Top down view of 2 glasses of fruity punch with ice cubes and slices of lime and orange.
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By Adrienne Stillman
June 9, 2017

Whether you’re throwing a casual barbecue, a big birthday bash or an outdoor wedding, the cocktails you serve will set the tone for any summer event. It’s a balancing act: You want to keep your drinks interesting (vodka-tonics and beer need not apply), satisfy a variety of tastes and avoid sending your guests home too buzzed — all while operating within a reasonable budget.

First, a few guidelines.

1. Keep the alcohol content low: For any gathering under the beating sun, serving cocktails that are relatively low in alcohol is prudent. Make sure you provide plenty of water to help people keep hydrated.

2. Keep it simple: No host wants to spend the whole party playing bartender, and unless you’re hiring a professional mixologist, even a catering staff might not be trained in the art of mixing drinks. To avoid disappointment, choose relatively simple cocktails that you can batch ahead of time and serve in a pitcher or punch bowl.

3. Take advantage of bottled cocktails, syrups and liqueurs: Following on the “keep it simple” rule, an easy way to add pizzazz is to use bottled cocktails or syrups. Crafthouse Cocktails, created by Charles Joly, formerly of Chicago’s The Aviary, is a great source for high-quality bottled cocktails. Cocktail & Sons makes delicious syrups that instantly dress up basic favorites with flavors like Mint-Lemon Verbena and Honeysuckle-Peppercorn. Liqueurs like St-Germain and Aperol also work well as mixers.

4. When in doubt, add bubbles: Nothing says celebration like bubbly, and it’s easy to make great sparkling cocktails. Play with adding sparkling wine to familiar drinks — like the Mojito or the Southside — for a jazzed-up alternative.

And now, the best cocktails to serve at a summer bash.

Mules and Collins

I love Mules and Collins for parties because they’re dead simple, refreshing and can easily be batched in advance. They cater to diverse tastes, because you can use almost any liquor you want.

Moscow Mule

2 parts vodka

1/2 part lime juice

3 parts ginger beer (not ginger ale)

Garnish: Lime wedge

Combine ingredients over ice in a highball glass. Use bourbon for a Kentucky Mule, Gin and mint for a Gin-Gin Mule or rum to make it a Dark & Stormy.

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Tom Collins

2 parts gin

3/4 parts lemon juice

3/4 parts simple syrup

2 parts club soda (give or take)

Garnish: Lemon wedge

Combine ingredients over ice and serve in a highball glass on the rocks. Use vodka for an Ivan Collins, whiskey for a John Collins or tequila for a Juan Collins.

Southside

This is one of my all-time favorite cocktails, and an excellent choice for a summer soirée because it can easily be lengthened with club soda or sparkling wine.

2 parts gin

1 parts lime juice

3/4 parts simple syrup

Few mint leaves

Garnish: Lime wheel

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail coupe, or serve over ice in a highball glass and top with club soda or sparkling wine.

Gold Rush

This classic bourbon-honey-lemon cocktail will delight whiskey lovers and convert the hesitant.

2 parts bourbon

3/4 part lemon juice

3/4 part honey syrup (1:1 ratio honey to water)

Shake with ice and strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass.

Negroni

Any version of this Italian staple is a solid party choice, because it consists of three readily available bottled ingredients (Campari, vermouth and gin). One caveat: the Negroni breaks the low-alcohol rule, so may not be the best choice for a daytime event. For a lower-alcohol version, swap the gin for prosecco to create a Negroni Sbagliato (a “mistaken” Negroni, so called because — according to mixology folklore — a distracted bartender created the drink by accident when he grabbed the wrong bottle).

Negroni Sbagliato

1 part prosecco (or other dry sparkling wine)

1 part Campari

1 part sweet vermouth

Garnish: Orange peel

Combine all ingredients in a rocks glass over ice.

Stars in the Garden

If I may recommend one final guiding principle: Embrace edible glitter. It’s a fun way to bring a little glam to your glasses. Prairie Rose of the cocktail blog Bit By a Fox added gold stars to this dreamy creation that ticks all the boxes: It’s low-alcohol, super simple and bubbly.

2 parts pink grapefruit juice

1 part St-Germain

3 parts sparkling wine

Garnish: Edible glitter and edible stars

In an ice-filled shaker, add 1/2 tsp edible glitter, pink grapefruit juice and St-Germain. Shake until well chilled and strain into a coupe glass. Top off with sparkling wine and sprinkle with edible stars.

Adrienne Stillman is the author of Where Bartenders Drink and co-founder of Dipsology, a curated guide to cocktail bars in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @alstillman.

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