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I love cocktail bars because they make fancy drinking easy: Each individual order is painstakingly prepared, shaken or stirred as needed, poured into its own special glass. When the party's at my house, though, I tend to get a little flustered. There's a cheese plate to assemble, and I have to find the gravy boat, and the recycling needs taking out, and can someone please answer the door?
Made-to-order cocktails are not for the anxious host.
But that doesn't mean you can't make high-level cocktails when you're entertaining at home. You just need the right recipe, one that tastes fancy but is easily made in a big batch for a crowd. The Isla Bonita—a fizzy pineapple punch created by bartender Laura Newman at Mother of Pearl in New York, inspired by her recent trip to Puerto Rico—does the trick nicely. "A lot of holiday drinks are heavy or rich (think eggnog, hot chocolate, et cetera)," says Newman, "and I wanted to make something that was light, fun, and festive without weighing you down."
You start by simmering a quick simple syrup with two split vanilla beans, which contribute a heady aroma that seems to draw the sweetness of a ripe pineapple forward; it makes the whole thing taste a little luxurious. The vanilla syrup takes just a few minutes on the stovetop and can be prepared several days before your party. "Vanilla and pineapple are a classic tiki flavor pairing," notes Newman, who says she loves "how the baking spice notes of the vanilla syrup accentuate the darker, more robust fruity flavors of the pineapple juice."
You'll want to do a little ice inventory the night before: If you have an ample supply of ice cubes and a pitcher they'll fit in, you're good to go, though you can also make a pretty ice block in a Tupperware container or cake pan, decorating it with lime wheels if desired. Just make sure you have a serving vessel that can hold your ice, plus about two quarts of liquid.
Then there's the question of the pineapple. Sadly, canned juice won't do, since it tends to taste sharp and metallic when mixed. Instead, grab a couple of ripe, sweet-smelling fresh pineapples and cut them up (you don't need to go full badass here—regular cubes will do). If you don't have a juicer, there are a few other options. The easiest is to throw the pineapple chunks in a blender or food processor, then strain to remove any fibers. You can also go at them by hand with a muddler, if you're looking for a real workout.
Up to two hours before your guests arrive, you'll muddle some fresh mint in the vanilla syrup to release the herb's fragrant oils, then add your pineapple juice, white rum, and tart fresh lime juice. Give it a stir, then strain it into your serving vessel, or a resealable container if you'd prefer to stash it in the fridge awhile.
When your guests show up, the final steps will be painless: Add your ice and stirred cocktail mix to your punch bowl or pitcher. Pour in the bubbly, and serve the drink in ice-filled glasses. Be sure to pour one for yourself, too—when the hard work of making a festive drink is behind you, you'll have no reason not to relax and enjoy.
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