LONDON, Ont. - The problem with trying to create a signature drink for a dinner or patio party is that "you simply can't be everything to everyone," says mixologist Nathan Cameron.
So instead of one signature drink, the beverage manager for the Prime Restaurants Inc. chains, including Casey's, East Side Mario's, Bier Markt and several Irish pubs, suggests choosing a category of drinks — sangrias, margaritas, mojitos or caesars, for example — and offering several options within the category that will appeal to a wide variety of tastes, such as sweet, savoury, sour or bitter. Substitutions also can be made to turn all of these into non-alcoholic drinks.
"But don't try to do too much," Cameron says. "Otherwise, you'll get overwhelmed, cut corners and you won't be happy with the results."
A successful drinks menu requires as much planning and preparation as a dinner menu, he says. A host needs to consider how long the guests are likely to stay, whether they include children, how hot the weather is and "ease of execution" in preparing the drinks.
On a hot day, cool and refreshing sippers are preferable to heavily sweet drinks that may make guests lethargic or to classic cocktails high in alcohol and low in volume, which might encourage over-consumption. Flavoured ciders (fermented or not) add a different taste profile to classic drink recipes.
The first step is to research what you will need for the basic recipes, both with and without alcohol. But the key is in the garnishes. At this time of year, choose the freshest seasonal fruits, berries, herbs and vegetables available, along with citrus — orange, lemon, lime or grapefruit — and maybe one or two not-so-typical choices, such as pear, lychee or pomegranate.
Make a shopping list and do not stray from it.
At home, do as much preparation as you can before the party, such as making fruit purees or simple syrups if required. Have the fresh fruit washed, sliced and ready to go. Punches can be made ahead and sangria lends itself well to being made in quantity before a party, allowing the fresh fruits to ferment, with only soda, ice and garnishes added as drinks are served.
But for many other types of cocktails, "the drink's integrity isn't so good when you make a large quantity," Cameron says. "Ingredients tend to change when they're sitting in a large vessel and depending on how you're dispensing it, you may not get equal amounts of the flavours you want."
The solution for these types of beverages is to create a drink station so guests can make their own beverages, customized to their tastes and negating the necessity for the host to stand behind the bar for hours. Provide the recipe (preferably laminated), assembly instructions and suggestions for options, based on the ingredients provided.
Of course you also need tools such as appropriate glassware, shot glasses, stirrers, tongs and napkins. If it's a family party, set up a separate drink station for the kids.
It's hard to imagine a Canadian summertime party without beer, so a combination of beer and beer cocktails may be a good drinks theme to choose. There are commercial beer cocktails available and no end to the ingredients you can use to make your own.
"It introduces non-beer drinkers to beer but in a cocktail form and introduces hard-core beer drinkers to a cocktail with beer," Cameron says.
Radler, a combination of beer and fruit juice (usually lemon-lime or grapefruit), also is now available commercially in Canada and is a "great, refreshing option, whether you drink it over ice or straight up." Citrus wheat beer mixed 50-50 with apple cider is another suggestion.
If you want to match the drinks menu to a barbecue, it's hard to go wrong with caesars, Cameron says. You can use steak or barbecue sauce in the drink to change it up, rim the glass with a mix of lemon pepper and grilling spices and garnish it with items right off the barbecue, such as grilled peppers or onions or even skewers of cooked meat. Hot Rods or pepperoni sticks are also fun garnishes.
For even more variation in the caesars, you can offer vodka that has been infused for two or three days. One infusion Cameron likes combines leeks, basil and lime. For a lighter, more refreshing caesar, he suggests adding a little lager and the unlikely ingredient of dill pickle juice.
Imagination is your only limitation, he says.