Your Easy, Cheap, Foolproof Guide to Big Batch Cocktails

All you need is one formula, some bottom shelf booze, and a guest list.

The alternate title for this article was, “How to Get Everyone at Your Party Loaded without Spending a Lot of Money on Pricey Booze.” But it just didn’t roll off the tongue, you know? The spirit is the same, though – whether you're talking warm-weather outdoor affairs or wintry holiday parties, post-college ragers or grown-up soirées, parties are a staple of the drinking class. But those liquor store receipts can add up.

Sure, you can put out a witty, mildly passive aggressive tip jar in the hopes that these people – your favorite people – will contribute something toward the price tag of your expertly executed party. But that's kind of tacky. Instead, we suggest you consider a wallet-conscious staple of every good party, the big batch cocktail. This serves three purposes:

  1. Instead of putting your manicured liquor collection on display and watching your so-called friends reenact the sack of Rome, you buy one or two bottles of mid to bottom shelf booze and it still tastes great.

  2. Batches taste wonderful, to everyone. Your broseph’s twiggy girlfriend doesn’t like whiskey? It literally couldn’t matter less. Tell her it’s rum. Hell, tell her it’s Grand Marnier. These concoctions combine so many flavors that everything melds into a cold, delicious amalgam of fruity ambrosia.

  3. They’re strong, and they stretch. Typically, you want a giant block of ice in a punchbowl, which gradually cools, and dilutes the drink. When you’re running low, just dump in more of a few secondary ingredients. By that time in the evening, we promise no one’s palate will be sharp enough to know the difference.

Look in any good bar book, and you’ll see most big batch cocktails share a few key ingredients. Let’s go through those, keeping in mind that you are mixing all this together. And again, don’t buy top shelf stuff. You and Admiral Nelson are about to set sail for the first time since college, my friend.

The Only Recipe You Need

Donny Clutterbuck, head bartender at Cure in Rochester, NY, uses a traditional Barbadian formula that's simple, easy to remember, and can be adapted to any taste or situation. It goes like this: one part sour, two parts sweet, three parts strong, and four parts weak.

To expand on that slightly: strong is booze. The weak can be ice, water, wine, or champagne. Sour is citrus; lemon works best with dark spirits and lime with clear. Sweet, of course, is syrups or sugar. Mix it all up according to the size of your crowd, then enjoy the party.

The Breakdown

If you want to keep things as simple as possible, you can just memorize the above points, then go grab whatever is in your cupboards and mix away. If you want to take a slightly more nuanced approach, read on.

The Strong

The most popular go-tos for big batches seem to be gin (botanicals play nice with citrus) and rum (stretches the flavor profile between sweetness and depth). But whiskey does just as well, or even something surprising like genever, gin’s wild Dutch half-cousin.

The Sour

In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear, you need a citrus element in any big batch. Lemon and/or lime juice is a traditional favorite, and can easily be complemented with liqueurs and spirits with orange layers. We're especially partial to grapefruit – the added bitter element is particularly nice, and it works beautifully to mask any harshness in the booze.

Whatever juice you use, be sure it’s fresh, and save some fruit for cutting into rings and placing in the punch bowl to garnish.

The Sweet

A big batch of dry and bitter is no big batch at all. The sweetness in massive cocktails covers any deficiencies in your choice of liquor, and makes everything infinitely more sippable. That means even the 22-year-old Red Cat fan in the corner is having a good night.

This sweet factor can take the form of raw sugar, simple syrup, grenadine, raspberry syrup, or even something like ginger beer. Think about what flavors you’re working with, whether you want it fizzy, and what will complement everything else.

The Weak

Some recipes will count ice as their "weak" factor, since it'll melt and water down the punch, but that's only if you use ice cubes that'll melt quickly. Which we don't recommend – but more on that in a sec.

So instead, you're going to want water, club soda, or anything else that won't impart too much flavor or booze for this step. Or if you want to play fast and loose with the term "weak," ensuring that your guests will have an especially fun night (and an especially hungover next morning), use champagne or wine instead.

Keeping it Cold

As we said earlier, you want a large block of ice that will gradually melt. That cools and dilutes the drink without immediately watering it down, like ice cubes would.

To make one, find a bread or bundt pan the night before your party. Fill it with filtered water and place some fruit rings, edible flowers, or herbs (rosemary and mint are especially nice) in the water. Put it in the freezer. The next day, get a bowl of hot water and float the pan in the hot water. Soon, the ice will detach from the pan while retaining its shape. Put that ice brick into your big batch cocktail, and you’re in business.

Add a Surprise

This is your opportunity to both get fancy, and supplement any category that’s lacking. If you’re not sure about the sweetness, use a liqueur that will boost sweet notes while also adding a new, complex flavor.

Campari can overpower an uninitiated drinker when it’s one of three strong ingredients (i.e. in a Negroni) but when put with lighter ingredients like sparkling wine, it dissipates and becomes an indiscernible but pleasant flavor that helps bind everything together. Orange liqueurs like Cointreau, or Triple Sec play up citrus while adding sweetness.

The surprise ingredient could also help add volume. Like we said before, champagne and sparkling wine, or even a deeper red wine, can fill out the batch for your "weak" aspect, but also do some really cool things for the flavor.

Five ingredients, one batch. Fast, cheap, and effective. And, the next day, after all of your friends leave, you can reach under the sink, move aside your strategically arranged wall of cleaning supplies, and take out that expensive bottle of whatever. Pour yourself a glass and rejoice that you traversed yet another party with both friendships and top shelf stash intact.

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