Retro cocktails are back with a vengeance. There are reasons for that. Yes, Mad Men plays its part, with bars across the country whipping up Draper-appropriate quaffs. Some of it is a what's-old-is-new-again affection for the Prohibition-era speakeasy vibe. A great deal of it is because there are increasingly gifted bartenders out there looking for ways to demonstrate their mad skills. And still more of it is because there has been a renaissance among American distillers, with artisanal bourbons, gins and even bitters rendering the building blocks of classic cocktails that much more delicious. ? Time for a retro cocktail party, fedoras and kitten heels optional. The theme can impact a party's invitations, decor, soundtrack and nibbles (deviled eggs or pigs in a blanket, anyone?) — but most of all, it provides a clear focus for what to imbibe.
Plan of action
Being the bartender at your own party is a bad idea. This is why you need to think creatively. Consider having a "happy hour" at a party's start where you exercise your Tom Cruise shaker skills, then switch to beer and wine, or array the essentials of the retro cocktail arsenal and leave the guests to it (bonus points if you print recipes for classic cocktails and let guests go mad-retro-scientist).
Assembling a big batch of retro cocktails is also a fun tactic, but remember that you can't make them too far in advance because juices will turn sour after several hours of commingling with booze. For this reason, all-alcohol cocktails like Manhattans or martinis may be the way to go.
Stocking the bar
Here are the basic building blocks:
Whiskeys: Some of the biggies like Manhattans or old-fashioneds call for bourbon (or rye), but Scotch is more of a "stand-alone," less often an ingredient in mixed drinks.
Gin: The classic is a gin martini, natch, but try a bee's knees or a gin fizz for something extra festive. A negroni is also sophisticated, pairing gin with sweet vermouth and Campari. A brand like Hendrick's goes especially well with cooling cucumber in the summer months.
Vodka: It's a wild world in vodka these days, with flavors from cotton candy to bacon. Stay simple with a familiar brand like Stoli or Grey Goose, or show a little local pride with a bottle of Tampa-based Florida Cane vodka (available at Total Wine).
Tequila: Jimmy Buffett's muse overshadows so many other gorgeous options here, from the grapefruity paloma to the good old tequila sunrise. Tequila is one category where quality matters: Ditch the Jose Cuervo in favor of a reposado from Herradura or Don Julio.
Rum: This is one of the world's largest booze categories, but a bottle of Bacardi light will get you most of where you want to go, from a blue Hawaiian to Hemingway's beloved daiquiri (not a girlie drink at all).
Brandy: Brandy cocktails have the best names: the valedictorian's assistant, the statesman's treat, between the sheets. It's a big category that includes fancy stuff like Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados, but a bottle of E&J VSOP brandy gets the job done cheaply.
Vermouth, sweet and dry: Martini & Rossi works just fine, but fancy new vermouths such as Atsby have made the category more interesting (still, you're usually only using a splash, so a splurge isn't necessary).
Mixers: Seltzer or club soda, cola, lemonade or lemon-lime soda, ginger ale or ginger beer all work. Remember: With anything bubbly, buy individual cans, not big bottles, to ensure effervescence.
Garnishes: Citrus wedges and twists (a vegetable peeler works fine); cocktail onions and Spanish, pimento-stuffed or blue cheese-stuffed olives (put the olive juice out in a little labeled pitcher for "dirty" martinis). Eschew electric-pink marachino cherries in favor of deep red Luxardo cherries (available on Amazon and at Williams-Sonoma).
How much booze to buy
A standard bottle of wine or liquor (often called a fifth) holds 750 milliliters, or a little over 25 ounces. Let's say you're pre-batching a pitcher of margaritas that uses 8 1/2 ounces of tequila. You'll get almost three pitchers of margaritas from one bottle of tequila. That same size bottle of gin or bourbon will make 16 individual drinks. Plan accordingly.
You need a traditional cocktail shaker with a strainer (or a Boston shaker, which is a glass that fits inside a metal shaker). Some cocktails (margaritas, fizzes) really need to be shaken vigorously. A jigger is essential for measuring (don't even think about eyeballing it). A long-handled bar spoon stirs effectively; a one-handed citrus juicer is a boon; and a muddler is necessary to crush fresh fruit or bruise mint.
Barware can be limited to plastic highball glasses, or you can spend time trolling thrift shops for martini, cordial and lowball glasses or old-timey snifters.
Then there's ice. Cracked ice is best for shaken cocktails because it gets drinks very cold. Cubed ice (kitchenware stores have molds for big cubes and spheres, very cool) works best for stirred drinks because it melts slowly. Bagged ice is best used for keeping bottles cold (these cubes often incorporate a lot of air and thus melt quickly, often with "off" flavors). An ice bucket and tongs keep it classy.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.