure a few cubes per guest.

I like to set out large tubs or buckets filled with store-bought ice and a little water to keep bottles of beer, white wine, batched cocktails, and filtered water (in liter bottles) chilled. For this, you can use ice from a supermarket or gas station. You can get a few bags and keep them stacked in your bathtub if you don't have space elsewhere. With two big serving tubs, I generally use 15 pounds of ice in an evening.

Setting Up the Bar

Allow your guests to help themselves to drinks, but don't make them go on a scavenger hunt.

Set out just one type of wine glass; a cocktail party isn't time for specialized glasses for white wine and red wine; a rocks glass will suffice for most premixed cocktails, but consider having a traditional V-shaped glass for Manhattans and Martinis. Near the glassware, set out napkins and clean towels for wiping up spills.

This is also the time to fill your buckets or tubs with grocery-store ice, and add bottles of beer, white wine, your bottled cocktails, bottles of water, and any nonalcoholic beverages so that everyone can serve themselves.

Set out your red wine, a corkscrew and bottle opener, and a bucket of ice cubes from your freezer for using in drinks. Don't put all the ice out at once; save some for later in the party. Be sure to check the ice bucket every so often to refill.

Fall Tipples

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Though I'm always partial to a crisp, icy-cold martini, no matter the weather, when I think of fall drinks, my palate craves whisk(e)y, funky dark rums, and brandy—especially apple brandy. As a bit of a cocktail pun, Thanksgiving dinner at our house always starts with Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Old Fashioneds, and you could easily batch these ahead for a party and store them in the fridge or on ice to stay cold. A 1-liter bottle of batched Old Fashioned will make about 12 servings, perhaps less if your guests have healthy pouring arms. You can make this up to two days in advance and store it in the fridge until party time.

Here's how I'd do it:

  1. Start with a clean 1-liter bottle. If you don't mind staying rustic, you can reuse a one-liter liquor bottle, or you can buy one for the occasion.
  2. Using a funnel, transfer the entire contents of a 750-ml bottle of bourbon or rye to the one-liter bottle.
  3. Add 1 ounce simple syrup.
  4. Add about 10 or 12 dashes Angostura bitters. (See note below.)
  5. Add 4 ounces water. (Remember, when you shake or stir a cocktail with ice, the ice both chills and melts into the drink, diluting it. By adding water to the batch and serving it chilled, you don't need to stir the drink to dilute and chill it.)
  6. Shake well and refrigerate.
  7. At the party, offer your guests some nice, hefty ice cubes, preferably the 1-inchers you can make using a Tovolo King Cube mold.

(Note: For batched cocktails, you need to dial back on the bitters a bit. Let's say you usually add two dashes of Angostura to your Old Fashioned. It seems logical that if you're making 12 servings in a batched cocktail, that you'd use 24 dashes for the batch, but somehow, this will taste too bitters-y. I suggest adding 10 or 12 dashes and keeping the bitters bottle handy at your bar. If a guest wants another dash or two, she can add it herself.)

Want to go beyond bourbon? Though I usually turn to white-rum daiquiris in the summer, when fall arrives, I crave cocktails with rich dark rums, such as rhums agricole or Smith and Cross. They're especially good in toddies, such as this hot rum version. These also make great Old Fashioneds and surprisingly good Manhattan variations. You can easily batch these up using my instructions for the regular Old Fashioned and Manhattan.

To really stay seasonal, remind your guests of picking apples on a crisp fall day by serving a signature cocktail that features American apple brandy (such as Laird's Bonded) or French Calvados.

But fall's nut just about fruit. Autumnal cooking includes herbs like sage, rosemary, fennel, and thyme; herbs you can incorporate into fall drinks by making an easy herbal syrup. It's truly simple: Add a cup of water and a cup of sugar to a small saucepan and warm, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and add a quarter cup of herbs. Let them steep in the hot syrup for 15 minutes, then strain and keep in an airtight container in your fridge. It'll keep for about a week. You can add your herbal syrup in the place of regular simple syrup in pretty much any of your favorite cocktails. Try an Apple Sage Old Fashioned or put a little thyme syrup in your French 75 instead of adding sugar.

You can batch pretty much any cocktail recipe; there are just a few things to remember. First of all, since you won't be shaking the cocktail with ice to dilute it, you need to add water. My rule of thumb: about one quarter of the batched cocktail should be water.

Let's say we want to adapt the Honeymoon Cocktail for a crowd, making, say, 21 servings. The first step is to add up all the liquid. In this case, it's 2 ounces apple brandy, plus half an ounce each of curaçao, Benedictine, and lemon juice. The total: 3.5 ounces of liquid. We need to add about a quarter of that volume in water (that's .875 ounces). So with the water added, each serving comes to 4.375 ounces, so we can fit about 7 servings (30.625 ounces) easily in a liter (about 34 ounce) bottle. 3 liter bottles = 21 servings.

So to make your Honeymoon in a bottle, multiply all of our ingredients by 7. That gives you 14 ounces of apple brandy; 3.5 ounces each of curaçao, Benedictine, and lemon juice. You'll add six ounces of water, and you'll do this rigamarole three times to make all 21 servings.

Get your funnel ready. But before you start pouring, note that not every ingredient should be mixed in at once. Ingredients that don't lose their character quickly (whiskey, gin, liqueurs, sugar, bitters, and even vermouth) can be mixed and bottled several days in advance and kept in the fridge. But the same isn't true for juices and soda. In our Honeymoon Cocktail above, you'll mix the apple brandy, curaçao, Benedictine, and water, shake it up, and chill it in the fridge. Squeeze the lemon juice just a few hours before your party and add it to the mix: 3.5 ounces for each 7-serving bottle.

When you're batching cocktails, don't add soda, tonic water, or sparkling wine to the batch at all. Make a little sign to instruct your guests to add the fizzy stuff when it's time to drink.

Hors d'Oeuvres

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Drinks without snacks are a dangerous thing, but unless you're scheduling your cocktail party at a meal time, all you really need to serve are a few hors d'oeuvres. (Need some ideas? Check this out! And this! And this!) Five or six choices will do, and you should have enough for each guest to try one or two servings of each choice. Be sure to include two or three meatless options.

In addition to the hors d'oeuvres, you can bulk up your spread with a nice assortment of meats and cheeses, crudite and dips, nuts, olives, and bread or crackers. You never know when someone's going to arrive ravenous.