Cocktails are at their best when enjoyed with others. They are instruments of togetherness, conviviality and a bonus to any social gathering - from house parties to holiday celebrations. Of course, this is easy to say if you aren’t the one making the drinks. Preparing and serving properly made cocktails to a group is no easy task. If you use traditional methods and shake/stir to order, you’ll won't make it out of the kitchen.
The point is to enjoy the party you're hosting, which is why I'm a big fan of batching drinks or converting them into a punch. This is easy to do, it's mostly multiplication. But there are a few keys to remember and some pitfalls to avoid. This page is a step by step guide for taking a cocktail from a small format to a large one. Follow this, and let the good times roll.
Batching Cocktails for a Crowd
Step 1 - Choose a Recipe
This is up to you, but I recommend something in the shaken and refreshing as opposed to stirred and boozy (here's an in-depth look at the difference between the two). This means drinks with citrus juice and perhaps soda water. These are on the lighter side, so people can have multiple glasses and maintain a comfortable buzz. As I once heard David Wondrich say "the point of punch bowl is to get drunk slowly." You want to be a responsible host, and a punch bowl of Manhattans - while delicious - can be perilous. Save that for smaller groups of, shall we say, experienced drinkers (and be sure to invite me).
Pro tip: Use small glassware, when possible. People won't drink too much too quickly and they'll return more frequently for refills, which keeps the room circulating and makes the bar/punch bowl a social hub, as it should be.
Step 2 - Multiply to fit Your Group
This is just simple math. Multiply your recipe by the number of servings you would like. A good place to start is to change the unit of measurement from ounces to cups, this will multiply it by eight. Remember to take into account how large the recipe is compared to the size of your glasses. Sometimes 8 full-size drinks are enough to fill 12 punch glasses.
As for how much to prepare, it depends on the group and the nature of the party. If cocktails are the only thing I'm serving I plan of 3 drinks per person. If there's also beer and wine, maybe 2. But I'm 35 and have 3 kids. 10 years ago, these numbers would be different.
Pull Back on any Bitters (at first)
Bitters can sometimes show up a little too prominently in drinks on a large scale. So if the recipe you're using calls for them cut their portion in half when batching. Initially, anyway, you can always add more to taste at the end.
Some Helpful Conversions
Since I'm in the U.S., I work in ounces (apologies to any international readers), but liquor bottles are in milliliters. For convenience's sake, feel free to fudge the numbers so the two convert easily. dIt's just a couple ounces difference, close enough.
750 ml Liquor bottle (standard U.S. size) = 25.36 ounces, or roughly 3 cups
1 Liter Liquor bottle = 33.8 ounces, or roughly 4 cups/1 quart
Muddling for Batches
If your recipe contains any muddled ingredients, first off consider whether that fresh ingredient can be made into a syrup. This will be much easier to integrate and less work (assuming the syrup isn’t too difficult to prepare, they usually aren’t). You can see a list of syrups recipes already on the site here. If muddling is the only option, and sometimes it is, you’ll want to strain out the solids before serving. Misshaped bits of muddled fruit, aren’t too pretty to look at. Prepare the drinks as you normally would, muddling the fruit or herbs first with a little bit of simple syrup, then add the remaining ingredients. Or easier, add everything and blend it with an immersion blender. Don’t puree, just enough to break everything up. In either case, let the whole mixture sit and steep for a bit to get maximum flavor before straining. Taste along the way, certain ingredients are stronger than others and become bitter over time.
Because you'll be straining it, I recommend building the batch in a different vessel than what you'll be serving it in. I like to use a large pot for muddled batches because it has a wide, flat bottom (for super-sized batches you can use a 5-gallon paint bucket). When you're ready to transfer the batch, place a strainer/chinois - the bigger the better - over the top of your serving vessel, and pour it through. Another tip, potato mashers make for good large format muddlers, particularly for soft juicy fruits like strawberries. The bottom of liquor bottles are also effective. Be sure to twist when you press. More details on muddling here.
Step 3: Account for Chilling and Dilution
This is the big one. Since you won’t be shaking these drinks, you won’t get any chilling or dilution from the ice, which are the key to great, balanced cocktails. Chilling something is easy, you just throw it in the refrigerator, dilution really is the key here, without it, the flavors will be too concentrated and intense. So you need to add dilution manually.
There are Two Methods:
Add Water AND Ice
If you're in a hurry to chill drinks down, you need to use some ice, which chills and dilutes all at once. But with a batch, you need to be aware of how much you're adding because it won't be strained it out as it would with a single-serve cocktail. Blindly dumping a bag of ice into a punch bowl could over-dilute your drinks - or under-dilute them if you're too conservative.
There are about 5 ounces of water in 1 cup of ice, but it isn't a one to one conversion from manual dilution because that ice won’t melt (dilute) all at once. I add a little water to get the dilution started, and then add let ice carry it the rest of the way while chilling as well.
To chill and dilute a batch quickly, add 15% water to the total batch - about ½ oz per serving - and one cup of ice for every 8 drinks. If the drinks will be served on the rocks you can cut back on the ice a bit - say, one cup ice for every 10 drinks - and let the ice in the glass do some of the work.
Add Water, then Chill
If you plan ahead, manually adding water a batch of cocktails is the most reliable way to manage dilution without shaking or stirring. Add about 20-25% water to the volume of the entire batch, or ¾-1 oz per serving. So if you’re making a gallon of punch, you’ll want to add about a quart of water. It may taste a little too diluted at room temperature, but once it’s cold it’ll be right on the money. besides, a little extra dilution at a party is never a bad idea.
To get the drinks cold, chill them in the refrigerator for a few hours, or even overnight. Or, if time is an issue, put them in the freezer for an hour or two, just make sure they don’t freeze, but even if they do don't worry, booze thaws quickly. You can expedite this by chilling the ingredients beforehand. Putting the spirits in the freezer the night before goes a long way.
Step 4: Pitcher or Punch Bowl
The serving vessel is up to you, each has its advantages.
For Punch: Make a Large Ice Cube
I highly recommend this for punch bowls, as seen in the photos above. One giant cube will melt very slowly, so it’ll keep the punch cold and won’t over-dilute it. Plus it’s a great presentation. Just fill up a baking pan, or plastic storage container of the desired size, and give it some time to freeze. Sometimes it’ll take a day or so. To get the ice out you may need to run lukewarm water over the bottom of the mold - don’t use hot water or the ice could crack. After a minute or so the cube should slide out without much trouble.
You can get really creative here and use different shapes of molds. Bundt cake pans are great. You can also punch up the presentation (so to speak) by freezing pieces of fruit into the ice cubes.
Remember, every drink is different. Use the above methods as guidelines and taste/adjust before you serve. As long as get the drinks are cold, properly diluted, and on the table when it's party time, it's a win.
Step 5: Finishing Touches
Before the merriment begins.
Any time you augment a recipe, be sure to taste it first. Sometimes what works on a small scale needs tweaking on a large scale. Usually, this will have to do with sweetness/tartness. I find batches tend to need a bit more sugar - just a splash of simple syrup or whatever sweetener you’re using will do. Or maybe it needs more water, a few extra dashes of bitters, or whatever. As always, use your best judgement.
Add Any Bubbles
This probably goes without saying but and carbonated ingredients - soda water, sparkling wine, etc. - shouldn’t be added until the party starts. Not only does this ensure the highest level of fizziness, but it’s also a triumphant moment that should be witnessed by as many people as possible. A signal that the festivities can begin.
This is a party! Presentation counts. Garnishing for large-format drinks is open season as far as I'm concerned. You can, of course, follow what the recipe calls for, but I say use whatever strikes your fancy. Personally, I'm a sucker for berries, I’ll throw raspberries into almost anything. The one exception is citrus peels. If the drink calls for one (or sometimes even if it doesn't) definitely add it, the aromatics it'll contribute have a big impact. Go for a long spiral peel, if you can manage it. Or if glasses are being garnished individually, make citrus discs like these. This way you can garnish the drinks, or people can do it themselves.
With a bowl of punch, people can serve themselves so it’s minimal work for you. It also makes for a handsome party centerpiece.
A pitcher is more portable and can fit in the fridge easier, which is convenient for chilling it down beforehand. Usually, when I’m serving punch, I make it in a pitcher and store it in the fridge, then pour it into the bowl when I’m ready. The nice thing about serving drinks directly from a pitcher is you can execute entire rounds by just pouring into glasses. And presenting a perfectly prepared tray of drinks in a timely fashion is the definition of a host/ess with the most/ess.