How To Set Up A Socially Distanced Drinking Party

How To Set Up A Socially Distanced Drinking Party

Cocktails with friends may not be in the cards right now but you can sure as hell set up a good cocktail party or blind tasting via Zoom. Here's how.

How to host a virtual cocktail party

Keep it casual. If you just want to hang out with your friends over cocktails you can keep it super casual. Just schedule a time and send out a Google Hangout, Zoom, - whatever - link and you’re set. But with a little work you can channel a real old time cocktail party over the Internet.

Step one: Decide on a theme

Think about when you used to have people over and start there. You’re going to want to make this easy on yourself and friends so keep that in mind, none of those fancy cocktails that require a battery of materials unless you and your friends are THOSE SORTS OF PEOPLE.

Cocktails like Martinis, Negronis, Manhattans, and Margaritas are popular for a reason. They’re easy to make and delicious. So, do a bit of brainstorming, don’t go down too many Google holes, and decide on a cocktail theme.

I’ll give you three easy ones to get started:
Pisco Sour party
Mezcal Negroni
Gin and Tonics

Step two: Build and distribute the shopping list

Now that you’ve decided on a recipe, save the url, list out the ingredients, and send it to all your invitees. There is always someone who is going to complain, just deal with them in your gentle persuasion voice. Or ignore them. This will be fun so just get to that part of the party.

In these days of semi-quarantine it may take a few days to either go to the store or get things delivered so plan accordingly. A week is more than enough time for most people to prepare.

Step three: Remind everyone

While this is a festive event people are going to need a gentle prod so make sure to send out an email with the teleconferencing link the morning of the cocktail party along with a reminder about the recipe and, if you can find it, a link to a video of how to make the cocktail.

Step four: Celebrate!

Lay out your ingredients and equipment, fire up the old browser and have fun making and drinking cocktails with your friends!

Get geeky

Say you want to take your social drinking to another level. Well, my friend, one route is to create your very own blind tasting. The structure is pretty similar to the cocktail party but you’re going to have to do more work and conceptualize more. And, should you be deterred, read on because there are some professional alternatives.

How to host a virtual blind tasting

Assuming you want to create your own blind tasting let’s get started...

Step one: Decide on a theme

Are you trying to prove something or do you just want to have fun? Think back to all those lazy bar conversations that you had pre-quarantine, did some crazy argument erupt about whether a type of Gin made the difference in a Martini? What about whether Tequila type mattered in a Margarita? Or, now we’re really getting going, whether there’s a big difference in your favorite Bourbons.

The point here is to challenge yourself a bit, it’s the old scientific method applied to a very subjective category. And the important thing is that you can take advantage of our still extremely strange situation with COVID-19 to make this sort of thing happen so let your imagination run wild, the crazier the idea, the more fun it will be.

Step two: Gather your ammunition

Now that you have a theme, you get to decide on which bottles will fill it out. Maybe you already have an idea, jot those bottles down, then spend a lazy hour or two perusing the catalog of fine Spirits purveyors.

There are so many fun Spirits out there that the real issue is your budget and just how deep you want to go. If you live in an urban area you may have a local Spirits shop with a good selection and smart curator who might be your best resource so don’t be shy, these people live to help you with this sort of opportunity.

As to what to choose, always pick something inexpensive and popular, always choose something obscure as an outlier, then pick bottles according to your real concentration. If i’m doing a Mezcal tasting I’ll usually focus on a region, agave type, or a single distillery so that we can really dig deep.

If it’s Gin in cocktails I’ll focus on a range of Gins to explore how they show when mixed. Hopefully you’re getting the idea here, let your imagination run wild and then dial it back into your budgetary reality. Once you’ve chosen your bottles make a spreadsheet with all the bottles and number them. That’s going to be your blind tasting key.

You’ll also want to get a flavor wheel for inspiration and possibly tasting books. This step is really up to your discretion but if people have a bit of inspiration in front of them they will usually get much more engaged. There are flavor wheels for many Spirits like this one and tasting pocket guides like this one that can either be used specifically for that Spirit or adapted to others. Either way, you’ll also want to create a simple tasting page to help the process along.

There are tasting mats like this one or this one which can easily be adapted to your tasting and then there are tasting notes pages like this one to help with note taking.

All of these are easy guides, you can just print them out and replace the word "Chocolate" with "Single Malt Scotch" in your imagination or with some quick work.

Step three: Arrange the logistics

Now comes the hard part because you actually need to get samples to your tasting group. The easy way is that everyone just orders their own bottles and has them shipped directly. Not only is this easy on you, it’s totally legal. The big downside is cost.

The good news is that the trend in Spirits is towards smaller bottles so that may be a possibility for you. One alternative is that you buy the bottles then break them down into smaller tasting sizes yourself.

If your tasting group is local you can transform yourself into the Spirits fairy and drop the samples off person by person. If your tasting group isn’t local then you can try the not exactly legal approach of breaking large bottles down into sample bottles, sealing them extra tight and taping around the necks to keep them that way, then sending them off. Word to the wise that many shippers don’t like to consciously ship alcohol.

But, this is crucial, as you’re pouring those samples, make sure to mark each bottle with a number that corresponds to that tasting key. We want to keep this tasting blind but also organized!

If you’re fortunate enough in everyone buying their bottles independently then they’re going to have to do this on their own. The easiest way is to put bottles in brown paper bags even if it’s far from perfect. You may have to be accommodating!

Step four: Conduct the tasting

After all that work the big day is here. Gather your friends at the chosen time, set aside some time for the requisite technical difficulties and stragglers (there’s always at least one) and then start guiding everyone through it.

Keep it simple, keep it personable, but also be a guide because people always need some structure. Make sure everyone pours out the samples in order, pulls out their flavor wheels or props, and then start the conversation.

The key to blind tastings is to make everyone comfortable. Most people bring a lot of anxiety to tastings because they assume that they need to act a certain way and feel discomfort because they don’t know as much as everyone else. And that’s the whole point!

So, preface the tasting by saying there are no wrong answers because there are no right answers. We all sense the world differently so the entire idea of blind tastings is to see what everyone else senses.

Start by asking everyone to sip, wash the Spirit around their mouths and hold it there for ten seconds and then spit or swallow. Spirits are high in alcohol so you need to warm up your mouth and get it accustomed to that higher level of alcohol.

Ask everyone to tell you what they sense. Consulting the flavor wheel is totally fine, remember, there is no cheating! Often you need a flavor wheel to get your brain thinking about the world of possible scents and flavors. Many professional tasters even have tasting kits which contain scents so that they can compare what they’re sensing with, for example, the scent of cinnamon, to make sure that’s what they’re really sensing.

Then, ask everyone to taste the first Spirit again. Start by smelling it deeply. You don’t need to swirl Spirits like Wine. They’re so high in alcohol that agitating the glass isn’t going to reveal anything additional about them. There’s no harm in doing it so have at it if you feel like it.

Ask everyone to blurt out what they smell and if they’re hesitant set an example by stepping forward with your impressions. To make everyone super comfortable, just mention the simplest scent that you pick up “It smells like alcohol!” and that should get people going.

Then you’re finally ready to start tasting. Take a sip of that first Spirit, let it sit in your mouth and think about the flavors and sensations. That flavor wheel is going to be your friend here and that paper will as well so that you can jot down impressions before you forget them.

Tasting books can also be of enormous help in structuring your thoughts. Our Mezcal tasting booklet has a few categories which always remind me to think about factors that I’d otherwise forget like the idea of “balance” or “finish” because sometimes I’ll be so into one flavor that I’ll completely forget to think about how a Spirit changed in my mouth.

And that’s it, work your way through all the samples and compare them all. Just make sure that you don’t consume it all on the first pass because you’ll want to taste them a second and third time so that you weigh your impressions as they change.

You will probably pick up on different flavors and scents as you go because the contrasts with different Spirits tend to inspire different impressions. And, most importantly, the conversation that surrounds tastings tends to inspire sensations and further ideas. That’s the fun of it all, the social element of tasting should ideally inspire and provoke.

Bring in the professionals

Ok, so say any or all of these remote tastings only inspire anxiety or you are simply too busy juggling work, family, and everything else in life to really work out the details. You can always turn to professionals to do it all for you.

I have guided a number of remote agave Spirits tastings (if you’re interested, get in touch!) and there are lots of people like me out there. You can Google for specialists or keep it local by calling your local bar or favorite bartender. They would be glad for the business and, even if they haven’t done this sort of thing already, should be able to set it up quickly.

Some bars have even set up their own tasting kits and lead these sorts of tastings periodically. The funny thing is that you’re reading this at Flaviar which curates this exact type of tasting.

Their quarterly tasting boxes are fun, easy, and inexpensive. Sure, they take the level of creativity and curation out of your hands but for many people that’s exactly what they want in a Spirits service!

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