Whisky is always a good reason to get people together, and a cocktail party makes it even more fun. “Whisky is great for a cocktail party because it’s so versatile,” says Pamela Wiznitzer, mixologist at Henry at the Life Hotel. Everyone from connoisseurs to brown spirit newbies can enjoy trying new flavors and learning about whisky—and you don’t need to be a pro bartender to pull it off.
As the host, you get to decide what theme—if any—you want for the night (perhaps one style of whisky or one region) and what tempting libations to serve. That also means you can decide how much work you want to put into it. Even simple decorations, appetizers, and punch will impress guests, or you can get them in on the fun by having DIY cocktail stations, or go all-out with a shaken signature cocktail served at an intimate dinner party.
Whatever the night calls for, these pro tips will help you throw a whisky cocktail party that everyone will enjoy and be talking about.
Set the Scene
To keep the whisky theme, you can reuse empty whisky bottles as vases for flowers, or thread battery-powered twinkle lights into old bottles (remove the labels first) to create soft mood lighting, suggests Seri Kertzner, founder of Little Miss Party Planner. She also advises simple décor: print out and frame quotes about whisky, arranging them around the room.
When it comes to feeding your guests, keep it easy. After all, the cocktails are the focus. You can’t go wrong with a charcuterie board of cheese, sliced meats, seasoned nuts, olives, dried fruit, and crusty bread, crackers, or even nice flavored chips, Kertzner says. “Who wants to be a slave to the kitchen at their own party? This is super simple, feeds a crowd, and there’s no limit” to what you can include, she explains.
Gear Up: Bar Tools, Glassware, Ice, and Alcohol
If you already have a cocktail shaker set, you’re set. If not, there’s no need to go out and buy a million bar tools. “A lot of people don’t know how to use shakers—that’s how messes start—and bar spoons don’t work that well,” Wiznitzer says. She recommends using mason jars instead of shakers—use the regular lid to shake, then switch to a lid with holes to pour. (You can even punch your own holes—carefully—using an ice pick or nail) For stirred drinks, use nice chopsticks, which work well to move the liquid and ice.
The one tool you do need, however, is a jigger. Inaccurate portions make a cocktail go south fast.
Have a little fun with the glassware. If you have a small gathering, Wiznitzer recommends going to a thrift or vintage store to search for sets, or mix and match and pick a variety of glasses. You can also buy disposable glassware or rent glasses, if you’re having a large party.
When you choose the glasses, keep in mind what drinks you will be serving, such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, or Highballs. It’s easier and cheaper if you stick to cocktails that require the same glasses, of course. You’ll also want glasses for water, and for any wine or beer you’re serving.
Depending on the length of the party, you’ll need about a pound and a half of ice per person. Make ice balls, large rocks, or shaped ice for punches up to two days beforehand. “Get more ice than you think you need, and get an extra cooler just to fill ice with, because it’s hard to assess,” Wiznitzer recommends.
Make sure to have plenty of ingredients for garnishes. Some cocktails require just a simple lemon or orange twist or a high-quality cocktail cherry. Impress your guests by making your own cherries, or add edible flowers or candied ginger for extra wow effect. Don’t forget to stock up on eye-catching cocktail picks.
The amount of alcohol you need depends on your guests and the length of the party. For a get-together that’s about three hours long, heavy drinkers will have two to five drinks and light drinkers will have one to three, Wiznitzer says. If you aren’t sure about your guests’ drinking habits, plan for two drinks per guest the first hour and another drink for every hour beyond that.
From there, it’s simple math. According to Wiznitzer, one 750-ml. bottle of whisky will give you 25 one-ounce pours or 12 cocktails, and a 1-liter bottle is roughly 34 ounces, or 17 cocktails. (If you’re mixing for a crowd, consider going for 1.75-liter bottles, which offer real bang for your buck.) But don’t feel you have to spend big. “If you are making punch or shaken cocktails, save the Blanton’s—you don’t need expensive whisky,” Wiznitzer says, advising that brands like Four Roses Yellow Label or Old Overholt Bonded Straight rye make excellent cocktails.
Making the Drinks
Although it’s a cocktail party, it’s best to offer some whisky straight since not everyone loves mixed drinks. Wiznitzer recommends a self-serve tasting station with three to four different styles of whisky, including at least one that’s a bit unusual or special. Place glasses out and have a name card for each bottle saying where it’s from, the proof level, and one or two interesting facts.
Or let your guests have a try with a build-your-own cocktail station; the Old Fashioned is perfect for this since it’s simple. Print out a card explaining how to make the drink. Set out bourbon with a 2-ounce jigger, along with different sweeteners—try simple syrup, maple syrup, and agave—and a few different types of bitters. Make sure there are glasses, ice, teaspoons for measuring the syrup, and chopsticks or spoons to stir. The Highball also works well as a self-serve; you just need whisky, ice, and soda.
For the cocktails you will make, keep it simple. “Unless you’re a professional bartender who knows how to handle large groups, there’s no need to get fancy,” Wiznitzer says. If you’re having a big party, consider doing a punch or pre-making cocktails. For smaller crowds, you can hand-make the drinks.
For a group of 20 to 30 people, make whisky punch the night before and serve it in a bowl or dispenser. “It’s the best way to get a drink in everyone’s hands easily,” Wiznitzer says. Kertzner notes that although a pitcher of punch may look nice, you’ll have to refill it more often.
The other option for a large crowd is to pre-batch and pre-bottle a cocktail. “A Boulevardier or Manhattan is phenomenal this way,” Wiznitzer says. “Let the bottles sit in an ice bucket and serve them straight or on ice.”
If you want to go the extra mile, have a signature cocktail that you shake or stir. “It’s always a hit; people go right for it,” says Kertzner, who suggests printing out and framing the recipe and placing it near your mixing station. The cocktail could be a recipe you develop yourself, or just something different from your usual Manhattan. (Try browsing our cocktail archive to find the perfect fit.)
Unless it’s an intimate group, avoid anything super complicated, and do as much prep work as possible before the party so it’s easy on the front end, but looks cool. Wiznitzer suggests a Whiskey Sour with cinnamon, allspice, or other flavored syrup that you make ahead of time. Simply add some spices to your regular simple syrup recipe, or rather than using water, mix the sugar with brewed tea or coffee. Or infuse scotch with rooibos tea and use that to make a Penicillin. “The smallest touch makes a huge difference,” she adds. “Nice glassware, simple garnishes, using name cards for sampling straight spirits—those details make your party shine and get guests even more excited to be there.”
Above all, have fun. It’s a cocktail party—it shouldn’t be too serious.