A Bartender Journey guest post by Bruce Harlick, a Bartender Journey Podcast listener and Cocktail Enthusiast. Bruce blogs about cocktails (and other stuff) at Foxbat's Secret Lair.
Last month, I declared the last Thursday of each month to be Tiki Thursday - a good excuse to invite friends over to my apartment for Tiki drinks and good conversation. The inaugural event in July was for about 15 people and a resounding success. The lessons I learned will be useful for the next one and can be broken down in three categories: Planning, Preparation, and Execution and are key for any home based cocktail event.
Keep It Simple..
Choose a simple menu; for my event, I chose 3 drinks. Tiki cocktail making is complicated you don’t want to memorize several recipes and need to refer to your notes for ingredients. My 3 drinks were: the Hula Skirt, the Lava Flow and a Pisco Punch, (recipes below). This made my life much easier (though not as easy as it might have been; more on that in a bit.)
I printed out the menu and displayed it in an acrylic stand at the edge of my bar. Guests could see the cocktail menu with ingredients and where the recipe came from. This small touch added a “wow” factor.
…but Offer Diverse Drinks
I’m a cocktail wonk who really, really loves bitter tastes in my drinks and most Tiki drinks are built with rum as a base spirit. Not everyone likes a bitter taste or rum itself. To offer a drink for everyone, I chose one bitter cocktail (the Hula Skirt), a classic, sweet cocktail (the Lava Flow), and a non-rum cocktail with an homage to my resident city, San Francisco (the Pisco Punch.)
Additionally, I had about a half dozen bottles of pre-made cocktails from the Napa Valley Distillery, ranging from a Mint Julep to a Daiquiri. These were an alternative for people who wanted something less complex that didn’t require bartending skills; it was easy enough to pour them over ice in a glass.
Look for Common Ingredients, Methods and Bar Tools
The last, and most important, planning lesson is to find recipes with common ingredients. I was moderately successful with the Hula Skirt and the Pisco Punch. Both use fresh lime juice, the same type of glassware, and are shaken. But the Lava Flow used a completely different set of ingredients, glassware, and preparation method, which turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass.
Do The Prep Work in Advance
A weeknight party after work = limited time to get ready. Shopping and syrups were done ahead of time - pineapple cordial and SC Coconut Cream the night before although the strawberry puree was made the day of as soon as I got home from the office. I squeezed over two dozen limes and had the squeeze bottle handy for when I was mixing drinks. This cut down on time and avoided confusion on what to use.
*Garnish at the Go – What I did NOT prep was drink garnishes and I didn’t have time to make garnishes on a drink-by-drink basis. Even simple things like paper umbrellas should be opened and ready to get added to the glass before you start mixing cocktails.
Batch Your Cocktails
Once thing I did do right was to batch a bunch of Hula Skirts and Pisco Punches before my guests arrived. I was worried about leftovers (silly me) so I only mixed up about 8 of each drink, in large glass bottles with pour spouts. Having the fresh, pre-mixed drinks was a blessing; I just had to measure 3 ounces into my shaker, add ice, shake, strain and serve. Initial service was faster but things really slowed down towards the end of the evening when I creating each one by hand and was tired.
*I failed to batch the basic parts for the Lava Flows which made it another bad choice for the evening.
Set Up A Thoughtful Work Space
We have a nice counter peninsula in the kitchen that I set up as my bar. Bottles were arranged so that each drink’s ingredients was organized with shared ingredients between the groupings. This version of the speed rack made it easy to make each cocktail; I worked either left to right (or right to left) from the start of each group.
I also had an area for tools and an absorbent surface for mixing. This kept the counter clean and minimized spills for easy rinsing and return to service if needed.
Finally, I the bottles of pre-mixed cocktails on the far side of the counter, easily accessible to the guests to identify and pour themselves , if they desired.
*Glassware Grab: What I failed to do was set out my glassware in a coherent pattern or place, so I was constantly running back and forth to get glasses from different shelves and cabinets. Next time I’ll try to set them up near my workspace within easy reach.
Working the Event
So the party was a lot of fun and working “behind the bar” was a blast. However, I did take away one, big, important lesson from this:
I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t know how the professionals do this. I was serving a small, friendly (and patient) crowd from a very limited menu for about 3 hours. I was totally exhausted by the end. Granted, I did this after a full day of work at my day job (which is pretty sedentary as making video games doesn’t take a lot of physical effort) but hats off to those bartenders who pull those amazing 10 - 12 hour shifts, like Mr. Bartender Journey himself, Brian Weber.
I pretty much spent my entire evening in the kitchen, slinging drinks. This was fine; my friends will filter in to chat and get a new cocktail so I had a chance to talk with most of them. However, it would have been nice to have time to circulate. A few friends volunteered their services as bar backs and/or relief bartenders for the next event; I think I’m going to take them up on that.
Another side effect of trying this solo this was that my food plan fell completely apart. I managed to get out the initial round of hot hors d'oeuvres before things really started hopping and that was it. Having some help to get things in and out of the oven, keeping the chip bowls filled, etc., would have been excellent and you can bet I’ll have someone doing that next time.
Bad Menu Choices
I alluded to the Lava Flow as not being a great choice. While people loved the drink and it looked pretty dramatic when I poured it correctly, it was a real pain in the ass to make. I don’t have a drink mixer, so these were done in a blender and my blender kind of sucks. It was noisy and took awhile for the optimal blend. The strawberry puree didn’t pour very well and I ran out far too soon with no time to make more. Upon reflection, I would have picked something else as the accessible drink.
They were popular though.
Hosting a cocktail event is a lot of work but can be a lot of fun. Just a little planning and preparation can go a long way towards making sure that you, as the host, enjoy the event as much as your guests do.
Oh, one last piece of advice: Wear comfortable shoes.
2 oz White Rum
2 oz pineapple juice
2 oz homemade cream of coconut
few pieces of fresh pineapple
1 1/2 oz of strawberry puree
Throw everything but the strawberry puree into a blender, add some ice, and blend until smooth. Pour the strawberry puree into a hurricane glass and then pour the mixture from the blender over that, letting the puree swirl up to make a pretty "lava flow" pattern. Garnish with a piece of pineapple and a paper umbrella.
Adapted from Tiki Drinks: Tropical Cocktails for the Modern Bar