Cocktail Party Planning Guide: How to Create & Setup The Bar
In this section:
Creating A Bar
Cocktail party magic is the fun and surprise
of intricately decorated hors d'oeurves and beautiful, festive
cocktails appearing right before your eyes.
For this reason, it is important to hide the cocktail preparation magic (and mess) behind a raised serving shelf. A table is not a bar, therefore your cocktail party bar should, ideally, have a mixing area from 28-36" in height and a serving side from 38-42" in height.
If you plan for guests to make their own drinks, just allow a little more room behind the bar. Invariably, someone will step up to play bartender. And service should be a snap when you have pitchers of your signature drink pre-mixed and ready to pour.
If you don’t own a bar, creating one for your party is simple using the following:
A very sturdy table
Suggested: 48"W x 28"H x 24"D
Suggested: 31"W x 11"H x 11.5"
Non-slip carpet grid
Rectangle tablecloth for draping base table
Suggested: 60" x 84" or 104"
Alternate: 66" x 96" twin flat sheet
Square tablecloth for draping shelves
Suggested: 52" x 52"
2 twist ties
Base and Mixing Area
Start with a sturdy table approximately 28" high. You may use a very stable fold-out table, but a card table is not strong enough to support the weight and activity of a bar.
If possible, use tablecloths that complement and coordinate with your theme, otherwise you may use neutral colors, such as white, tan, or black.
Drape the base table with the rectangle tablecloth. A 60" x 104" tablecloth will drape the table to the floor on the front and two sides completely.
A 60" x 84" tablecloth will drape the table to the floor on the front and will be about 8" short on each end. Or, if one end is against the wall, you may adjust the tablecloth to cover one end and leave the other end mostly open. To drape the table:
Center the tablecloth on the table
Slide the tablecloth forward over the table until it almost touches the floor.
Measure 28" (or the height of your table, if different) along the floor, back from the front corner of the tablecloth.
Lift this point of the tablecloth up to the side edge of the table and pull taut.
Adjust position so that the tablecloth almost touches the floor along the front and side.
Optional: If the tablecloth does
not completely cover each end, you may slide the tablecloth to one
side to cover one end to the floor while leaving one end mostly open.
Use straight pins (alternate: thumb tacks or velcro) to pin the tablecloth to itself along the edge of the table to the cloth's end.
Repeat steps 4-7 for the other end of the table.
Next, use organizer shelves, or similar, to create a serving side to your bar. White organizer shelves by ClosetMaid measuring 31"W x 11”H x 11.5"D are the right size and add shelf space behind the bar. They are available for less than $15 online (2010) and at most discount stores.
To minimize movement, cut a piece of non-slip carpet grid to a size slightly larger than the width and depth of your organizer shelves. Spread this piece out in one of the two forward corners of the draped table.
Place the organizer shelves on the non-slip carpet grid so that the front is flush with the edge of the table. The serving side should be off-center at the left or right end of the base table.
Finally, drape the organizer shelves with your square tablecloth. Center the tablecloth over the shelves then slide the cloth forward to leave 3-4" overhang on the backside of the shelves. Use your duct tape to secure the tablecloth to the inside bottom of the top shelf and to the inside of the sides.
Now gather the corners on the front side of the tablecloth to create a swag in front of the shelves. To do this, from the corners of the tablecloth measure 3 inches toward the center.
From this point, gather the cloth in 3-inch pleats angling toward the same-side top corner of the shelves. Stop at the top of the table/bottom of the shelves. Pull the cloth tight across the side of the shelves and use a twist tie to secure the gather.
Repeat for the other side of the tablecloth and shelves.
You may optionally decorate the corners with beads, ribbons, greenery, or anything else related to your theme.
Nothing cheapens your party like plastic, so always use real glasses for cocktails indoors. Bar glasses are relatively cheap, but if you can’t afford them, rent them. Virtually all cocktails can be served in a double old-fashioned glass, which is a short tumbler that holds 12-14 ounces.
Martini glasses should be used for any drink served "up" (chilled, without ice), such as martinis, Manhattans, and cosmopolitans. Wine glasses should be used for serving wine, while margarita glasses are festive, but not required.
If you are not serving wine, double old-fashioned and martini glasses are all you need on hand for a cocktail party.
FYI: The purpose of stemware is to allow you to hold the glass without affecting the temperature of the cocktail or wine.
A quick search found that you can stock your bar with 36 double old-fashioned glasses and 12 martini glasses for about $80 + shipping. (Search for "double old fashioned" and "martini")
Highball glasses, taller and narrower than the double old-fashioned glass, are also nice to have on hand, but not required. These are
best for mixing a drink that requires several ingredients, such as a
Bloody Mary, Goombay Smash, or Long Island Iced Tea.
FYI: A Collins glass is a tall, skinny highball glass and is more about style than function.
Allow 2 double old-fashioned glasses per person when serving on-the-rocks cocktails. Keep a minimum of 4 martini glasses on hand or 1 for every 6 people.
For a martini party, 1 martini glass per guest is usually sufficient, and they are quick and easy to wash if you need more. You will also need at least one martini pitcher for a martini party.
If you are offering wine in addition to cocktails, multiply 1.5 times the number of guests you believe will choose this option. Alternatively, stock 1 wine glass for every 4 people.
You may also wish to include shot or cordial glasses, which may be used interchangeably. If you ever plan to have a dinner party, stock enough cordial glasses for the maximum number of guests that your dinner table will accommodate. This should be more than enough for your cocktail party, otherwise stock 6-8 cordial/shot glasses.
Once your party comes to life, never be surprised of what it can do. Trends catch on and suddenly everyone in the room may want a martini.
Keep a supply of disposable, clear, thin-plastic cups at the bar as a
backup. They will do the trick should
you run out of glasses.
The art of making cocktails utilizes a few mandatory and optional supplies as listed below:
Backup Plastic Cups Martini Pitcher Swizzles
Toothpicks Cocktail Umbrellas
Straws Salt Rimmer Cashews or Peanuts
A bowl and plastic cup are suggested for serving ice at a redneck/trailer park party, otherwise, do not attempt a cocktail party without an ice bucket & tongs. Even with an ice maker in the bar area, a filled ice bucket at the bar is recommended.
For a 2-hour cocktail party, plan on using 1-2 beverage napkins per guest. However, it largely depends on if the bartender hands them out with each cocktail. It is always a good idea to keep backup napkins behind the bar.
Stocking the Bar
When planning how much and what kind of alcohol to purchase, remember that it is always better to have too much than not enough. Allow for 3 cocktails per person for a 2-hour cocktail party and 2 martinis per person for a 2-hour martini party.
It is perfectly acceptable to use mid-grade liquors for mixed drinks. Few people can honestly tell the difference when using Svedka Vodka, Jim Beam Bourbon, Seagram’s Blended Whiskey, Cruzan Rum, Gilbey’s Gin, or Sauza Tequila instead of premium brand liquors when mixed with juices or sodas.
However, what they see you pouring is a different story and many claim they can tell the difference. Choose your liquors based upon what is important to you.
You should always use premium brands for cocktails served without juices or soda such as martinis, Manhattans, scotch on the rocks, bourbon & water, etc.
Below are prioritized lists of liquor and liqueur selections to fully stock your bar:
Vodka Bourbon Gin Light
Rum Scotch Tequila Blended Whiskey
Coconut Rum Cognac
Dry Vermouth Sweet Vermouth Triple Sec Kahlua Chambord Sour Apple Pucker Amaretto Bailey's Irish Cream
Grand Marnier Drambuie
Buying 1.75 liter bottles for your primary liquors is much more economical, plus this size features a built-in pourer.
Mixers and Garnishes
Only use freshly opened carbonated mixers, if there is even an inkling that there is less than maximum fizzle, throw it out. For your cocktail party, 1- and 2-liter bottles are acceptable as mixers.
For stocking a bar for impromptu parties, it is best to store 12-ounce bottles or cans to reduce waste and ensure fizzy sodas.
Not all juices are equal. Know your juices and what brands taste best, then stock those brands. Canned orange juice is not acceptable, while canned pineapple juice tastes great as long as it is immediately transferred to a glass or plastic pitcher after opening.
Some juices stay fresh tasting longer, such as orange and cranberry juice, while others have a much shorter shelf-life, such as pineapple juice. For everyday use, stock your bar with individual size servings of pineapple juice.
Juices made from concentrate take much less room to store and are handy for a spur of the moment gathering for cocktails. And remember, limeade is not lime juice, lemonade is not lemon juice, and a lemon is not a lime.
Use unsweetened lime juice, whether fresh squeezed or from a bottle. Sweetened lime juice has a distinct flavor that should only be used if the recipe specifically calls for it.
Tonic Water Club Soda Orange Juice Cranberry Juice Pineapple Juice Grapefruit Juice Coke or Pepsi Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi Sprite or 7-up Ginger Ale
Water Simple Syrup (sugar water) Margarita Mix Grenadine Unsweetened
Lime Juice Sweet & Sour Mix Bitters Bloody Mary Mix Cream of Coconut Cream
Limes Lemons & Twists
Cocktail Onions Oranges Maraschino Cherries Pineapple Mint Apple Chocolate Berries
For Bloody Marys: Celery Horseradish Black Pepper Hot Sauce Worcestershire Sauce
For Rimming: Salt Celery Salt Sugar
Ice For a 2-hour cocktail party, stock a little less than one pound of ice per person.