Being able to offer your guests a pre-dinner cocktail, particularly in the warmer months, is a necessity for good entertaining. As you may know if you follow this blog, I usually make a specific cocktail for each event and I try to find something inventive that goes well with the day's appetizers. For more formal occasion I offer up a Champagne cocktail of some variety. But with summer upon us I return to a group of basic cocktails usually served outdoors.
Mixers: To make a wide-range of cocktails you need to have some basic ingredients on hand. These include sweet and sour cocktail mix, simple syrup (cooked sugar water), sour apple schnapps, cranberry juice, olives and lemons/limes (or lemon/lime juice). I also like to have a few flavored syrups handy such as those made by Monin, particularly those related to summer fruits and berries. Of course grenadine is often called for in many recipes, which is actually the flavor of pomegranate taking its name from the Spanish word for the fruit. So keeping a bottle of this on hand is also a good idea. I realize this is a significant list of mixers, but this list will set you up for the summer and give you the ability to make a large number of cocktails throughout the year.
Bitters: As bitters has made a come back, I thought I should also include a note about this special item. A bitters is an alcoholic beverage flavored with herbal essences and has a bitter or bittersweet flavor. The function of the bitters is to bring together the spirit flavors and mellow them. Angostura bitters is widely available and can be used in a Manhattan or Martini. However, a dash of a good quality orange bitters, such as Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6 is my preference and makes a world of difference in the classic Martini.
Liquor/Spirits: Now on to the primary ingredients. Here I keep a smaller variety sticking to just a good quality rum, gin and vodka. Add a bottle of dry vermouth, and you are ready for the basic and always popular Martini or any flavored Martini-like drink you care to make by adding one of the above flavors. Using this method you can avoid purchasing too many flavored liquors and simply mix your own when you need them. With that said, my summer bar service wouldn't be complete without coconut rum, which I generously add to Coca-Cola in the summer time.
Equipment: Of course to mix and serve the drinks you'll need some basic equipment and the appropriate glass. For the equipment you'll simply need a cocktail shaker with strainer (built in or separate), a shot measuring glass, cocktail napkins, and straws (both tall and short). Keep in mind that a U.S. standard shot is 1.5 fluid ounces and many recipes set out the ingredients in ounces. So do not assume a shot is an ounce or your cocktail will be overly strong. I keep two cocktail mixing vessels (as shown below). One is larger (shown in blue) and is good for stirred drinks for four people. it comes with it's own glass stir, but you could use most any stir that is long and thin. I also keep the cocktail shaker with built in strainer which typically holds enough for two cocktails.
Glassware: Once you've mixed your drinks you now need to serve them appropriately. Nothing says 'oh my!' quite like serving your lovingly prepared cocktail in the wrong glass or worse yet, a plastic cup. The main glasses you'll need are the Martini glass, the highball and the rocks glass. These come in all shapes and sizes but I would recommend you use a mid-sized version of each. I'm particularly fond of the more narrow (2 1/4 - 2 3/4 inch diameter) highball as they look less like a water glass and are easier to hold and appear more elegant. You may also want to have a margarita glass on hand if you do frozen drinks in the summer time.
Cocktails Types and Recipes: Now that you are all stocked up and ready to make them for your guests, you'll need to decide what to serve. I like to think of cocktails in these categories: up, highball, rocks, champagne, frozen, and punch. As you can tell these mostly refer to the type of glass they will be served in. This is a good way to think about it because you may not have all available glasses in the quantity you need for your guests. If you do have plenty of glassware but want instead to focus on a particularly type of base liquor, then consider this About.com cocktail guide. Here you can start with any flavor or liquor you prefer and then view related recipes. I also like to use Tippler's Taxonomy when considering cocktail options.
Now some of you may ask what about whiskey, cognac and other drinks. Well there are some whiskey cocktails I generally stick to the above. If I have some leftover whiskey in the house that I'm trying to use up I may make a whiskey sour or a 7&&. However I prefer to use whiskey, cognac and other related drinks as digestives served after dinner and after cordials (which are liqueurs of sweet distilled spirits with a base liquor, sugar and a variety of fruits, herbs and spices) and served with or just after the dessert. And that's another subject completely that I will leave for another day!