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How to Make Cocktails for a Crowd (Only Simple Math Required)

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The friends are coming! The relatives are coming! Whether you’re looking to ease the stress of a huge family that isn’t always on their very best behavior or to raise a glass to celebrate all the many things you’re deeply thankful for, it’s nice to have a special cocktail available for the crowds that gather together to celebrate all the holidays at this time of year.

But the last thing you want is to be stuck measuring, and squeezing, and shaking for hour after hour while everyone else is enjoying the festivities. This is why at this time of year, I advise you to become friends with pre-batched cocktails.

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Photo by James Ransom

We often do distillery events with multiple cocktails for hundreds of people and just a couple bartenders; pre-batching the cocktails is the only way to survive. But not all cocktails can be treated the same as you prepare them for a large group.

Luckily, we’ve discovered some helpful rules of thumb that we abide and prep by, for stirred cocktails, shaken cocktails, and bubbly cocktails—and they work just as well at home as behind a bar.

Photo by James Ransom

1. Stirred Cocktails

The first, and in many ways easiest, category for pre-batching is stirred cocktails. Stirred cocktails are made up of all ingredients that are booze of some sort (another way of thinking about it is cocktails where none of the ingredients are cloudy). This includes cocktails like the Negroni, Boulevardier, Manhattan, martini, Rob Roy, and so on. To prepare these for a crowd you just need math, water, and a refrigerator.

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Booze

First, look at the ratio or recipe of the cocktail you’re preparing. Let’s say you’re making a Manhattan with 2 ounces rye whiskey to 1 ounce sweet vermouth. To scale this up for 10 people, you could multiply by 10 and discover you’ll need 20 ounces whiskey and 10 ounces sweet vermouth.

This is just short of a 750-milliliter bottle of whiskey, so you could decide instead to look at the ratio in the recipe, which was 2:1, and base your measurements on using one whole bottle of whiskey. In this case you’d use half a bottle of vermouth for every bottle of whiskey. With me so far? Great. Now just stir those ingredients together in a large container, bowl, or pitcher. After this we’ll deal with the bitters, which unfortunately don’t scale as nicely as spirits or vermouth.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Bitters

With bitters, start by adding half as much as your math tells you you should use. So, in a Manhattan recipe that calls for 3 dashes of bitters, scaled up for 10 people, instead of adding 30 dashes right away, start with 15 and take a tiny taste. It may already taste like enough. If not, add several more dashes at a time until you like the balance.

Water

Next you add water to mimic the dilution that you’d get from the process of stirring the drink with ice. Stirring usually dilutes a drink 20 to 25%. So, calculate what 20% of the total volume you’ve mixed so far is: 20 ounces whiskey + 10 ounces vermouth = 30 ounces total; 20% of that is 6 ounces, so you can dilute by stirring in 6 ounces of water (taste again and add more if you think it tastes too strong).

Photos by James Ransom, Mark Weinberg

Now, take your pre-batched drink, put it into containers that are easy to pour from (think pitchers or empty bottles) and refrigerate until party time. When people start arriving, all you have to do is pour your drink into cocktail glasses, over an ice cube if you’d like, add a garnish if that’s your style, and hand them out. You may have sweated a bit earlier in the day during math time, but in the moment of the party, you’ll be breezy and graceful!

2. Shaken Cocktails

The next category is the shaken drinks: that is, drinks with fruit juice but no bubbles. Examples would be margaritas, sidecars, sours (of the no-eggs variety), daiquiris, gimlets, and so on. I do not recommend pre-batching drinks with eggs or dairy.

For shaken drinks, you can do the math just like we did for stirred drinks, and mix all the ingredients ahead of time, but don’t dilute with water.

Also, if at all possible, don’t prepare them earlier than the day of your party because fruit juice, especially citrus, degrades in flavor quite quickly.

Photo by James Ransom

Store your pre-mixed big batch of drinks in the fridge. Come party time, these are a bit more complicated than stirred drinks because you’ll still have to shake them right before serving. The dilution, emulsion, and texture you get from shaking is important in these drinks.

In a regular shaker or a big Mason jar, add enough pre-mixed cocktail for 3 to 4 drinks at a time (9 to 10 ounces of pre-batched drink should be good for 3 drinks), fill the shaker three-quarters full of ice, and shake as you normally would. You’ll just have to hold tighter because the shaker will be heavier. I don’t recommend trying to shake more than 3 to 4 drinks at a time because it becomes unwieldy.

Photos by James Ransom, Mark Weinberg

Strain the drink into 3 or 4 glasses and hand them over to 3 or 4 eager guests. Repeat. It’s a bit of work, but churning out several drinks at a time like this is still far easier than measuring every ingredient and shaking and straining for one drink at a time while the crowd gets impatient.

3. Bubbly Drinks

Last we have drinks that you would normally build in a tall glass or a Champagne flute and that have a sparkling ingredient like soda water, Champagne, or ginger beer. Drinks in this category would include the Tom Collins, Dark and Stormy, French 75, Air Mail, Pimm’s Cup, etc.

I like to use these kinds of drinks as pitcher drinks or punches, but you definitely can’t pre-batch them with the fizzy component, and you also don’t want the whole batch sitting out for too long once there’s fizz because it might go flat before the bowl or pitcher has been emptied.

Photo by James Ransom

What I like to do with these kinds of drinks is calculate and pre-mix together all the non-sparkling ingredients, just as I would for a shaken cocktail. Keep this mixture refrigerated separately from the sparkling portion until game time. Then, as guests are about to arrive, add enough of the non-sparkling base for about 10 drinks—around 20 to 25 ounces of base—to a large pitcher or punch bowl. Top this with enough sparkle for 10 drinks—around 45 ounces—and add a large ice ring or some large ice cubes.

Start by serving this to your guests, and when it runs very low, refresh it by adding more base, more sparkle, and more ice in increments. I like working in increments of 10 drinks, but you could do smaller or a bit larger depending on the size and conviviality of your crowd. If I’m being very precise, I shake the non-sparkling base with ice, one-third of it at a time, before adding it to my punch bowl. But, truth be told, I often don’t.

Photo by James Ransom

On the other hand, if I’m feeling more whimsical and spontaneous, I like to make punches and pitchers by following the ratio 3:2:1:sparkle! That is to say 3 parts strong (this includes any spirit, be it gin, tequila, bourbon, rum, etc.); 2 parts sweet, like liqueur, flavored syrup, or very sweet fruit juice; 1 part sour, like lemon or lime juice; and then any sparkling ingredient I want (usually Champagne!).

Starting from this ratio, you can get creative with your favorite flavors and build a drink that you, ahem, punch-drunk love.


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Tags: cocktail, holiday, thanksgiving, big batch, punch, drinks, booze