Tips for Throwing the Perfect Cocktail Party from Food Network's Hearty Boys

Widow's Kiss cocktail by the Hearty Boys.
Widow's Kiss cocktail by the Hearty Boys.

By Virginie Boone

Looking to throw the perfect cocktail party this holiday season? The Hearty Boys, otherwise known as Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, have a new book with tips to show you how.

"The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks From The Hearty Boys," is all about making home cocktails easier and more fun, with a nod to many favorite drinks of the past as well as bar snacks and appetizers to balance out those strong flavors.

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"The cocktail scene over the last five to seven years has been so hot on both coasts," notes McDonagh, who is based in Chicago, where he runs the restaurant Hearty. "But the average person still doesn't understand what's going on. This book is written for the regular person who feels intimidated by today's cocktail list."

He says it's also about empowerment, about showing people who don't know their Peychaud's from their Angostura (they're two types of bitters) how to make cocktails on their own and throw a cocktail party.

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To that end, the Boys are especially fans of four- or five-ingredient cocktails based around a primary liquor matched with a liqueur, a sweetener, citrus and bitter served in a small glass; they believe our drinks these days are simply too large.

"I just love the mixing, the ritual of it, the ritual of the muddling, the shaking," McDonagh adds. "And it's important to add in a toast."

He and Smith got the idea for the book from their experience on the Food Network, where they won the first season of "The Next Food Network Star" and then hosted their own series called "Party Line With the Hearty Boys."

"We'd say to ourselves, 'Dan's mom can't get that [ingredient], " McDonagh says. "It was the big lesson we took away. We're talking to everyone."

Of course, they didn't want to dumb it down or simplify things too far. Neither did they want to focus their recipes on specific brands, unless a drink absolutely called for one.

What they love is the chance to highlight lost and long-out-of-production spirits that, thanks to the cocktail craze, are trickling back into production again. Things like crème de violette, an important ingredient in the classic Aviation cocktail; or green and yellow Chartreuse (made in the Swiss Alps for more than 400 years) and maraschino liqueur, two ingredients McDonagh swears by.

Ingredients for a cocktail party

As for the home bar, he recommends keeping the following on hand --

- Benedictine, a cognac-and-herb-based liqueur

- Elderflower liqueur ("it works so well with pre-Prohibition recipes")

- Galliano, a sweet herbal liqueur made from vanilla, star anise and herbs

- Three types of whiskey (rye, bourbon and Scotch - "you do need all three, they're so different")

- Tequila

- Mescal

- A good vermouth (he likes Dolin and Vya)

- Lillet, a French wine-based aperitif that comes in white and red versions.

"You don't need much vodka at all," he notes. "I'm very big into bitter and herbal flavors, they go with food." The original purpose of the cocktail hour was to "get our palates going," he says. But these days, people drink more vodka cocktails, often loaded with sugar to make them palatable.

Hard sought-after vintage recipes figure prominently, many from wood-bound books the duo found along the way.

McDonagh highly recommends the vintage Widow's Kiss, a blend of Calvados, Chartreuse and Benedictine, the recipe for which is also below:

Mistaken Negroni

Serves 1

From "The New Old Bar"


1 ounce Campari

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce fresh orange juice

Sparkling wine or Prosecco

Orange peel for garnish


1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.

2. Shake well.

3. Strain into a Champagne flute and top with sparkling wine (or pour over ice).

4. Serve garnished with a flamed orange peel (see note).

Note: "To flame an orange peel, hold a 1-inch round of peel (skin side facing the drink) between thumb and forefinger, being careful not to squeeze and dispel the oils," McDonagh says. "In the other hand, hold a lit match or, my preference, a long matchstick lighter, between the peel and the cocktail. As you squeeze the peel over the surface of the cocktail, the oils will spark through the flame and leave a lovely, caramelized, aromatic finish to the drink. You can then toss in the garnish as you normally would."

Widow's Kiss

Serves 1

From "The New Old Bar"


1½ ounces Calvados

¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse

¾ ounce Benedictine

2 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters

Maraschino cherry for garnish


1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.

2. Shake well.

3. Strain into a chilled coupe and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.


Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.


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