It’s easy to shake up summer entertainment plans without too much extra effort. Why not host a cocktail party?
Garden herbs, summer fruit or even travel plans provide plenty of inspiration and with a few tips from local bartenders and party planners, one can impress guests with ease.
“There’s an extra level of sophistication in a cocktail party,” says Spokane’s Paul Harrington, who is credited with re-introducing the popular Mojito cocktail to the West Coast. (Harrington is not related to the author of this article.)
Harrington’s 1998 book, “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century,” written with Laura Moorhead, was nominated for a prestigious James Beard culinary award.
During his time spent as a bartender in San Francisco in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Harrington wrote for HotWired’s cocktail website and was known by fans as The Alchemist. He moved to Spokane in 2000 to build a house in the country and be closer to family.
Although officially retired from cocktail circles, Harrington still pursues his passion behind the bar at local events such as Taste Spokane and Epicurean Delight.
Cocktails naturally lend themselves to cultural themes, says Harrington: “A cocktail party can be inspired by a drink in a movie, or you can do a traveling experience of South American, Cuban or Italian cocktails paired with food.”
Or, simply enjoy the region’s bounty of farm fresh produce and flowers, says Ellie Aaro, co-owner of Beacon Hill Catering and Events.
Mixing and measuring
For smaller gatherings of two to four guests, Harrington recommends picking a fairly simple cocktail recipe and practicing it ahead of time.
For larger gatherings, plan on mixing a batch of cocktails (without the ice) and storing it in the freezer until guests arrive.
“Pre-batching a beverage earlier in the day allows you to focus on food and set-up,” says Aaro.
Serve the mixed cocktails in a clear glass container with a ladle and have ice and glassware on the side.
Plan on one to one-and-a-half drinks per person per hour and make sure to offer a non-alcoholic choice. Fruit purees with sparking water, strawberry lemonade or flavored iced teas garnished with mint, fresh ginger or orange slices make refreshing “mocktails.”
Each 750-milliliter bottle of spirits will make 15 to 20 cocktails; expect to pay about $12 to $15 for a quality bottle, Harrington advises.
You’ll want to have a jigger (one-and-a-half-ounce measure), a stainless steel shaker and a muddler or wooden spoon to crush fruit and herbs.
Spicing things up
Summer is a great time to incorporate fresh berries, herbs and even vegetables into refreshing drinks.
“It’s like cooking – just experiment,” says Alison Collins, a bartender at Mizuna Restaurant and Wine Bar in Spokane. “Most people have something growing in their garden – basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary – that can be used in a cocktail.”
Herbs can be muddled into drinks, used to flavor simple syrups or added as a garnish.
“Have everyone bring different herbs or citrus and you provide gin and rum. You’ll have an instant party without too much expense,” Collins suggests.
“You can use ice to chill and transform ingredients into a wonderful drink,” says Harrington, who notes that a common beginner’s mistake is skimping on the ice. Plan on one pound of ice per person for a three-hour party, and choose cracked or chipped ice over homemade cubes as irregularly shaped ice will chill drinks faster.
Nothing ruins a drink faster than serving it in a warm glass. Either store your glassware in the freezer for a frosty effect, or chill the glasses with ice immediately before serving.
Serving in style
Once you’ve carefully mixed your cocktails, don’t skimp on the serving glasses. If you don’t have enough of your own, consider renting glasses. It’s relatively inexpensive, and makes clean-up a breeze.
And don’t forget the final touch.
“I can’t think of any drink that’s meant to be served without a garnish,” Harrington says. “It can be a flower, an herb, or something pickled like an olive.”
He compares a garnish to a flattering hat – the crowning touch to a well-made drink.
Collins uses a channel knife (available at Bargreen Ellingson restaurant supply store in Spokane) to cut long, thin strips of citrus zest which can be tied in a knot for an unusual garnish.
She also likes to decorate the rim of the glass with kosher salt, or superfine sugar and ground chilies (run a wedge of citrus on the rim and then dip the glass).
“Cocktail parties are all about socializing, not about the culinary focus,” says Aaro.
She recommends sticking to finger foods, and offering one or two displayed food items to instantly gratify those who arrive hungry and encourage guests to socialize. Try platters of vegetables from the farmers market with fresh herb dip or crusty fresh bread served with local cheeses, charcuterie and homemade spreads.
Circulating with some hors d’oeuvres on a platter adds an element of fun and allows the host to mingle with the guests, Aaro says. Many appetizers can be prepared ahead of time, eliminating last-minute stress in the kitchen.
From “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible of the 21st Century,” by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. Don’t forget to leave half of the lime in the drink. The oils from the rind are a key element in this drink.
½ ounce simple syrup
8 to 10 mint sprigs
2 to 3 ounces light rum
Place simple syrup, mint and a splash of soda water in a chilled 16-ounce glass. Lightly muddle until syrup dissolves and you smell the mint.
Squeeze both halves of lime into the glass, leaving one hull in the mixture. Add rum, stir and fill with ice. Top with more soda water; garnish with a mint sprig.
Note: To make simple syrup, combine 1 cup water with 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool. Pour into a glass jar, cover and store in refrigerator. Makes 1 ½ cups.
Yield: 1 serving
Lemon Basil Drop
Courtesy of Alison Collins, Mizuna Restaurant and Wine Bar
3 to 4 large basil leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 fresh squeezed lemon
2 ounces vodka
Sugar, lemon and basil to garnish
Begin by chilling a martini glass. Muddle (crush together) basil, sugar and lemon juice with a little ice until mixture is pulverized. This will take a little work but the end result is worth it.
Add vodka and more ice and shake until very cold. Garnish the rim of the glass with sugar if desired and strain mixture into glass. Add basil sprig and lemon wedge for garnish.
Yield: 1 serving
Courtesy of Alison Collins
1 fresh strawberry
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 fresh squeezed lime
2 ounces cachaca (sugar cane rum)
Soda water, strawberry and lime for garnish
Muddle strawberry, sugar and lime juice with ice. Add cachaca. Pour (do not strain) mixture into a pint glass filled with ice. Top with a little soda if desired. Garnish with strawberry and lime.
Yield: 1 serving
Courtesy of Ellie Aaro, Beacon Hill Events
1 ¼ cups freshly squeezed lime juice (about 9 limes)
3 pounds Bing cherries
About 2 cups simple syrup (made from 1 ¼ cups sugar and 1 ¼ cups water)
18 ounces best-quality vodka
1 750-milliliter bottle sparkling water
Fresh mint for garnish
Put lime juice into a medium non-reactive bowl. Halve and pit cherries, add to lime juice. Stir in simple syrup. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.
Stir cherry mixture and vodka in a large serving bowl. To serve, fill 12 glasses with ice. Spoon ½ cup cherry-vodka mixture into each glass. Top with sparkling water and garnish with fresh mint. Serve immediately.
Non-alcoholic version: For each serving, reserve ¼ cup of the cherry mixture, fill a tall cocktail glass with ice and fill ¾ full with sparkling water. Top with cherry mixture and garnish with mint.
Yield: 12 servings
Courtesy of Ellie Aaro
7 ½ pounds seedless watermelon, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 teaspoons superfine sugar (available in the baking aisle or make your own by blending granulated sugar in a blender until powdery)
6 ounces silver tequila
24 basil leaves, plus sprigs for garnish
3 ounces triple sec
6 cups small ice cubes
Place 24 watermelon cubes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover and freeze at least 1 hour (up to 2 days).
Puree remaining watermelon and the sugar in a blender until smooth. Pass through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a bowl. (You should have about 3 cups.)
Place tequila and basil in a glass pitcher and crush basil with wooden spoon. Stir in watermelon juice and triple sec.
For each serving, place 4 watermelon cubes in each glass. Using a cocktail shaker, mix ¾ cup margarita mixture with 1 cup ice. Strain into glass. Garnish with basil. Repeat.
Yield: 6 servings
Endive Spears with Apples, Blue Cheese and Toasted Hazelnuts
Courtesy of Ellie Aaro
2 heads Belgian endive
1 Gala apple
2 celery stalks
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts for garnish
Cut off base of endive and separate leaves (each head produces 6 to 10 leaves).
Dice apple and celery into very small pieces. Mix in blue cheese, lemon juice and mayo. Add white pepper to taste.
Use a teaspoon to fill each end of endive leaf with apple mixture. Sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts.
Yield: 12 to 20 pieces
Pancetta and Basil Wrapped Grilled Peaches with Balsamic Drizzle
Courtesy of Ellie Aaro
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
3 ripe white peaches, quartered
12 basil leaves
12 slices pancetta
To make the balsamic vinegar reduction, whisk together the vinegar and honey in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid reduces to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Let cool for at least 30 minutes; can be made up to a week in advance and stored at room temperature.
Heat barbecue to medium high. Wrap each peach quarter with basil and pancetta, with pancetta on the outside. Skewer with fire-safe skewers. Grill until pancetta is crispy. Drizzle with balsamic reduction.
Yield: 12 pieces.