Hosting the Perfectly Imperfect Impromptu Cocktail Party

Photo by Aaron Leimkuehler.

My friend Steven Stolman, fellow writer on the topic of party-giving (I would call us “entertaining writers” but that sounds self-congratulatory, right?) likes to say “Everything happens at cocktails.” It’s true, isn’t it? Even if you just have a few friends over for wine and popcorn, wonderful things happen over drinks. Hosting people for casual cocktails is easier and more affordable than it’s ever been, thanks to texting and wholesale clubs.

Speaking of Stolman, you can find his two Serial Entertainer cookbooks, packed with advice and recipes for easy party food, at The Little Shop Next Door in Westwood Hills. But back to our cocktail party. Or should I say “drinks party” as the wannabe Brits do? No, in America it’s a cocktail party!

Cocktails needn’t be complicated

My friends Jonathan Bowyer and Zach Loes are masters of the casual, hastily pulled-together cocktail gathering. If Friday rolls around and they have nothing scheduled, they text their friends to come by their Meyer Circle digs for drinks that night, starting at 8:30. “Adding the word IMPROMPTU to the invite is critical,” says Jonathan, “as it lets people know they are not last-minute invitees, and it lowers the expectation that we’re going to have a lavish spread.”

Impromptu, to my mind, also implies a daring, come-as-you-are dress code. Everything is appropriate: shorts, sandals, dinner jackets, opera pumps. “The after 8:30 start-time is good for people coming by following a dinner event, or for those on their way to something else,” says Jonathan.

Drinks and one crazy-good dessert

Eight-thirty also is late enough that you could make the invitation be for drinks and dessert, which I like to host in the summer, on my deck. I buy a tangy, delicious 12-inch lemon cake from Cafe Europa (serves up to 25, but you must order 48 hours ahead), set up a simple bar (beer, wine, and the makings for gin and tonics, vodka sodas, and rum and cokes), turn on the tunage, light the tiki torches and we’re in business. If the crowd is going to be more than about 15, I hire a bartender to keep the party humming. If hired bartenders are not in your budget, ask a capable friend or two to help with drinks, so you’re not stuck behind the bar for the whole of the fiesta.

Bet you can’t eat just one slice of the lemon cake from Cafe Europa. Lillet should be a mainstay of your bar setup. A charcuterie tray is easy to assemble (no cooking!) and looks good too.

The audacious guest list

To get a lively turnout for any last-minute party, it’s wise to invite at least double the number of people you would like to come. Jonathan invites about 25 to his parties, with the goal of having 12 to 15 show up. Which is not by any means saying that you need that number for a lively soiree. You could have half that, or even fewer and still have a fun, intimate gathering.

Be bold with your guest list. Mix it up; it’s just cocktails. Invite people from different circles, or those whom you think are terrific but would have absolutely nothing in common with other guests. It never fails to amaze me how quickly people find common ground.

Jonathan always adds a line to his invitations telling people it’s fine to bring a friend or two. This achieves the dual purpose of adding potential excitement to the guest list and allowing those who’ve made dinner plans to stop by anyway.

For any very late-notice gathering, it’s important to have a small, trusted core established—even if it’s just two people—who will commit definitely to being there.

The party-ready pantry

You don’t need swell surroundings to host a fabulous spontaneous cocktail party. The goal is to bring your friends together for great conversation over a decent drink and some snacks.

You do, however, need a stocked larder. I try always to have some shelf-stable crowd-pleasers on hand: Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Jalapeno Cheddar Cheez-Its (the bag will be empty once you open it) oil-cured olives, smoked almonds, honey-roasted peanuts. Here’s a great trick to doll up potato chips. Take a bag of top-quality kettle chips and spread them out on a platter. Sprinkle them liberally with crumbled feta cheese and chopped basil. Serve with pretty salad tongs. Voila! Instant elegance.

… and booze in the basement

The great thing about liquor and standard mixers is everything keeps, so you can always can have it in storage. At minimum I like to have on hand plenty of gin, vodka, tonic, and club soda. I am not a snob about using the jumbo-sized bottles of booze from Costco. Keep plenty of Pellegrino water and soft drinks in supply for the non-drinkers.

You will always add tone to the joint by serving Lillet Blanc, available at any respectable liquor store. The bottles are so classic-looking, and Lillet keeps forever. Lillet is delicious served chilled with an orange slice, over ice. Speaking of ice, you want to have at least a pound per guest.

One final idea, then I’ll shut up

I have a creative friend who has a beautifully simple cocktail party concept you could steal; I know she wouldn’t mind. She invites people via email for “Cocktails and Charcuterie from 7ish to 9ish.” She hires a bartender and turns her kitchen table into a giant charcuterie board with salami, prosciutto, mortadella, sopressata, various cheeses, nuts, fruit, crackers and olives. Guests can either make dinner out of it or just nibble and go on to dine somewhere else. Email me for instructions on how to build a charcuterie board. I will also send you my favorite finger-food recipes, in case you’re in the mood to actually light up your stove.

A Superb September Cocktail: The Frozen Negroni

In my bar, you’ll always find the ingredients for the Negroni, an unfussy libation with an easy-to-remember recipe: one part each gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Blend and pour over ice. My friend Gary Fabro acquainted me with the virtues of turning this iconic Italian cocktail into a refreshing blender drink, perfect for the warm days of September. He experimented with recipes and this is his favorite. You’ll note the quantities are tweaked a bit, with the Campari and sweet vermouth scaled back a bit.

The Frozen Negroni

4½ ounces gin

2½ ounces Campari

2½ ounces sweet vermouth

3 cups ice, or more if you want it thicker

Orange peel for garnish

Combine gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in an airtight container. Place in freezer for at least 8 hours. It will not freeze because of the alcohol.

When ready to serve, add the chilled booze and ice to the blender. Blend on high speed until smooth. Pour into rocks glasses or a small wine glass. Garnish with orange peel and serve immediately.


Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed