A professional caterer’s guide to help you plan your next soirée
The most memorable events are not the extravagant affairs with grand cru wines and caviar canapés. Nor are they the parties with all the right people in chi-chi black outfits. Rather, they are the get-togethers where the host had invested thought into small touches for our pleasure. If you’re hosting a party or event, here are some entertaming tips that will help make your guests feel pampered and keep you engaged with your guests.
How much is enough?
If you’re holding your event at a hotel or resort, the banquet manager can advise you of how much alcohol you’ll need, as can caterers, event or liquor store consultants or a bartender helping you in your home.
If you plan to organize the event yourself, count on one drink per guest per hour, and up to two drinks per hour if guests are staying overnight or have prearranged transportation home. Most people tend to drink less at afternoon receptions than they do during evening functions. However, you will want to be generous with your estimates so that you have an adequate supply and don’t run short. Unopened bottles can usually be returned, but check with your supplier in advance.
Most people drink more with food, so if you are having a sit-down dinner, calculate two drinks per guest per hour to be on the safe side.
One alcoholic drink is equivalent to one bottle of beer, five ounces of wine or two ounces of spirits or liqueurs. However, there are some questions you should consider before stocking your bar.
What to serve?
The type of celebration, the number of guests and your budget determine the ideal mix. Take into consideration the drink preferences of your guests: Are they most likely to drink wine, spirits or non-alcoholic beverages? Older guests often prefer spirits while younger drinkers favour wine and spritzers. Even those drinking alcohol will want to pace themselves with some non-alcoholic beverages such as sparkling water and fruit juice. Offer a non-alcoholic punch and soft drinks as well as juice and milk for any children attending.
The right drinks can personalize your celebration. Serving wines from one country or vintage can give your party a more interesting festive theme. At large gatherings, a magnum of Champagne or wine is visually dramatic on the table, because at 1.5 litres it is twice the size of the standard 750 mL bottle. Magnums also make toasts feel more communal with everyone taking a glass from the same bottle.
Offering a fruit punch or mulled cider before the meal will cost less than a full bar and will stretch the alcohol further.
At a party held at a resort or other rented space, ask if you can purchase your own wines and pay a corkage fee for the staff to open and serve the wine. If you have your own special occasion permit, it can cost less than selecting the resort’s offerings.
Stocking the bar
You can please several generations at a time by offering retro favourites such as Martinis, Manhattans, Cosmopolitans and Sidecars. You’ll want to have the “speed rail” essentials, the most popular spirits that professional bartenders keep out front, which are gin, rum, rye, scotch and vodka. The standard 1.14 L bottle of each will usually be plenty, except for larger parties or those where most of the guests will be drinking spirits.
Also have on hand a “house pour,” the drink you default to for guests without a preference. It’s a good idea to consider stocking about twice as much of this drink as the others. With beer, stock an equal mix of domestic, imported and light labels.
The wine selection
Many people now serve wine for all occasions, whether it is sparkling, red or white. Sparkling wine or Champagne works well at receptions, for toasts and throughout a meal. A 750 mL bottle will give you five generous flute glass servings.
To determine the mix of red and white wine, go with an even split if you are not sure which your guests prefer. You will get five glasses of wine from a 750 mL bottle.
For festive winter gatherings, serve full-bodied white wines such as buttery, toasty Chardonnay from California or Australia. Zesty, acidic whites with lots of fruit stand up to hot, spicy hors d’oeuvre and go well with cheeses. Try Canadian and German Rieslings or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Full-bodied red wines such as New World Cabernet Sauvignon, Australian Shiraz and Italian Barolos and Amarones go well with the hearty flavours of holiday meals.
The etiquette of giving and receiving wine
If you’re the guest, call ahead of time to see what you can contribute to the party. Your host may be amply stocked with wines and drinks, or may have already selected drinks to match the dishes, and therefore may prefer a dish, condiment or flowers instead. If your host suggests wine for the party, ask about a preference for red or white, a favourite style or country as well as what dishes will be served. With this information, you’ll avoid getting something that your host buys by the truckload or, conversely, wouldn’t even mix with soda.
Of course, you can always give wine as a gift to stock your host’s cellar. If you have a wine cellar yourself, you can take a well-aged bottle that is no longer in stores. If not, look for an unusual bottle or underrated wine that will be a special treat for your host.
If you’re the host, open wine that guests bring to your party, even if it doesn’t ideally suit your meal. Unless it’s meant to be a cellar gift, selecting the wine to open for a particular time during the evening, and even fussing over it, will make your guest feel appreciated. Although opinions differ on this issue, not opening a guest’s wine can signal that either the wine is so bad that you don’t want to drink it or so good that you don’t want to share it. Further, your guest may be eager to share the bottle with you.
After dinner sipping
To make after-dinner sipping special, serve an array of herbal teas and blends of coffee along with a selection of several liqueurs, such as Bailey’s Irish Cream, Tia Maria Drambuie, Grand Marnier and Anisette. The standard sizes of these will suffice, especially since these are generally after dinner drinks and not consumed throughout the evening. You may also want to splurge on a bottle of Cognac, brandy and Port. Sweet wines, such as late harvest wines, Sauternes from France or Canadian Icewines, will match the sweetness in your desserts or even serve as a dessert in itself.
The selection of Glassware
For most celebrations, you can serve all drinks in three types of glasses: Champagne flute, wine glass and an all-purpose highball glass for mixed drinks. Rent or buy one of each glass per person plus about 10% extra to allow for breakage and for guests requesting new glasses for a different drink. For cocktail receptions, you may want more elaborate glassware since it can make a difference to the presentation, taste and serving size of the drink. Add tumblers, brandy snifters, and martini, oldfashioned or shot glasses.
To avoid congestion in one area and to keep the guests mixing, consider setting up drink stations around your home, the hall or resort where you are entertaining. One station may be an open ice cooler filled with soft drinks and sparkling waters. Another may be a table where guests can fill their own punch glasses. White wine can be left in Champagne ice buckets in various places. Your cocktail station can be located in another area.
Ask your servers to go around with trays of sparkling water and nonalcoholic drinks periodically. Your guests will consume less alcohol if they are also drinking non-alcoholic drinks. You may also want to instruct your servers not to automatically fill everyone’s glass after the first glass or two, but instead do so upon the guest’s request (of course, the servers should be accessible for this).
Be present and engaged
If you’re a host, focus on your primary duty of spending time with your guests. Your guests have attended your soirée for one main reason, to enjoy themselves. So while selecting the proper wine for the occasion is a part of the key to success, it is also important to stay engaged and encourage conversation between you and your guests. You may simply ask for input on the hors d’oeuvres, or compliment a guest’s choice of wine that they brought to the party. Set a goal to speak to everyone at the party at least once before the night is over. The more people you talk to and engage with, the more people you will see at your next event.