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Posted: 5:01 p.m. Monday, Dec. 24, 2012

How to set up a home bar for parties


Cherry garnished drinks photo
Don't forget the maraschino cherries when you buy the garnishes for your party drinks.
Edible wild Hibiscus flowers photo
Edible wild Hibiscus flowers in a syrup is one idea for garnishes that guests won't soon forget.

By Alexis Larsen and Craig Schrolucke

The Lounge Lizards

Planning a cocktail party? Perfect hors d'oeuvres? Check. Perfect guest list? Check. Perfect decorations? Check.

But what about perfect beverages? What do you need? How much to you need? What will people want to drink?

While the Lounge Lizards can't predict the future, we can help you get your beverage situation under control by sharing some of our favorite tips and suggestions on how to stock your bar. And don't worry — a well-provisioned party with a basic bar doesn't need to cost an arm and a leg; a toe, maybe, but for what it can bring to your perfect evening, it's a sacrifice worth making.

Bar tools

Setting up your bar doesn't have to be complicated. If you're thinking about offering cocktails to your guests, you'll want to be sure to have the basic bar tools on hand.

A cocktail shaker, bar spoon, bottle opener, bar book with recipes, jigger (measuring device), ice bucket and, depending on the beverages you plan on serving, appropriate glassware. Skip the plastic; there's nothing worse than a great cocktail served in plastic except a bad cocktail served in plastic.

Tip: If you'd like to go one step further and pull out all the stops to impress your guests, don't forget to have a bar knife, zester or vegetable peeler on hand to add garnishes that are simple and sure to carry a wow factor.

The mixers

A good cocktail, like a house, is only as good is its foundation. So, if you plan to offer your guests a full bar, you will want to be sure to include the following: cranberry, grapefruit, tomato and orange juice, a variety of diet and regular soda, sweet and sour mix, grenadine, tonic water, ginger ale, lime juice, club soda, simple syrup, Red Bull and bitters.

Tip: If you don't know the drinking habits of your guests, you might consider purchasing the smallest containers of each of the mixers. Not only will your cocktails be fresher, if your guests drink differently than you planned, you will be able to save and use any unopened, unused mixers for another occasion.

Tip: Be sure to keep in mind that your cocktail will only be as good as its ingredients. The mixers are not the place you want to be skimping on in order to save money. Be sure to buy the name brand products. Sometimes off brands taste exactly the same and sometimes they don't even come close — tonic water is probably the best example of this. A holiday party isn't the place to experiment — our advice is to go with the sure thing.

The garnishes

Fresh lemons and limes are a must. You might also consider other fruits to use as garnishes, such as clementines, blood oranges, grapes, raspberries, grapefruit or almost anything else you think might go well, and, please, don't forget the maraschino cherries. Mint, thyme and basil also make great garnishes if you're looking for something a little green to add a little extra pizzazz.

Another idea for a garnish with a major wow factor that guests will not soon forget are edible wild Hibiscus flowers in a syrup that tastes like a blend of rhubarb and raspberries. Placed in glasses of champagne or sparkling wine with a little syrup they can dress up a cheaper bottle, both in flavor and in a classy appearance. It takes virtually no time to do (for video of this being done, see our blog item on hibiscus flowers). The visual effect of the flower dancing around the streaming bubbles is dramatic and impressive, and it really can make a lesser bottle of bubbly taste much better than it actually is. The jars, which come 11 to an $11 container or a "party pack" of 50 for $35 can be ordered on the company's Web site — — which also boasts some truly terrific cocktail recipes for the holidays and beyond that give new meaning to the words flower power.

Tip: If you're looking to be creative without making a lot of extra work for yourself, frozen fruit can double as unusual, colorful ice cubes. You can go with anything from grapes to sliced star fruit to pomegranate — be creative. This is an easy way to impress your guests.

Tip: Our other suggestion would be to make your own ice. We love our icemakers, but a sprig of mint or basil placed in an ice tray filled with water and frozen will show your guests that you're creative and care enough to plan. You and your companions will enjoy added bursts of flavor from the mint or basil if you use hot water to fill your ice trays. The hot water helps to release the oils from the herbs and infuses the ice with added flavors.

The liquor

Shopping at your favorite party store is a lot easier than it might seem. You can find some lower-proof liquors (proof is bar talk for the percentage of alcohol) at stores that sell beer and wine, but the good stuff is at the state liquor stores. If you're just looking for the basics and don't care about the quality or taste of your cocktails, shop from the bottom shelf (we don't recommend this, but it is an option). If you kind of like your guests, shop from the middle shelf. If you really like your guests, and your budget allows it, shop from the top shelf — the party is sure to be merrier and you'll earn high marks from any lounge lizards in attendance.

The basic bar should include a bottle of tequila, vodka, light rum, gin, triple sec, dry vermouth and whiskey. For the run of the mill or bottom shelf brands these seven bottles of liquor should set you back about $75. The top shelf versions of the same liquors will set you back about $150 to $200, depending on your tastes.

Once you have the basics in your cart, you're ready to think about any extras. In recent years, there has been an explosion of brands and flavors of vodkas, gins, bourbons and liqueurs available on store shelves. Even Starbucks has lent its name to a coffee-flavored liqueur. Look around for ingredients that inspire you. There are so many options out there for making creative concoctions that it's worth spending some time looking to see if there's anything that grabs your attention.

Tip: You will probably be tempted, but don't buy the cheapest stuff. While some of the cost of premium liquors and liqueurs goes to pay for the marketing, much of the difference in price between the least expensive and the most expensive brands is related to the production process. Just as connoisseurs of fine wines can taste the differences between different vineyards, discerning connoisseurs of fine cocktails will be able to discern the difference between top shelf and bottom shelf ingredients.


There are many ways of planning just how much liquor you'll need. One way would be to poll your guests ahead of time regarding their beverage preferences. If you see a trend emerging as your guests are requesting the same drink, you'll know what you need to stock in your bar and what you don't. "The Guide to Ridiculously Easy Entertaining" by Mike Riccetti and Michael Wells suggests party planners should bank on two drinks per guest for the first hour and one drink per hour for each additional hour of a party. The authors also suggest that about half of your guests will drink cocktails, so be prepared for the other half of the party who will be searching out other beverages.

Keep in mind that the basic mixed drink has about 2 ounces of hard liquor, which yields roughly 12 drinks per 750-milliliter bottle at the bar. For wine drinkers, there are four glasses per 750-milliliter bottle.

Never forget that a good party host will keep an eye on guests to make sure they're drinking responsibly and have a safe way home after the party has ended.

Drinks by the pitcher

Good party planning is all about options. The more options you have, the more likely you and your guests are to enjoy the party. If your party includes a large number you might consider making your drinks by the pitcher, which can help in preventing traffic jams. There are several advantages of making your drinks this way. First, much of the work can be done ahead of time, allowing you to spend more time with your guests. Second, you can better estimate how much of everything you're going to need — hopefully, eliminating that embarrassing moment when you run out of something. Third, preparing your drinks ahead of time gives you more options. Just like a mixer, the beverage you've created in your pitcher can be used as a base for cocktails or mocktails (alcohol-free cocktails).

Tip: Notice in each of the recipes below we used parts rather than ounces. This allows you to easily scale your recipes up or down based on the number of guests you are anticipating.

Here's one way this scenario could play out:

Let's start with the basic punch recipe ...

Party punch

  • 1 part cranberry juice
  • 1 part grapefruit juice
  • Add to the pitcher and stir.
  • Fill a rocks or highball glass with ice cubes and then fill glass with punch.
  • Glass: Rocks or highball
  • Garnish: Optional

Tip: Cut fresh fruit into small pieces, pat dry. Spread fruit out across a cookie sheet and place on sheet in the freezer for several hours. Remove from freezer and use as ice in your party punch.

Want some fizz?

Fill a glass with ice cubes and then add punch about 2/3 of the way up. Top off with ginger ale or sprite.

Want to make a cocktail?

How about a classic — the Sea Breeze

  • 3 parts party punch
  • 2 parts grapefruit flavored vodka
  • Add ice, vodka and party punch to a drink shaker. Shake gently and pour into ice filled glass.
  • Glass: Collins or rocks glass
  • Garnish: Lime

How about a Cosmo?

  • 1 part vodka
  • 1/2 part Cointreau/Triple Sec
  • 1 part party punch
  • 1 splash lime juice
  • Add ice, vodka, Cointreau, party punch and lime juice to a drink shaker. Shake and pour into chilled martini glasses. Garnish and serve.
  • Glass: Martini
  • Garnish: Orange twist

Starting with our basic party punch recipe and just a few variations, we were able to make three additional drinks. And that's the tip of the iceberg — the possibilities really are endless, both for the base punch and for the cocktails made with it. Sound easy? That's because it is. So carry on with your party planning — we raise our glasses in a toast to you as we're sure your future guests will also do. Cheers!

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