When your friends know you’re into cocktails, there’s a lot of pressure to play bartender at parties, even ones you’re a guest at. It can be fun, but it can also be a lot of work: squeezing lemons and limes, carefully measuring, muddling, tasting, stirring, shaking — and maybe the most time-consuming of all: consulting your mental recipe archive for what might please each thirsty friend. If you aren’t well prepared, you may spend a lot of time making drinks and not much time drinking them and entertaining your guests.
This is why I was excited to read my friend Kara Newman’s latest book, Cocktails for a Crowd. She’s got lots of recipes for punches, bottled cocktails, and big-batch classics, plus tons of good advice on the logistics of serving great drinks to groups.
Kara is the spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and has written about cocktails for The New York Times and Imbibe. She’s also the author of The Secret Financial Life of Food and a book about spicy cocktails called Spice & Ice.
I talked to her about what went into Cocktails for a Crowd, what she learned, and her favorite large-scale cocktails.
What was your process like writing this book? Did you host a lot of parties?
I wish I could say writing this book was one long party…not so much. I did some interviewing of bartenders (mostly by phone) and a lot of asking for advice and recipes. Since the book is roughly half bartender recipes and half updated classics, the others I developed and tested on my own, or in small groups. But one of the final steps before submitting the manuscript was to throw a party! I invited friends and made a dozen different drinks. They had to work for their booze—everyone had to fill out comment sheets evaluating how well the drinks looked and tasted. It was so much fun, though! I was just asked when I’d be “testing” again.
Was working on Cocktails for a Crowd very different from what you did to write Spice & Ice?
It was slightly different, for a lot of different reasons. I had a compressed time frame for Cocktails for a Crowd (four months vs. one year for Spice & Ice), so the process was more intense. And I spent a greater proportion of that time on drink adaptation and development, scaling drinks up without ruining them, which is harder than I expected. And the recipe testing process was different. For Spice & Ice, I tested drinks with small groups of friends, whereas for Cocktails for a Crowd a full-on party was the ONLY acceptable way to test!
So you’ve written two cocktail books now—any ideas yet for a third?
Not at the moment. I have an idea for another book project that involves cocktails, but it’s not a cookbook-style book.
How do you perfect a recipe for a punch or a large-batch cocktail? That’s a lot of booze to mess up with!
You try to perfect it on paper first. Anything that required heat (like the hot apple cider) or freezing overnight (like the frozen milk punch) I tested at home, in my kitchen. I made at least two batches of every drink, trying to tweak it. And I poured a lot of booze down the drain, I’m sorry to say. But it’s in the name of research!
It reminded me of the days when I wrote more about food than drink. I once wrote an article about Thanksgiving stuffings, with recipes, for a magazine, and had to test out six different pans of stuffing. In the middle of JULY! And what I couldn’t eat or give away ended up in the trash. But again—research! I never want to publish recipes that don’t work.
Do you have any personal favorites from the book?
I have two favorites. I love the bottled Last Word cocktail. I love bottled cocktails and I can’t believe they don’t get more attention for home use. Once I was satisfied with the recipe, I was happy to have a cocktail sitting in my fridge—I’d come home and pour myself a Last Word after work. It was one of those liberating, “Why didn’t I think of this before?” moments.
My other favorite is the Guild Meeting Punch, which is from Chicago bartender Charles Joly. It’s made with rye whiskey, Chai tea, and orange peel and it’s just delicious.
I totally agree with you about bottled cocktails. What a great idea to keep a liter of your favorite cocktail in the fridge! This also brings up the issue of aged cocktails. Have you done any experimentation with aging bottles of cocktails, ala Tony Conigliaro?
I have not experimented with aging bottles of cocktails (at least, not on purpose!), nor with barrel aging. But I’d love to see more people trying that out at home. Now that smaller barrels are so readily available, we have all the tools available to us to experiment.
That Guild Meeting Punch sounds fantastic — I may try that one on my family for the holidays. Any advice for holiday entertaining? Any other good wintry options?
Thanks! Let me know how that works out for you. One of the other drinks I really like for winter/holiday entertaining is the Spiked & Spiced Apple Cider, because it works with pretty much any dark liquor you have on hand (aged rum, whiskey, brandy) in pretty much any proportion you choose; and because you make it on the stove. Everyone winds up in the kitchen anyway, right?
My best advise for holiday entertaining: Do as much as possible ahead of time (squeezing citrus, cutting garnishes, etc.), and make sure you have everything you need on hand, prepared, and close by. No last-minute trips for liquor or ice = less stress.
Any great cocktails that didn’t make it into the book?
I bounced a lot of gin-based classics to make for more variety. I was sad to cut the bottled Bijou, which is equal parts gin, vermouth, and Green Chartreuse, and looks pearly and pretty in the glass. But it was too similar to the Last Word. And that one HAD to stay!
Any advice for balancing your own taste with the unknown taste of an crowd?
You can’t make everyone happy, so I’d advise to have options. That might mean having more than one drink, or having options to customize—have lemon juice and simple syrup on hand to encourage guests to adjust the tartness/sweetness to taste, for example.
What’s the best bit of bartender advice from the book?
Portland bartender Kelly Swenson provided a formula for how much ice to get for a party: For each 750-ml bottle of liquor, he allots seven pounds of ice. “And then I add extra,” he said. “You can never have too much ice, and it is devastating to run out.”