Forget those "Sex and the City" girly drinks masquerading as martinis. Cocktails have gotten serious about seasonal ingredients and about drink preparation.
Belly up to any trendy bar and you'll find mixologists raiding the pantry, creating cocktails reminiscent of salsa (tequila, tomatillo, cilantro and habanero at Tailor in New York), salad (tomatoes, basil and cognac at Le Passage in Chicago) and dessert (muddled strawberries and crème de menthe whipped cream at Sona in Los Angeles).
Thanks to the reinvention of the bar as a liquid kitchen, the culinary cocktail is the toast among foodies, reviving the cocktail party in time for holiday season. It's the 1950s recipe for entertaining -- martinis, pigs in a blanket, Sinatra on the hi-fi, more martinis -- updated to millennial tastes, but with the same social soul.
"The bar really is an extension of the kitchen," says Kathy Casey, who trained as a chef and has spent the past 15 years in Seattle using her skills at the bar. "You can use herbs, vegetables and fruit. It's a very open slate."
And, of course, running the bar makes you the party hub. "The bar is the center of socializing," says Alberta Straub, host of "Cocktails on the Fly," an Internet TV show that demonstrates drinks. "Hosts can run the bar and have fun doing it."
Stocking the bar has never been more fun as spirits-makers join the culinary revolution. Modern Spirits (modernspiritsvodka.com), for example, makes black truffle vodka and a celery peppercorn variety. Stirrings (stirrings.com) makes "rimmers," those granulated blends used to rim a glass a la the salted margarita, in flavors such as cocoa, coffee and sugar plum. And for those who can't be bothered with making their own mixers, Modmix (modmixbeverages.com) offers five organic flavors ranging from French martinis to lavender lemon drops (you add the booze).
"You don't want to get too crazy with lots of ingredients," says Stefanie Marco, mixologist for Stirrings. "You can take basic cocktails and modernize them with one or two unique ingredients," such as infused spirits, rimming the glass in sugar or spices, or adding an unexpected garnish such as a thin slice of pear.
To successfully pull off a cocktail-focused holiday party, stick with no more than two signature drinks at the bar to supplement the wine and champagne on offer, advises Casey. "If it's a really big party, stick to just one." Premix batches and designate someone to run the bar, or hire help for the evening.
Because bartending, mind you, is a commitment. "It's different from cooking, when once you serve you can sit with your guests," says Straub of Cocktails on the Fly. "People will continue to want drinks."
And don't think drinks are only alcoholic. There are plenty of nonalcoholic versions to keep your guests happy.
For either, fresh ingredients are important. Squeeze your lemons and limes within an hour of the party. Ice is vital to a good cocktail, too. "You don't want mushy refrigerator ice. You want large chunks which melt more slowly and don't dilute the cocktail," said Straub. Stockpile ice the week prior to a party, buying inch-square ice cube trays, or freezing water in bread pans and breaking it up inside a pillow case. Try freezing herbs or edible flowers in ice cubes for a festive look.
Drinks, of course, demand food. "Even if your invitation is for 7:30 or 8 p.m., people still think they're coming for dinner," says Casey. Go with a variety of six to eight appetizers to keep the vibe convivial, planning on about 12 pieces per person. Casey likes good cheeses, crostini topped with goat cheese and chutney, balsamic marinated mushrooms, and skewered shrimp. Save the veggies and dip for Super Bowl parties. "No one eats them around nice cocktails."
Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean contributed to this story.