Custom Party Drinks

party bar with garnishes

Recently I bartended a graduation party for some friends and I wanted to create some special cocktails for the event. I have very limited professional bartending experience (I’ve never bartended outside of my house or at parties). Here are some things I learned when you’re creating custom drinks for parties:

1. Keep the recipes simple (see below for the recipes I chose). If you have to explain the list of ingredients to people over and over, the line at the bar will back up. Occasionally Mrs. Simple Cocktails jumped in to help me, too, and I didn’t want to annoy her with complicated recipes. All four drinks I made only had 2 ingredients to pour together.

2. Lean towards sweet in your recipe ingredients. This was a summer party with a pretty even divide of men and women, and three of my four drinks were either fruity or sweet.

3. Garnishes are important. Nice-looking fruit or citrus really makes cocktails extra special. Also, pre-cut all of your garnishes.

4. Don’t get too creative. I named these drinks after professors at their school, which they loved, but the cocktails didn’t have any unusual or unfamiliar ingredients.

5. Watch the alcohol content. Try to keep the percent of alcohol down near wine or beer levels. That allows the guests to try multiple cocktails and enjoy their night without being three sheets to the wind.

party cocktails

Here are the recipes, pictured above from left to right:

Clem Club

This is a renamed Gentleman’s Club cocktail. I pre-mixed the liquor so I could make the cocktails quickly.

  • in an empty liquor or wine bottle, mix 1 cup gin, 1 cup brandy, and 1 cup sweet vermouth
  • pour 2 oz of the mixture in a cup full of ice
  • top with soda water (about 1 oz)
  • garnish with a cherry

Holcomb & Tonic

A simple vodka tonic.

  • pour 1 1/2 oz of vodka (I used Smirnoff Blue Label) in a cup full of ice
  • top with tonic water
  • garnish with a lime slice

Blackberry Bruskas

This was a favorite. This was a pre-mixed punch in a pitcher, ready to pour.

  • in a pitcher full of ice, add:
  • 1/2 jar (about 13 oz) of Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine
  • 3/4 carton of Newman’s Own Organic Virgin Lemonade
  • fill cups with ice and 3 fresh blackberries before pouring

Driscoll Bay

The most popular by far, a very simple take on a Piña Colada.

  • in a cup full of ice, add:
  • 1 1/2 oz rum (I used Bacardi Gold)
  • top with Trader Joe’s Tropical Carrot Juice
  • garnish with an orange slice


Credit for both photos: Latisha Lyn Photography.

Uncle Alex Cocktail

uncle alex cocktail

This is a rum cocktail for those who like their drinks on the sweeter side, and the crushed ice means you can serve it really cold in the summer. It’s a little bit like a Daiquiri with grenadine in the place of simple syrup.

Uncle Alex (by Greg Mays)

  • 1 1/2 oz white rum
  • 1/2 oz grenadine
  • 1/4 oz lime juice
  • serve over crushed ice with a straw
  • garnish with cherries


Win a Karlsson’s Prize Pack!

karlsson's vodka prize pack

Simple Cocktails sponsor Karlsson’s Gold Vodka is giving away some great swag to one reader. To win this prize pack, simply comment below this post and tell us your favorite way to drink Karlsson’s. Here are some ideas if you need them:

Black Gold

Karlsson’s Bloody Mary

The Karlsson’s prize pack includes:

  • 2 Karlsson’s golden potato cocktail stirrers
  • 2 Karlsson’s black pepper ginders
  • 1 Karlsson’s oyster shucker
  • 1 limited-edition bronzed Karlsson’s bottle top in presentation case

Prize pack will be given away to 1 person who posts a comment below. Contest only open to U.S. residents (sorry). Winner will be chosen on July 15, 2013.

UPDATE 7/15/13: a representative from Karlsson’s contacted me the day this posting went live to tell me about Anchor Distilling acquiring Karlsson’s and taking over distribution, marketing, etc. for the vodka as of July 1. Since Karlsson’s was the company who was going to send out the prize pack for this giveaway, that has also been turned over to Anchor as well.

Both Karlsson’s and I have made multiple attempts to contact Anchor Distilling to ask about continuing with the giveaway on this post and their sponsorship of Simple Cocktails, and Anchor Distilling has remained non-responsive to both emails and calls. I’m sorry, guys, I have to pull the plug on the giveaway since I can no longer find a representative of the brand who has access to this swag. I’ll close the comments and email each entrant this info, and hope to have another contest on the blog soon. Thanks for understanding!

Phraya Rum

phraya rum

Phraya is an aged rum from Thailand that’s packaged in a eye-catching golden bottle. Pronounced with a silent h, Phraya Deep Matured Gold Rum is a blend of Thai rums that are aged from 7 to 12 years.

At $40, Phraya falls at an inbetween price point, not cheap and not so expensive that I’d call it “luxury.” This rum is certainly smooth, though, because at 80% ABV, it’s on the lower spectrum of alcohol strength. When you smell it in a glass, you don’t smell any alcohol at all, just almond and brown sugar. Phraya finishes in a really pleasing way that I’d describe as sweet, though not sticky, syrupy, or overwhelming.

Two things hit me as I drank my first glass of Phraya:

  1. The ice I that I initially added (see photo) was a mistake. This rum is smooth and flavorful, and it’s really best served neat (no ice).
  2. I wanted a cigar to smoke as I drank it…badly.

I called up Thompson Cigar and they graciously sent me a Flor de las Antillas, which Cigar Aficionado gave 2012’s cigar of the year. This rich and earthy cigar was a great fit with Phraya, which is flaky-pastry-sweet. Since I got this bottle of Phraya, I’ve taken it out in the backyard with me every time I smoke – I’ve found it the perfect cigar companion and very easy to drink on a hot summer evening.


Ignore the Experts

serving a drink

Sometimes you just have to ignore the experts.

Part of a booze writer’s job as an “expert” is to teach you things about liquor and drinking. I’ve written posts about how to serve absinthe, how to make an Old Fashioned, or how to make a Martini at this very blog. Here’s a sampling of what you will hear us say from time to time:

  • Never put ice in scotch.
  • A Martini is made with gin. If you make the drink with vodka, it’s called a Kangaroo. And don’t shake a martini either.
  • Never muddle fruit in an Old Fashioned.
  • Make sure you buy tequila that’s distilled from 100% Weber Blue Agave.
  • Flavored vodkas are the scum of the earth and we’d all be better off if we could purge them.

I’m writing this post to tell you that just because we might have more booze wisdom than your everyday drinker, we do not have the right to tell you that if you’re not doing our way, you’re wrong. Just so you know, I’ve broken lots of drinking taboos in my life. I drank brandy on the rocks once. I used to regularly drink Vodka Martinis, shaken, not stirred. I make my Old Fashioneds with a splash of club soda. I even tried Fruit Loop vodka once (who wouldn’t?), though I rewrote my post on it several times because I was worried about my rep with the Cocktail Elite.

So if you have a favorite drinking practice or recipe that us “experts” disparage, ignore us and do it your way! Do you like ice in your scotch? Awesome. You think Jagermeister and Red Bull is a “cocktail?” Enjoy. How about a glass of Brown Wine (Jim Beam and Coke)? Go for it.

My girl Mrs. Simple Cocktails has a favorite “martini” recipe that calls for 2 oz vodka, 3/4 oz of olive brine (you read that right), and a splash of vermouth with 4 huge olives as a garnish. I make them for her all the time and I don’t preach at her about how she’s really drinking some sort of a Bastardized Kangaroo, not a martini, because she likes the damn things and she can call them what she likes.

So from one member of the Cocktail Elite, you should drink what you like, how you like to drink it. We may have strong opinions on booze and drinking practices, but that’s because we drink a lot of it and we’re probably cocktail history freaks, too. We may think you’re nuts for using sour mix instead of squeezing real citrus. We might think that a shaken martini is sacrilegious, but who cares? There are a plethora of bottles on the store shelves and there’s something in them for every type of drinker, even one who likes Donut Vodka (how dare you?).

Here’s my girl’s recipe again for those who dare try it:

Mrs. Simple Cocktails I-Can-Call-It-What-I-Want Martini

  • 2 oz vodka
  • 3/4 oz olive brine
  • splash of dry vermouth
  • shake on ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
  • garnish with 4 olives on a pick

Dewar’s Scotch

dewars scotch milk punch

Dewar’s is a very popular brand of blended scotches worldwide, and White Label is the entry-level Dewar’s, running about $22 a bottle retail. I find it to be a good scotch choice for  someone who prefers the more tame blended scotches (like me), it’s good for someone who’s new to scotch, and it’s also a great option for making scotch-based cocktails.

This year, I’ve tasted more scotch brands than I have in my whole life previously. I’ll admit I initially didn’t like scotch very much at all. As I’ve had the opportunity to taste the wide varieties available, there are some elements that I’ve found that I prefer. I like when scotch is sweeter on the palate, and White Label has some nice toasty caramel in the flavor. I prefer scotches that are less peaty and smoky, and there is very little of that in White Label.

So then, Dewar’s White Label is a very accessible scotch that’s got decent quality for the price and a nice, smooth flavor. Here’s a cocktail to try with it:

dewars scotch milk punch

Scotch Milk Punch

  • 2 oz scotch
  • 4 oz milk (the fattier this is, the better the drink tastes)
  • 1 tsp powdered sugar
  • shake with ice until extremely cold, then strain into a glass
  • top with whipped cream and nutmeg

Pow Wow Botanical Rye

pow wow botanica rye cocktail

The more I began to think about the liquid in my bottle of Pow Wow Botanical Rye, the more I was intrigued. Pow Wow is distilled from rye (as you’d expect from whiskey), it’s infused with botanicals during distillation (as you’d expect from gin). Then it’s aged in charred barrels (as you’d expect from whiskey). Did you catch that glitch-out in the middle? This is a rye that has some gin-like characteristics, and if you know anything about me, you know that this bottle of booze has the potential to be the most exciting thing I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re new here, I love gin and I love rye whiskey. Other liquor is good too, but those two are my faves. Pow Wow, which’ll run you about $40 a bottle, is one of the premium whiskeys managed by Georgetown Trading Co., whose catalog includes other whiskey brands too. Pow Wow really does have some gin characteristics, particularly in the scent of it, and if you’re a whiskey or gin lover, it’s totally worth trying.

pow wow botanica rye cocktail

Here’s a classic cocktail to try with Pow Wow:

Gall Bracer

  • 1 1/2 oz rye
  • 2 dashes of bitters
  • 1 dash of grenadine
  • pour ingredients slowly over ice in an old fashioned glass
  • garnish with a cherry

Karlsson’s Bloody Mary

karlsson's bloody mary

I reviewed Karlsson’s back in September and tried their signature “Black Gold” cocktail (on the rocks topped with ground black pepper). Now it’s time to apply that earthy goodness of Karlsson’s in another proper place: a Bloody Mary.

The Bloody Mary in particular has been a point of contention for me.  “Can you really call a cocktail simple if it has 8 or more ingredients?” I’ve wondered. This Bloody Mary has been making it’s rounds on the internet, and it includes garnishes like a hamburger, nachos, bacon, popcorn, a hot dog and a pretzel. Now I’m convinced that the Bloody Mary may never be simple.

So my solution to the conundrum of the Bloody Mary is to either embrace it’s complexity or just use a good, natural mix. The mixes I’ve used  in the past have included Trader Joe’s and Ubon’s, both of which I like. Lately I’ve been hearing some good things about Zing Zang’s mix, so I grabbed a bottle to try with Karlsson’s. Zing Zang is a  thinner mix than Ubon’s, but spicier, and Zing Zang is widely distributed, so it’s easier to find.

karlsson's bloody mary

Karlsson’s Bloody Mary

  • in a tall glass filled with ice, add:
  • 1 1/2 oz Karlsson’s Gold Vodka
  • top with Bloody Mary mix
  • optionally, add a few dashes of Tabasco
  • garnish heavily, I prefer pickled things and olives

This is a spicy Bloody Mary, but from my understanding, lots of people like them spicy. Using Karlsson’s will add a richness to the drink that I immediately  noticed when I  substituted a typical vodka in it’s place.

Father’s Day Gift Ideas

father's day gift ideas

Father’s Day is coming up! As a father myself, I think the best rules of thumb are: know what dad likes, and get something creative and interesting. How about Scotch, cigars, coffee, and sweets for a start? If you caught my segment about this on The Morning Brew, welcome!


Scotch. A bottle of booze for dad! If he’s not a Scotch guy, try a rye or Tennessee whiskey. Suggestions: Dewar’s Highlander Honey, Speyburn, or Balblair.

  • How much: starting at about $20 for blended Scotch. Single malts will be more like $70.
  • Where: your favorite local liquor store.
  • Buy for: the dad who loves a tasty glass of whisky.
  • Buy because: dad will appreciate the addition to his home bar.

cigars for father's day

Cigars. If dad’s a smoker, you can’t go wrong at your local cigar shop. In fact, there are so many options you may have a tough time deciding what to get him. Consider things like: a multi-pack of cigars, a torch lighter, a cutter, a leather case, a beefy ashtray, or a classy humidor. And these will go well with the bottle of Scotch you buy him, too.

  • How much: $15 and up. A quality humidor will run $125+.
  • Where: your favorite local cigar joint. I got everything above from Monte’s in Albuquerque.
  • Buy for: the guy who loves a good Summer smoke on the porch.
  • Buy because: cigars send a nice message: relax and enjoy yourself, dad.

le creuset coffee set

Le Creuset Coffee Set. If dad loves coffee, get him a set like this one, which includes ceramic mugs, a French press, and a coffee storage container. Available in manly gray (pictured), red, blue, or Le Creuset orange.

  • How much: $125.
  • Where: entire set online at Le Creuset or buy individual pieces from Amazon.
  • Buy for: the dad who loves good, strong coffee in the morning.
  • Buy because: your dad is picky about his coffee.

bourbon marshmallows

Bourbon Marshmallows. If dad’s favorite vice is sugar, order a few boxes of 1″x1″ snacking marshmallows from Wondermade, who’s Father’s Day gift set includes boxes of bourbon (made with Maker’s Mark), coffee, Guinness, and maple bacon ‘mallows. These’ll pair great with the coffee he makes in that French press!

  • How much: $7.50 per box.
  • Where: online.
  • Buy for: the dad with a sweet tooth.
  • Buy because: the thought of eating Guinness marshmallows will put a huge smile on your dad’s face. If you’re looking for creative and interesting, this is the gift to buy.