Buffet style food service with plates.

Rules of Civility: The Cocktail Party

The ability to entertain is a powerful skill that once mastered, gives a gentleman many hours of joyous reflection and boundless amounts of goodwill from others. We entertain for a variety of reasons including sociability, fun, bringing comfort to others as well as advancing business and professional goals. Entertaining allows us not only to look our best but also to reveal our depth of character and goodwill.

Entertaining utilizes a variety of skills including pre-planning, logistical thinking, creativity and human resources. It is also the most distinct opposite of social media culture. In these times of multi-tasking and twitter and Facebook and so on, pundits state that we are overwhelmed with our commitments. I am of a different opinion. We are not overwhelmed from too many commitments but instead, we are exhausted from too shallow commitments. We do not, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, lean into much of anything these days.

Signature cocktails at the ready.

Signature cocktails at the ready.

By affirming your desire to entertain you are saying a firm yes to those individuals you choose to invite to your party. What a powerful antidote to so much of our lives that is merely skimming-on-the-surface.You are creating an environment where face-to-face interactions are the norm. You have declared a desire to make others’ comfort and happiness and connectedness your goal. Entertaining in no small way reaffirms the very social nature of our humanity, reminding us of the value of these connections. For it is always through fellow humans that the work of our daily lives and the larger world is conducted.

A keystone of entertaining is what I like to call mature masculinity. It is truly a mark of maturity for a man of any age planning and executing an informal or more formal event. You are taking responsibility for all aspects of people’s comfort and happiness. In essence your behavior states that others’ well-being is your priority.

In the U.S. advertisers peddle a kind of clueless and child-like masculinity.  Men who are too stupid to know how to clean, who call caring for their children baby-sitting. The sine qua non of Gentleman’s Gazette is a powerful no to such idiocy. As men we are capable of caring for others. Entertaining is just one way we show such concern and care.

The Practical Side of Entertaining

Start Small

If you’ve never entertained before, think about starting small. An informal gathering presents the basic framework from which you can build a skill base that may result in a more formal affair. Once you master the basics, it is up to you to decide if you want to create more complex events.

Bourbon tasting with different food pairing options.

Bourbon tasting with different food pairing options.

The Cocktail Party

Cocktail parties are easy to plan yet can be quite sophisticated in their execution. In the U.S. we tend to have cocktail parties around a theme, perhaps a signature drink or color. You may choose to have a bourbon tasting party or a bourbon-themed cocktail party.  It is also helpful to pair a drink with a specific type of food. Or you may opt to serve a full bar with a variety of comestibles and play the role of bartender/host. You are limited only by your imagination and, to a lesser degree, your budget.

For example, you may throw a holiday themed brut champagne party. The driest of all champagnes, consider salty and fatty foods as accompaniment: scrambled eggs, any mushroom dish, or risotto with a cream base.

Indicate in your invitation if you expect your guests to adhere to a certain dress code or costume or other expectations.

A nautical themed cocktail party.

A nautical themed cocktail party.

The Food & Drink Service and the Party Space

The most formal party would be served by a butler on passed platters. More informally you may contract the services of a catering company to provide the food, liquor and serving staff. The least formal option is to serve the food buffet style. Convert a dining room table to a buffet with a theme-appropriate table cloth, napkins and possibly candles. If you have a larger room, using more than one table will allow guests to spread out. As much as possible, endeavor to keep the tables as close as possible to the kitchen. Replenishing serving bowls, utensils and drinks will be much easier.

You will need to the space in which you will have your party. If you are fortunate to live in a large home, you may both space and furniture to use. But with some creativity, it is possible to  12 for dinner in a420 sqft apartment. For dinner parties you need a chair for every person, whereas for a cocktail party you don’t but it is awkward to drink and eat while standing, so ensure to have seating possibilities. Mix in tables guests may put their drinks down. Do your very best to make all the guests as comfortable as possible and know that you will probably be standing for the entire party. The video below describes how you can use your own furniture to prepare for a buffet-style party.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2V6xH8Lc4U

How will you serve your food? Maybe you have a buffet or trays, and don’t forget plates and utensils – no paper plates are not ok.

Planning the Cocktails

You may choose to have a signature drink, a punch or two types of drinks available, a full bar is too complicated unless you have staff.  Mastering these cocktails will allow you to also create themes around each type of cocktail, if you so desire (Mad Men and Manhattans or A Bond Martini party).

Some of your guests won’t drink alcohol and although you don’t need to go overboard but a few non-alcoholic drinks are appropriate.

Determining the Amount of Alcohol to Purchase

Offering beer and wine in addition to cocktails is a good rule to follow, yet not necessary – you are the host and as long as there is some variety, it’s perfect.

It’s always good so have some liquor at home, and fortunately it has no expiration date. If you want to serve a drink,  check the amounts of liquor you need per drink to ensure you buy enough. As a rule of general rule of thumb one bottle of wine per eight guests when other drink options are available should work but I’d always get one extra one and some drink considerably more than that , so know your guests.

A simple full bar setup.

A simple full bar setup.

No matter what type of party you are planning, the most important considerations with cocktails are: “first, measure out your drinks, as proportion is everything, and, second, use the highest quality ingredients that you can afford.

If you choose to serve wine and beer at your party you should have available about these amount of bottles:

10-25 Guests

26-50 Guests

51-75 Guests

76-100 Guests

White Wine

5-7

6-7

7-8

10-11

Red Wine

2

3

4-5

5-6

Domestic Beer

24-50

36-75

48-80

60-100

Imported Beer

24-50

36-75

48-80

60-100

The following are the approximate amount of 750ml bottles you should have on hand:

10-25 Guests

26-50 Guests

51-75 Guests

76-100 Guests

American Whiskey

1

1

2

2

Bourbon

1

2

2

3

Brandy/Cognac

1

1

1

2

Canadian Whisky

1

1

2

2

Gin

1

2

2

3

Irish Whiskey

1

1

1

2

Rum

1

2

2

3

Scotch

1

1

1

2

Tequila

2

2

2

3

Vodka

2

3

3

4

In addition you will need to have mixers on hand. The chart below is for 2 liter bottles unless otherwise specified.

10-25 Guests

26-50 Guests

51-75 Guests

76-100 Guests

Club Soda

1-3

2-3

3-4

4-5

Cola

3

3-4

3-5

4-6

Cranberry Juice (Quart)

2

2

3

3

Diet Cola

3

3-4

3-5

4-6

Ginger Ale

1-2

2

2

3

Lemon-lime Soda

2

3

3

4

Red Bull (8 oz)

4

8

12

16

Tonic Water

2

2

3

4

The following are the remaining bar items you will need for a fully stocked bar:

10-25 Guests

26-50 Guests

51-75 Guests

76-100 Guests

Amaretto

1

2

3

4

Triple Sec

2

3

3

4

Coffee Liqueur

1

1

2

2

Italian Vermouth

1

1

1

2

French Vermouth

1

1

1

2

Angostura Bitters (10 oz)

1

1

1

2

Olives (jar)

1

1

1

2

Cocktail Onions (jar)

1

1

1

1

Limes

3

6

9

12

Lemons

3

6

9

12

Oranges

2

4

6

8

Grenadine (8 oz)

1

1

1

1

Cherries (jar)

1

1

1

2

Rose’s Lime Juice

1

2

2

3

Water (8 oz)

12

24

48

60

Milk (pint)

2

3

3

4

Orange Juice (8 oz)

6

12

18

24

Tomato Juice (8 oz)

2

4

6

8

Pineapple Juice (4 oz)

3

6

9

12

Bar equipment,  Glasses & Stemware

You’ll find all you need to know about it here.

Preparing the Food

Kinds of hors d’oeuvres

Number of each

Party Takes Place Outside of mealtime

5 to 6 choices

1 to 2 of each/person

Party Takes Place During mealtime

8 to 10 choices

2 to 3 of each/person

If you are preparing food for a themed event or specific drinks, consider creating a menu that supports the theme or specific drinks. The Margarita, a popular cocktail in the U.S., may be accompanied by Mexican-styled hors d’oeuvres such a flautas, tortilla chips and guacamole, traditionally sized tacos  (with 5″ tortillas).

An event where bourbon is the signature drink might feature blue cheese, deviled eggs, scallops, and as devoted lovers of the pig in the U.S., pork, pork and pork. A full and open bar lends itself to a variety of comestibles.

Buffet style food service with plates.

Buffet style food service with plates.

Cooking

Entertaining provides a gentleman with varied opportunities to showcase his culinary talents. If you can cook, and like to do so for others, then your skill, interest and time will dictate how much of the menu you prepare yourself. If you are new to cooking, and endeavor to learn, preparing one or two dishes yourself is reasonable. You may be able to prepare more with the help of more skilled friends or your partner. You can also round out your preparations through catering or purchasing prepared foods. Learn, who to make finger food for a party in the video below.

http://youtu.be/VQuoHo3iUO4

Don’t try new recipes on guests, because they don’t want a host fretting in the kitchen nor do they want to be served only nuts because the host tried to prepare a new dish that was not worthy of being served.

Music

Music at parties draws the ire of some people. Others love it and look forward to creating a playlist suitable to the theme or mood of the party. The decision is yours. You may choose one path and change it for the next event. Music is typically acceptable at cocktail parties in the U.S. But, again, the decision is yours.

Timeline and Checklist

3-4 Weeks Out

Set a date for the party.

Decide the drink and hors d’oeuvres menu.

If you plan on a set drink menu, provide the drink menu in the invitation. If you plan to serve beer and wine, note that in the invitation.

Invite your guests. Plan on inviting 20-30 percent more than you will actually serve as there is usually a 20-30 percent decline/no-show rate for events.  In your invitation, include directions to your home and note where parking will be available or the best public transportation to take.

Pairing wine and food.

Pairing wine and food.

 3 Weeks Out

Review your food menu to determine how long it will take to prepare each item.

Make an ingredient list.

Review your barware, stemware and bar equipment, napkins, serving plates, plates, ice buckets. Determine what, if anything, is missing. Purchase needed equipment.

Place order with local butcher or baker, if needed.

Recruit any additional help you may need, be it a caterer or butling service. Decide now if you want to hire a bartender.

Decide which room or rooms to use for your party (if you have a larger home).

 2 Weeks Out

Purchase ingredients for food that may be prepared in advance.

Begin preparing food that can be frozen and rewarmed the day of the event.

Determine if you will need to purchase more serving trays or find other items to repurpose. If needed, purchase these items.

Wash all plates and cutlery and glasses to be used. Wash and iron all tablecloths and napkins, if using cloth napkins.

Plan for prep work you can do ahead, and what can only be completed the day of the event.

Create a list for any decorating supplies you may need.

If you will be playing music, start working on the playlist.

Check to make sure your stereo system/speakers work.

A very large, catered party.

A very large, catered party.

 1 Week Out

You may choose to contact guests who have not RSVP’d. We know this is exceptionally rude on the part of your invitee, but sometimes we must do what we need to do. You don’t want an old college roommate showing up unexpectedly with his entire Australian rules football team.

Shop for ingredients for the food to be prepared the morning of your event.

Stock the bar.

Arrange the furniture for the party. This is a test run to ensure all the pieces fit – and can be moved easily. Rent or borrow any needed tables or chairs.

Purchase decorations.

Place order with florist.

Clean your home. Take this opportunity to do a deep clean, as you will already be moving some furniture.

 3 Days Out

Purchase perishable food items.

Let your neighbors know you will be having a party. Respect community noise expectations and ordinances. As hosts, our circle of concern also includes our neighbors.

Specify a place for coats.

Prepare a few clean up boxes with salt, club soda and rags and place strategically around the event area.

Decide what to wear.

Different styles of barware and stemware.

Different styles of barware and stemware.

 1 Day Out

Setup the decorations.

Pickup flowers from the florist.

If you are not using the services of a florist, buy and arrange flowers.

Complete all cooking that can be done now. If you are preparing food the day of the event, do as much prep work as possible the day before.

Set Up your bar area.

Arrange furniture, place tablecloths on tables, set out glassware, napkins and plates.

Review your lists. If you are missing anything, now is the time to purchase last minute items.

 Event Day

Several Hours Before

Buy ice.

Prepare day-of hors d’oeuvres.

Set out chairs.

Slice up all bar garnishes.

Get playlist cued up and ready.

2 Hours Before

Get dressed.

Chill beverages as needed.

30 Minutes Before

Set out water pitchers and glasses.

Set out room temperature food.

Place in a 125 degree oven food that will be served warm.

10 Minutes Before

Fill ice buckets.

Hit play on your music list.

Have a drink and get ready to greet your guests! (If guests bring a host gift, thank them and put it aside to open later. If your guest knows you are hosting a wine party, for example, and wants to bring a bottle to share at the party, it is acceptable to then open the gift. Guests should ask ahead of time if this is acceptable.)

Dealing with Poor Guests

Be a Good Host

In the U.S. we have lived with strong cultural imperatives to enjoin drunken guests from driving. Our litigiousness as a society has resulted in some bar owners being found liable in drunk driving cases. While you find such tactics loathsome, we as hosts are expected to keep drunks from leaving our parties and getting behind the wheel of the car. To this end, you may consider having a list of taxi numbers at the ready as well as a credit card number or cash on hand to pay the driver in advance.  You may also want to consider removing alcohol around the time you have indicated the party will end. You may continue to offer non-alcoholic beverages and coffee.

 How you choose to deal not only with drunken guests but guests exhibiting bad behavior is, quite frankly, your choice. All the advice columnists in the world won’t be at your party nor will they have to live with the consequences of your decision. I can guarantee you at some point you will be confronted with a guest or guests who won’t follow your dress code (which, remember, you’ve communicated in your invitation), will push others out of the way for food, make off-color jokes, light up a cigar when you’ve explicitly stated there is no smoking in the house or complain about smoking guests after you have stated smoking is permitted in your home, and just about every boorish action imaginable.

 Whether you choose to speak to the guest or guests directly or behind closed doors, or not at all, depends on who you are as individual, your cultural context and long-term consequences. Use your best judgement. You may choose to say nothing, knowing you will not invite this guest back. He or she may, however, be the spouse of someone extremely important to your career and you may choose to interact kindly as you keep a watchful eye on the situation. You aren’t seeking to ever scold or humiliate your guest but rather use humor and topics of interest to do what every gentleman must do on occasion: save people from themselves.

 In the balance, even with the occasional difficult guest, entertaining can bring a lifetime of warm feelings and generosity from others. You are doing something few people dare to do and you do it with a sense of openness and adventure. You are willing to create an environment where others feel cared for. Your reward, if you put thought and care into your plan, will be great memories for you and many years of other people sharing with you the great memories you created, by your will, your maturity and your mastery.

 Entertainment is always about hospitality and creating an environment where guests feel cared for. Your growing mastery of entertaining will gain you many admirers and instill in you growing self-confidence. Your skill in the soft arts of caring for others will pay dividends for a lifetime.

14 replies
  1. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    This needs to be published in booklet form. It’s an excellent primer for wine pairing as well as an invaluable guide to stocking a cocktail party. I’m recommending this to all of my friends.

  2. Hristo
    Hristo says:

    Very interesting and informative article.
    Of course the amount of bottles should be adapted to the tastes of the guests if you know them better. For example I know that some friends of mine are scotch/irish whiskey/cognac fans and I would prefer to have some extra bottles of these.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] you are attending a formal dinner, a cocktail party or hosting an informal dinner, the art of conversation is a skill that can be mastered. People who […]

  2. […] quality brandy, there are a number of classic drinks that call for it and that you can serve at a cocktail party.  In these cases, I recommend a less expensive and younger bottle, rather than something worthy of […]

  3. […] mastered the art of the cocktail party and you know how to behave at a formal  and informal dinner.  Now you want to invite your […]

Comments are closed.