In The Spirit Of Good Times

November 15, 1992|By Elizabeth Large

This holiday season party planners may find themselves in a quandary. For many, money and time are tight, so elaborate dinner parties aren't an option.

Cocktail parties and open houses make sense as flexible and relatively inexpensive alternates.

But do they? People are drinking less; and if they aren't, many hosts and hostesses feel they ought not to encourage excessive alcohol consumption. On New Year's Eve especially, they have second thoughts about giving a party with an open bar.

So what are your choices if you do decide to have a cocktail party but don't want the emphasis to be on heavy drinking?

Luckily, punches and mulled wine are entirely appropriate to the holiday season. They can be economical, festive, safer and healthier options, and no one will feel you're doing it to cut corners. Offer an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic version.

Most basic cookbooks will give you recipes. The classic rule for punch is one part sour (like lemon juice), two parts sweet (sugar syrup), three strong (liquor) and four weak (club soda or ginger ale). You might try substituting white wine or sparkling wine for the "strong." Watch out for punch recipes that mix liquors and taste like fruit juice; you don't want to find your guests passed out in the bushes the next morning.

Some hosts or hostesses, especially younger ones, serve wine, beer and non-alcoholic drinks but no hard liquor. You could even give a "mocktail" -- alcohol-free -- party. Stick to mixers and fruit juices, or substitute sparkling white grape juice or de-alcoholized sparkling wine for the champagne in a punch recipe.

Finally, you could opt for a festive wine punch with an open bar as backup. That way you're encouraging guests to go easy on liquor while being a good host to those who prefer scotch and water.

What kind of party you decide to give may depend on the age of your guests. Al Schudel of Pinehurst Gourmet and Spirit Shop on Bellona Avenue recommends, as a rule of thumb, "One-third, one-third, one-third for a party of middle-aged guests. One-third wine, one-third hard liquor, one-third beer." If your guests are younger, increase the amount of beer and wine; if older, have more bourbon and scotch.

If you decide to serve punch or mostly wine, you may still want to have hard liquor on hand. Mr. Schudel recommends gin, vodka, bourbon and scotch as basic necessities for your bar; you might want to add what he calls "extra goodies" such as rum, a Canadian blend, sweet and dry vermouths and brandy.

How much should you buy?

You know your guests best, but two drinks an hour per person -- alcoholic or non-alcoholic -- isn't a bad guideline. You may have bottles left over, but many liquor stores will sell on consignment, so you can return what isn't used.

You'll want to stock plenty of non-alcoholic beverages that can be used as mixers or drunk alone: sparkling water, ginger ale, tonic, Bloody Mary mix, orange juice. If you're planning on mixed drinks, don't forget lemons, limes, cherries, olives, onions and bitters.

Geoff Connor, owner of Calvert Liquors in Cockeysville, says his customers find they almost always have hard liquor left over from a party. He recommends no more than one alcoholic drink per person per hour. Before he gives advice to customers he wants to know how long the affair will be going on, at what time it will start and finish, and what sort of food will be served. He finds that customers in their 20s and 30s weight their purchases heavily toward wine, with liquor simply an emergency backup.

HTC For instance, for an open house for 25 to 30 held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with light food, he recommends eight bottles of a light, dry white wine like a California chardonnay, costing around $7; one or two bottles of red, perhaps a Beaujolais, for around the same price; and an optional blush wine or white zinfandel.

If you don't have liquor already, he suggests buying fifths of premium scotch, a Canadian blend, gin, vodka and perhaps rum. These would cost you $50 or $60. Round out your purchases with a case of beer, half light and half regular.

As for champagne and sparkling wines, Fran Wolbert, manager of the Spirit Shoppe in Ellicott City, says the economy is taking its toll. "In this environment, I see people trading down."

French champagnes and expensive sparkling wines will be given as holiday gifts, but people will be looking for bargains to serve at Christmas and New Year's Eve parties. He recommends Spanish sparkling wines at $7 or $8 a bottle. For champagne punches with plenty of fruit juices, sugar, other liquors and soda, inexpensive California sparkling wines at $4 a bottle are perfectly acceptable.

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