LaTanya White has the recipe for holiday spirits.
"There's more to life than vodka and tonic," says White, 29, a full-time mixologist. White, who splits her time between Tampa and Tallahassee, owns 71 Proof, a bar catering and consulting company that brings the party to weddings, corporate functions and other private events. The holidays, White says, are the perfect occasion to branch out from your usual cocktail.
The key to successful Yuletide bartending is to incorporate as many senses as possible. For instance, wine is nice, but sparkling wine will tickle your nose and make you feel extra-festive. Add to that a dose of gin, whose juniper berries are reminiscent of a Christmas tree, and everything turns a cheery red. Garnish with cranberries for a libation that evokes sight, smell, taste and even touch.
"It brings the whole experience," White says of the drink, an original creation she calls Mistletoe. If you're on a budget, then it's better to stock the bar with a few top-shelf bottles than to offer mediocre versions of everything.
"It's the quality of the ingredients, just like with beef," White says. "You have your Grade A, then you have what you would give to the dog."
For family gatherings, eggnog can be a crowd-pleaser. Leave it as is for the kids, or spike it with a spiced rum or Cognac for the grown folks. At an office party, Irish coffee is a no-brainer because there's always coffee at the office. Fix yours the way you like it, stir in a splash of Irish whiskey and top with whipped cream. For something different on New Year's Eve, White try a sparkling wine that isn't champagne, like lemony Prosecco from Italy or a Spanish Cava.
For the home bar, non-potable essentials include cocktail shakers, a 16-ounce mixing glass, strainer, ice tongs — for sanitation's sake — and towels for easy cleanup. To really feel like you're doing big things, get a condiment caddy for around $25 at Bed Bath & Beyond, and decorate the countertop with Christmas greenery. Keep crushed candy canes on hand to rim everyone's glass.
So maybe playing bartender doesn't require a dozen on-call staffers, training from the American Bartending School in Tampa, acknowledgement as one of the country's top 100 mixologists at a summit in Vail, Colo., or your own cocktail lounge slated to open New Year's Eve, 2009, in Tallahassee — all of which White has.
"Just to be a bartender, would you need all that? No," says Michael Lynch, senior culinary management instructor at the Art Institute of Tampa, where White is enrolled in the wines, spirits and beverage management program. But, Lynch says, a trained professional is more aware of the legal and food safety issues that accompany bartending. "And her breadth and scope, in terms of knowledge of wines and signature drinks and proper planning, appearance, presentation, all that would certainly be beneficial at a private function," he says.
Another benefit? Hiring someone to mix drinks at your party means you can actually enjoy your guests. A gathering for 50 to 75 people would cost about $150, White says.
"You want to be a part of the party," she says, "but you can't be a good host and bartend."