Legendary Bartender Sasha Petraske’s Home Cocktail Party Advice
A posthumous essay from the late pioneering and talented bar owner Sasha Petraske.
It is usually pretty easy to spot a bar that Sasha Petraske had a hand in creating. Normally the menus in his establishments are slavishly devoted to classics that he had discovered, dusted off and made popular again. Inevitably, one of the options is the so-called Bartender’s Choice. After a brief interview—sweet or sour? Up or on the rocks?—the bartender whips up a concoction. After a few sips, you realize you have been looking your entire adult life for something that tasted like it.
The worldwide effect of Petraske’s bars, including the now defunct Milk & Honey, the West Village’s Little Branch and Los Angeles’ The Varnish, cannot be underestimated. He is one of the primary reasons why you can now find a well-made rye whiskey Old Fashioned at your favorite new watering hole. He was also a tireless champion of decorum and hospitality, famous for his rules of acceptable behavior, which he posted at his bars and grew out of the conditions imposed by Milk & Honey’s original Lower East Side landlord. Those ideas, which included not yelling and not hitting on unaccompanied woman at the bar, were as new and novel as the concoctions that he sold.
Petraske’s philosophies continued to the home bar, too. He was writing a book, Regarding Cocktails, when he passed away in 2015 at the all-too young age of 42. His widow, Georgette Moger-Petraske, along with a team of his bartenders and friends, finished the work, which debuts on Monday.
Here is an adapted essay, by Petraske, from the book on the preparations required to throw a successful party at home. It overflows with a wealth of knowledge and also offers a window into his methodical thinking process, where no detail was too small to mull over patiently.
The Home Cocktail Party by Sasha Petraske
Determine the capacity of your venue, and from that the number of guests and bartending stations.
The maximum capacity for your house or apartment is not how many people can fit in it without anyone being trampled, but rather how many people can be promptly served and be provided with bathroom facilities. Allowing eight to ten square feet per person is a good starting point. One bathroom can serve forty guests maximum.
Once you have determined how many people will be in the place at one time, you can determine how many bars and/or self-service beer and wine or punch stations you should have. One bartender working with batched cocktails and punch, in a well-set-up bar with a clearly visible menu, can serve up to forty guests, maximum. If you make beer and wine a separate self-serve station, that can up the capacity to fifty. And if you add a self-serve punch station you can serve up to sixty people.
If your party is above sixty people, it is quite likely that some of the service will be outside. Self-serve stations can be repeated outside, with a sign that reads “Cocktail Service at the Inside Bar” or something similar.
Make a menu.
At a cocktail bar, there is an immense selection of possibilities, but a limited selection is a must at the home cocktail party. It is simply not possible to have all the necessary ingredients and equipment to go menu-less at home (unless you build a professional, fully-plumbed bar and purchase at least two commercial freezers). The time per drink would also be greatly increased due to the additional time spent talking to each guest about his or her choice of cocktail. Remember: no one enjoys a party where they cannot get a drink. If you are a member of the more-money-than-sense set and have already built such a bar, please carry this folly to its logical conclusion and hire professional bartenders for your party.
The menu should consist of four to six cocktails, plus beer and wine, along with the basic spirit mixers (tonic for a Gin & Tonic, soda for a Whiskey & Soda, etc.). Even if craft cocktails are the centerpiece of the party, these are essential. Believe me, when
a limping, grizzled member of the Greatest Generation asks you for a Scotch & Water and you have to admit that you did not think to prepare for such, the offer of a freshly muddled Strawberry Fix will do nothing to help the situation. And it is gross snobbery not to stock the basics of red and white wine and a lager.
Select the Glassware
The cocktails selected for the menu will determine the types of glassware needed. The essentials are: a glass that can serve as a water glass, a highball glass for spirits and mixers and long drinks (as well as beer), and a Champagne saucer or flute that can double as a cocktail glass.
It is quite possible to serve a far-ranging menu with just these three glasses. In a pinch, wine can be served “peasant-style,” in the highball glass, as long as the servers have an example glass with a piece of tape to show the 6-oz (180 ml) mark. Ambiguous portion sizes will inevitably lead to guests being overserved.
A proper rocks glass for whiskey on its own and Old Fashioned–style cocktails is also an option. In a menu of four drinks, one such stirred-down drink is a good idea. Wine glasses are needed for wine above a certain quality. The “All-Purpose Glass” that your local rental company offers, a durable 8 to 10-oz (237 to 296 ml) wine glass with a short stem, is the most efficient option, as it can serve as the highball as well as the water, wine, and beer glass. However, this jack-of-all-trades should only be used for very large events such as weddings or concerts, when nothing else would be practical.
Your menu should include at least one Mocktail and one low-alcohol drink served long over club soda, such as an Americano. People who are driving need such an option in order to pace themselves. Offering an Old Fashioned–style drink and a Martini or Manhattan variation is a good idea for a proper cocktail party, and a combination of the shaken, straight-up category, such as a Daiquiri and a self-serve punch, will do most of the heavy lifting.
If you are renting glassware, assume four drinks per person for a cocktail party or two per person for a “cocktail hour,” evenly distributed among the types of glassware offered. Depending on your wine offering and the drinking habits of your guests, add
between zero and one-quarter of this total in wine glasses. Then add more highball glasses to account for water, beer, soda, etc. Renting slightly too many glasses is a necessity, not a waste.
Deciding whether to shake batched Daiquiri-style cocktails to order or to ladle out punch is more about manpower than anything else. These two types of drink do the same thing, delivering quite a bit of alcohol in a quick and painless fashion. As any
student of cocktail history will tell you though, punch is essentially British and the shaken cocktail indisputably American. So a combination of a bartender shaking drinks and a self-service punch station is probably best.
To determine if self-serve stations are appropriate, two factors should be considered: the possibility of guests overserving themselves and the formality and level of service desired. How large is the party? Is there line-of-sight between the host or a
member of staff and the self-serve station? These are the questions to ask in regard to the first consideration. The nightmare scenarios include a guest serving himself too much and causing a tragedy, or the teenage child of your next-door neighbor sneaking past the doorman, getting drunk, and ending up in the coat closet with one of your unsuspecting guests.
As far as for formality, use this as a rule of thumb: Imagine your party in full swing. If the guests serve their own beer, they will drink from the bottle, with a glass being available upon request. If the bartender opens the beer for the guests, it will be poured into a glass unless otherwise requested. If the party is too formal for drinking beer from the bottle, it is too formal for a self-serve station.
Adapted from Regarding Cocktails by Sasha Petraske with Georgette Moger-Petraske, Phaidon 2016.