Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | August 17, 2009

Getting Past the Highball at Parties

I’ve been to a number of events lately — weddings, conferences, college reunions — that have generously offered up open bars, well stocked with an array of quality base spirits. I’ve come across daunting displays that include multiple vodkas, tequilas, scotches, alongside gin, rum, and bourbon. There are also usually lonely looking bottles of French and Italian vermouth. Looking at the array and taking into account that most event-staff bartenders don’t know much in the way of cocktail making, it’s not shocking that most people order either a spirit on the rocks or, more often, a highball.

Unfortunately this is where the problem for a cocktailian comes in. Sure, I don’t mind a gin and tonic or vodka-soda on a hot afternoon, particularly if I’m  stuck in a suit at an outdoor wedding. But other than a strong pour of a base spirit or a run of very sweet soda-based  drink, your options are limited.

At my cousin’s wedding this weekend, the choices were aided by the presence of the dry and sweet vermouth. There was also triple sec, which made Margaritas a popular alternative to highballs with the guests. I don’t know how much I trust an amateur bartender of making reliable Manhattans, so I chose to stay away from them. But it just so happens that my preferred Martini contains equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, I can get a passable (though by no means great) cocktail.

The problems with getting a good Martini in this situation are many:

  1. The likelihood of the bartender having a bartending spoon to stir the drink is slim. Most likely you’re stuck with a poorly shaken drink of not-quite-cold-enough temperature.
  2. If you like olives, you should have no problem. But if you want a twist, you’re likely going to be dealing with a hacked up quarter slice of lemon that is defleshed. It’s not the prettiest and is likely to have at least as much lemon juice as lemon oil in it.
  3. Not shockingly, there isn’t going to be a drop of orange bitters in sight.

The flip side of this, though, is that I can still end up with something that’s more interesting and tasty than another highball or a straight glass of whiskey.

There are other things you can do. Though I didn’t do it, you can certainly make a Rickey at a wedding bar. It requires hand squeezing about 8-10 of those tiny lime wedges, but again, you will end up with something pretty close to what you were looking for.

Ending up with a poor set of choices is pretty common at weddings and big events with run of the mill bars is pretty common… What other solutions have you found to the highball woes, dear readers?



  1. This is the age old dilemma. Depending on weather and gin/bourbon selection, I tend to start with either a martini or a manhattan. I know it’s a mediocre manhattan (and likely without bitters), but at least I’m not drinking bourbon with coke…

  2. Yeah that’s a pretty solid solution.

    One risk with martini/manhattan orders is that the vermouth in use is likely of dubious age and quality. But it’s what you take in order to stay away from the sugar fest.

  3. […] Dilemma.” It’s a variation on a post I’d written here a couple years ago, “Getting Past the Highball at Parties.” The text of the column is below the […]

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