How to create the ultimate drinks menu for a party

Cocktails cheers

Before you start planning an event make sure you read this...

Jeremy Warrillow is the Head of Hospitality at 116 Pall Mall. With more than 20 years of experience in party and event catering, he knows a thing or two when it comes to perfecting the drinks menu. Here, Jeremy reveals his essential tips and trends to ensure your guests will be toasting the host...

What came first? The food or the drink?

When it comes to planning a party, people get very obsessed with the food and tend to forget the drinks. But what do you spend most of your time at a party both doing and holding? Drinking and a drink, of course!

But it's important to match the budget with the mood. Don't try to force either. That means no shots or Aperol Spritz at a corporate lunch, or trying to impress guests with endless champagne because you'll end up bankrupt. There is a superb range of alternatives available. But more on that later.

Don't Let the Fizz Go Flat

A pet hate of mine is starting with a glass of bubbly and then moving onto still wine at a drinks party. It smacks of a desperate attempt to be smart and ends up looking a bit cheap.

Use your budget to purchase better quality still wine for the whole event and make sure you serve it at the right temperature (have lots of ice handy). Ultimately, that’s the smart move.

Calling time on Prosecco?

For summer drinks parties, Prosecco is still the drink. Virtually unknown 10 years ago, it is now the de facto beverage and the UK is its number one export market. In fact, we Brits guzzled a staggering 112.7 million bottles of DOC (Designation of Controlled Origin) Prosecco in 2018.

A little-known fact is that Prosecco is a protected area of Northern Italy and you just can’t keep planting the Prosecco grape (Galera). So, how do you cope with a 45% leap in production in just two years? The answer is to expand planting into previously unsuitable areas, and there is a concern that the quality will soon start to suffer.

Because of the bubbles, Prosecco also gets you tipsy quicker. But because it has become so ubiquitous, its popularity is actually starting to wane. It is also a victim of the current split in quality and price. Drinks purchasers are dividing into two camps - cheap and cheerful versus premiumisation, or quantity v quality.

Buy British

So, the inevitable question is 'what to drink instead?' And the answer can be found on our doorstep. A weaker pound has meant that English sparkling wine is now more affordable than ever compared to its continental counterparts. Plus, sales are up year on year, new vineyards constantly springing up, and there are some superb wines being produced along the south coast.


Names to look out for include Ashling Park, Bluebell Vineyard, Chapel Down and Hambledon, with the Balfour Rose regularly beating Rosé Champagnes in tastings.

In with the Gin Crowd

Part of the premiumisation trend is having single spirit cocktail bars at parties and offering a range of styles and matching cocktails. This trend was led by the recent gin explosion after the Sipsmith founders challenged the 1751 Gin Act (enacted to reduce consumption and stop London being flooded with cheap undistilled gin).

In March 2009, following 18 months of negotiations with the British government, Sipsmiths was finally permitted to open London’s first copper pot distillery in over 200 years. UK distilleries are now worth over a billion pounds in revenue, which means that gin generates more income for the Treasury than beer.

Gin bars have also become a staple at parties, festivals and pop ups, now other premium spirits are moving in on the action. Tequila and Mezcal are being matched with premium tonics and ingredients to create stunning cocktails, along with single still Rums, and my current favourite, which is Bourbon.

If you fancy an alternative to, then my tip is to try a couple of alternative, and contrasting, long drinks.

The first option is to serve a premium Bourbon, like Woodford Reserve or Four Roses, with Fever-Tree Smokey Ginger Ale and a slice of orange. The other suggestion is to mix and an aged Mezcal, like Montelobos Mezcal Joven, with grapefruit juice and Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale.

The New Battleground for Beverages

In 2018, sales of non-alcoholic and low alcohol beer rose by 38%, with sales in the 12 weeks leading up to Christmas increasing by £2.1 million compared to the same period in 2017.

And this is where the industry has got really interesting, partly because of the new battleground for alcohol-free adult drinks.

The main growth market is low and non-alcoholic beers. Once frowned upon, this market is rapidly expanding with a number of UK breweries adding low alcohol versions of their flagship beers to their portfolios. A couple of examples include Greene King with a 0.5% ABV version of Old Speckled Hen, and St Peter’s Without Gold 0.0% ale.

Getting Fruity

When it comes to serving soft drinks, there are some rules you must apply. Firstly, no sweet, warm, sickly glasses of fruit juice - that just doesn’t cut it anymore. And don’t think you can get away with a warm glass of soapy sparkling water, with a couple of dead leaves floating in it pretending to be garnish. At the very least, you should be using lots of ice and a slice of lime or lemon.

For lunch, there are some perennial favourites. Sparkling elderflower with ice and a squeeze of lime, or tonic and bitters, are both deliciously refreshing and easy to make. There is a new range of bitters on the market include Orange and Grapefruit to rival the classic Angostura.

If your budget permits, then for evenings and events the range of distilled drinks from Seedlip are superb. They sell for around the same price as a bottle of premium gin, but tap into this idea of premiumisation and the hunt for quality over quantity.

And finally…Four Things You Must Never Forget

  • Have more ice than you think necessary. Fill your ice buckets then double it, because there is nothing worse than a warm drink on summer day.

  • A Waiters Friend bottle opener fits easily into a pocket and opens anything – even a stuck screw cap.

  •   Have more glasses than you possibly need. Do you really want to be washing lipstick off a glass with cold water while trying to hold a conversation?

  •   Keep it simple. If every drink takes five minutes to make, your guests will spend most of the evening queuing, and your caterers will be overworked. That's a lose-lose situation.

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