Great Gear for Parties
If you’re having a party—whether it’s a small get-together or a call-the-cops dance party—you’ll need some supplies. Here’s our guide to the most essential gear you’ll need to throw the best party. The picks below represent several hundred hours of research and testing; some picks come from longer full guides, while other items come from research we did specifically for this collection. A great party is a chance to put your phone down and enjoy good company. Prepare just enough so you can relax and have fun. It’s your party, after all.
Some of the items here are seasonal and out of stock. We're working on updating this guide for 2014.
Looking for dinner-party gear, from roasting pans to basic plates? We’ve got you covered.
Table of contents
- Table and snacks
Using a smallish Bluetooth speaker allows you to have a dance party in any room and cede control of the decks to your friends with Bluetooth-enabled devices. Our favorite home Bluetooth speaker is the Peachtree Audio deepblue2.
It’s the one speaker we tested that everyone on our blind-listening panel agreed sounded great—and once the blindfolds came off, that everyone agreed looked good. A Bluetooth speaker won’t be as powerful or rich as a stereo system, but in our tests the deepblue2 delivered full, big sound for the wide variety of music styles we tried. For the price, nothing else can touch it—this model sounds at least 80 percent as good as our upgrade pick, the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless, a speaker that sells for hundreds of dollars more.
If you’re interested in filling a much bigger space—or the whole house—you should get our favorite whole-home audio system instead (see below). Or if you’d rather have something that you can move from room to room, and you’re willing to give up a bit of sound quality, get the Riva Turbo X, which is the upgrade pick in our portable speaker guide. —Ganda Suthivarakom
Home music system
Rule the ambience for guests in every room of the house (no matter how big your palace is) with a whole-home wireless music system. We’ve spent hundreds of hours over several months using six whole-home wireless music systems in every possible room and Sonos is still the best around because it’s super easy to use and set up, and has excellent sound quality for the price.
The best part about a wireless home music system compared with a series of Bluetooth speakers is that it connects directly to the Internet instead of relying on your phone or computer. Just select the music you want to play and the machine will do the rest, freeing up your phone to do other stuff—with no notification sounds or ringtones to interrupt playback. And you can play different music in different rooms, or group them together, all while maintaining independent volume control on each unit. —GS
A good selection of candles can make or break a party’s atmosphere. In a new round of testing this fall, we looked at dozens of candles online and spent several hours on research to determine this year’s top picks.
You can find four main styles of candles: tapers, which are tall and skinny, and stand in candlesticks; pillar candles, which are squat (usually at least 2 to 3 inches in diameter) and come in a variety of heights; votives, which measure about 2 inches tall and 1 inch wide, and go in votive holders; and tea lights, small candles in metal cups that traditionally serve to warm teapots but also make great accent lighting.
For all the candles we tested, we looked for four main things: no dripping (which can ruin candleholders or tablecloths), very little smoke or none at all, no scent to interfere with food on the table, and the length of burn time.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $21.
Our favorite taper was Candle Charisma’s 12-inch Elegant Premium Quality Taper (available in a set of 12 on Amazon), which was the only brand of candles we tested that didn’t drip. Available in white or ivory, these scentless candles burned for an impressive 10 hours and gave off little smoke in our tests. At 12 inches, they provided the most dramatic and elegant ambiance to the table.
Our previous pick from last year, Light in the Dark’s 10-inch taper, is still being sold under that brand name, even though it’s now made by a different company called Spaas. When we tested these candles again this year, they proved to be of inferior quality: They dripped significantly, and they measured 9½ inches, not 10. Mega Candles’s Unscented 10-inch Taper Candles gave off a lot of smoke when blown out, dripped some wax, and had the shortest burn time of all the candles we tested. Entertaining with Caspari’s candles dripped and gave off too much smoke, while those from Colonial Candle arrived broken in shipping. Crate and Barrel’s White 12-inch Taper Candle had a thicker base that didn’t fit some of our candlesticks.
We couldn’t find pillar candles we liked more than Yummi’s round pillar candles (available in a set of three), our top pick from the previous year. Available in three heights (3 by 8 inches, 3 by 6 inches, and 3 by 4 inches) and almost any color you can imagine, and with a claimed burn time of 60 hours, these candles stood unmatched by the others we tested. The Yummi candles melted the least (compared with Richland and Hanna’s candles) and gave off little smoke when extinguished.
Our top pick for votive candles last year, Light in the Dark’s 15 Hour White Unscented Votive Candles (available in a set of 36) are still the best around. These votives remained lit for an impressive 12½ hours in our tests, and Amazon reviewers indicate the same average. Of the votive candles we tested, these dried the quickest, gave off no smell, and put out almost no smoke.
With an impressively long burn time of about seven hours, Richland’s Tealight Candles Extended Burn (available in a pack of 100) remain our top pick this year. These tea lights gave off the least amount of smoke compared with IKEA GLIMMA unscented tea lights (sold in a pack of 100) and Waxations Superior Quality Unscented Tea Light Candles (available in a pack of 125). In our test, the IKEA candles burned for only five hours, and their wax turned an unattractive yellow color. The Waxations tea lights had the shortest burn time of four hours and gave off a lot of smoke when extinguished. —Jamie Wiebe, Michael Sullivan
In an age when most people experience photos only as pixels on their phones, nothing draws attention at a party like the tactile, retro charm of an instant camera. Our pick for an instant camera is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S. Its film is widely available, and the pocket-sized prints make for excellent keepsakes with rich contrast, nicely saturated colors, and pleasing detail. The 2.4-by-1.8-inch prints from the Mini 50S cost about 70 cents each. —GS
Glasses (most versatile)
After 28 hours of research including drop tests onto tile and concrete, plus a year of long-term testing, we couldn’t resist picking the Picardie tumbler from French manufacturer Duralex as our favorite drinking glass. While they look elegant enough for the dinner table, they’re versatile enough to sit stacked up on the bar for use as wine or cocktail glasses. You’ll spot these glasses at Paris bistros and Middle Eastern tea shops, making everything from espresso shots to bordeaux look good. During our temperature stress tests, the Picardie tumbler’s tempered glass withstood freezing temps and boiling water, so it’ll work for both hot apple cider and ice water. When we flung the tumblers off an 8-foot roof onto a linoleum floor, they didn’t break, and because they stack well they’re easy to store once your dinner is over.
The 10⅞-ounce size is ideal for smaller portions of juice or warm punch and comes in boxes of six. For water or for tall coolers like iced tea and lemonade, the 16⅞-ounce tumbler (box of six) is big enough to hold your drink and lots of ice, too.
There’s no end to the number of sources that confirm this durable drinking glass is everything it promises to be: It made the SAVEUR 100, The Kitchn loves it, and The Guardian once declared the Picardie tumbler one of the top 10 “classics of everyday design.” —Eve O’Neill
Our experts unanimously agree that to experience the flavors and aromas of fine Champagne, drinking it out of a wine glass is best. But when your friends descend for a celebration, whether the glass “does something” for your bubbly misses the point—flutes are fun. Our favorite flute for getting six or more of your family and friends sozzled is the Crate and Barrel Viv Champagne Glass, and the reason is the price. No one wants to break the bank passing out glasses for a toast. The Viv is tall, elegant, and available for only $5 each or in a set of eight for $35.
The Viv doesn’t have the characteristics that make higher-end flutes better than others, namely tulip-shaped bowls, effervescence points, and leaded crystal. For fine dining or an intimate occasion, our favorite high-quality Champagne flute is the Riedel Vinum Cuvee Prestige, and you can read about it in our full-length guide.
But we don’t think you want to spend $200 for a party of eight to come over and drink $40 worth of Prosecco. The Viv costs about $5 and looks marvelous. Though it’s made of glass, the lip and bowl are pulled thin, which creates the refined quality that separates restaurant-grade models from more expensive dinnerware. Looking at the selection in store, I have found one or two that have slight defects in craftsmanship, but small imperfections can’t be avoided in such inexpensive glassware, and we’ll bet your guests won’t notice.
It’s just the right amount of tall at 9½ inches—not so stubby that it looks plain, not so towering that you could break it with a glance. Of all the glass shapes Crate and Barrel sells, the Viv flute has the most user-friendly proportions. I walked into the store and examined each one: It doesn’t loom on a skinny stick like the Camille, or get top-heavy when full like the Vineyard. The base, stem and bowl are in the right proportion to keep liquid stable. The Silhouette is the favorite budget option we list in our full-length guide because of the tulip-shaped bowl, which won’t get in the way of your nose when you’re drinking, but it’s pricier at about $8 each.
If you need a boatload of glasses, the cheapest flute available is the $2 HEDERLIG from IKEA. It’s clunkier and shorter than the Viv, and the stem is thicker, resembling most of the restaurant-grade glassware available. In spite of that, we’ve seen these glasses at banquets, and they still look and feel special. The quality has been consistent in the glasses we’ve seen, so you shouldn’t get a wonky lopsided glass (but if you do, that’s what $2 buys these days). You can’t get them online; they’re available in-store only. —EO
The Riedel Ouverture Magnum (available in a set of eight) has a unique ability: It can make anything taste pretty darn good. We had a professional winemaker blind-taste wine in more than 30 different glasses, and he confirmed that if you want one glass for serving red wine, white wine, Champagne, or even spirits, the Ouverture Magnum does the job better than any of the hundreds of glasses out there. Our winemaker tried several types of red and white in this glass, noting that it made each taste “simple” and “easy.” No other all-purpose glass could present several different types of wine in a favorable way.
In particular, the short stem on this glass makes it great for dinner parties. Only 7⅞ inches tall, this lower-profile glass fits in the top rack of a dishwasher, stashes easily in a cabinet, and remains difficult to tip over on a table or a dish-clogged counter.
Shorter also means less visual noise on the table—more room for serving bowls, and no towering glasses blocking conversation or getting in the way of passing around the casserole. Stemless glasses are good at that too, but the stem has a purpose: It’s there so your body heat doesn’t warm up the wine, and it keeps fingerprints off the bowl.
For wine glasses, these are durable. Nick Rood, the tasting room manager at Vintner’s Collective in California’s Napa Valley, uses them in his tasting room. “We use dozens a day,” he told us. “We also run them through a 180-degree dishwasher and polish all of them by hand … and I think we only break one a month.”
The Ouverture Magnum isn’t fine dining drinkware; it’s an everyday glass. So if you’re seeking something more elegant to create a polished and formal feel for your dinner table, look at our full-length wine glass guide, where we recommend the Riedel Vinum series. The specifics depend on the type of glass you get, but most of the Vinum pieces are taller than the Ouverture Magnum, made of leaded crystal, and a better choice if you plan on breaking out your fine china or hosting an intimate group of two to four.
For sprucing up a table for a group of six to eight, though, the Ouverture Magnum is plenty beautiful and made of lead-free crystal, which means it’s pulled thinner and finer than inexpensive tableware sets (all of which are made of basic, non-crystal soda-lime glass). They weigh less than regular glass, sparkle more, and have an iconic, egg-shaped, 18⅝-ounce bowl—big enough to aerate red wines and small enough to keep whites crisp. Glasses with giant, 23-ounce bowls can showcase only one type of wine with any finesse, and they bogart all your cabinet space. Glasses with smaller capacities, in the 12-to-14-ounce range, aren’t broad enough to aerate red wine.
You’ll find no cheaper glass that can also make wine taste good, and no glass this versatile at any price. For the uncle who brings a bottle of Crown Royal every year, it can work as a snifter too. And come time for brunch the next day, water sipped from a heavy IKEA HEDERLIG feels strange. But fill your Ouverture Magnum with water, punch, lemonade, mimosa, or iced tea, and it has done the work of two different sets.
Amazon reviewers consistently make these type of comments: “You notice that the rim is ground and polished and the seams are [minimal]” and “This is the best everyday wine glass I have found. Good mouth feel and just the right size.” Riedel quality is a home run. —EO
Pitcher for water
When it comes to having a pitcher of water on the table, we found that simple and cheap is the way to go. The Weck Canning/Juice Jar is economical, sturdy, and comfortable to hold. It has a small footprint, and the classic shape blends in well on most dining tables. It comes with a loose-fitting glass lid that’s a little impractical for day-to-day use, but thankfully you can purchase a plastic snap-on lid if you require airtight storage in the refrigerator. Even with the extra lid, though, we can’t recommend storing this jar on its side in case your fridge has limited shelf clearance.
We looked at many bottles to use as water pitchers for this guide. Anchor Hocking makes a bottle similar to our pick at a comparable price, but the glass is thick and the bottle is heavier; we like the lighter weight of the Weck. The Bormioli Glass Bottle with Stopper is the exact same bottle that Crate and Barrel sells under the name Airtight Glass Bottle. These stopper bottles have sturdy gaskets and a leakproof seal—not a drop escaped when we stored these bottles on their sides for four days in The Sweethome’s test-kitchen fridge. Unfortunately, everyone who put their hands on the bottles agreed that they weren’t comfortable to hold, and the water glugged out as opposed to flowing in a smooth and steady pour. IKEA also makes an airtight glass bottle called the KORKEN, but the gasket was thin and looked as if it would give out after a short amount of time and use. —Lesley Stockton
If you’re serious about cocktails, we recommend stocking three styles of glassware: a stemmed glass, a tall glass, and a short glass. The bartenders and cocktail experts from across the nation whom we spoke to agree that a good cocktail glass is visually and physically balanced, not too big, and durable. “A cocktail is really about pleasure at any degree, and the glass is part of that,” said Allan Katz, co-founder of New York Distilling Company and the Shanty. In addition to Katz, we spoke with Abigail Gullo, a veteran bartender currently working at Compère Lapin in New Orleans ( Eater just named her the best bartender); Zac Overman, bar manager at Seattle’s renowned Sitka & Spruce; and Chris Amirault, a former director of forums at eGullet who teaches cocktail classes in people’s homes.“Most high-end glassware isn’t made for dependable home use: It’s fragile, or too big, or colored, or has idiotic stems, lips, or design,” Amirault told us. Our experts suggest scouring thrift stores for vintage glassware or buying the same sturdy stock used in most restaurants and bars. —Hannah Kirshner
For cocktails served “up,” from manhattans to margaritas, this 4½-ounce Libbey coupe is ideal. Zac Overman was not subtle about his disdain for the V-shaped martini glass, which is prone to sloshing over. “The classic coupe looks great and curves back on itself and keeps the drink in the glass,” Overman said. Allan Katz agreed: “You want it to feel balanced, not just on the table but in your hand.” The visual is important too, added Abigail Gullo. “I like a sense of proportion,” she told us.
Particularly when it comes to a stemmed glass, for drinks not served with ice, it’s important to avoid any glass that’s too big. “Most drinks are meant to be consumed fairly quickly. There’s a short window to enjoy a drink while it’s really cold,” said Gullo. A 10- or 12-ounce martini leaves you sipping a warm cocktail. Our experts like the Libbey 4½-ounce coupe, which is designed to take heavy use in a bar, making it ideal for the home too. “They’re sturdy enough to stand up not only to use, but to the dishwasher,” said Katz. Libbey glassware is sold by the case at restaurant-supply stores (and on Amazon), but Awesome Drinks sells these in sets of four, with a discount if you buy more. —HK
For a fizzy refreshing Tom Collins, a Bloody Mary, a gin and tonic, or even a pour of pilsner, we suggest a 10- to 12-ounce collins; you can get a set of four made by Libbey. If you want to split hairs, glass makers actually sell a variety of tall styles intended for different drinks, but collecting them all would be impractical for home use. What guest is going to look at you askew if you serve a gin fizz in a collins instead of in a highball? (If you don’t know why that’s a problem, I’ve made my point.) Our experts agreed that a collins is a good one-size-fits-all option.
“I like a straight chimney shape, so I can stack nice big ice cubes in it,” said Abigail Gullo. Fluted versions exist too, but bartenders prefer a straight-sided glass, with a heavy bottom for stability. This style of glass is also great for serving lemonade or iced tea in the summer. Don’t forget the straw—these glasses are awkward to drink from without one, and it provides the visual finishing touch. —HK
*At the time of publishing, the price was $25.
An 8-ounce double old-fashioned is the perfect glass for a Sazerac, a martini on the rocks, a cobbler, a negroni, or—of course—an old-fashioned. We like this set of four from Godinger, because they look like Waterford crystal but cost even less than the plain Libbey version. As for what to look for in an old-fashioned, Allan Katz told us that “it should feel substantial.” Abigail Gullo agreed: “I like some heft. It seems regal.” The most important difference between a rocks glass and an old-fashioned is that you can muddle and mix in the latter without worrying that it will break.
Zac Overman, again, suggested a Libbey model that the staff uses at Sitka & Spruce, but for a fancier feel, we like the Godinger brand that Gullo uses at Compère Lapin. Gullo told us she once bartended a billionaire’s wedding, and when his wife showed her the glassware collection, Gullo exclaimed, “Oh, we use the same ones at work,” before realizing she was looking at real Waterford crystal. It goes to show that the Godinger glasses are pretty convincing—but you won’t have to worry about a guest breaking one, and they’re dishwasher-safe. —HK
Whether you’re serving a classic martini or something more adventurous (amaretto sour, perhaps?), you need a good shaker. After considering dozens and testing eight for our guide to the best barware, we like the Koriko Weighted Shaking Tins. Pros tend to prefer Boston-style shakers (which consist of two tins that fit together), and this one has good weight and balance, an easy-to-break seal, and a shape that allows a Hawthorne strainer to fit snugly. It was by far the easiest shaker to hold and pour among all those we tested, and you’ll look like an ace once you master shaking and unsealing the canisters.
If you want an all-in-one option, we also like the Usagi Cobbler Shaker. Cobbler-style shakers, which separate into three pieces (a canister, a lid with a strainer, and a cap to cover the holes), are sometimes easier for beginners but generally prone to leaking. The Usagi is the only cobbler shaker we’ve found that doesn’t: In our tests, all three parts remained snug during shaking, yet the parts weren’t so tight as to make breaking the seal difficult. We also appreciate that the Usagi shaker has a little ergonomic indentation in the cap where you can put your index finger while shaking. For those who care, this shaker also looks nice and classic. —Christine Cyr Clisset
Our pick for cocktail napkins (aka beverage napkins) is Vanity Fair Impressions Beverage Napkins. As with Vanity Fair’s standard paper napkins, the Beverage Napkins feel clothlike and classy. They look and feel great for distributing with passed hors d’oeuvres, and they’re equally fitting for keeping on hand at the bar. They’re also the most recognizable brand in your local supply store or on Amazon. In particular, they beat out Marcal Paper’s cocktail napkins, which have mostly “they work” reviews, versus the Vanity Fair napkins’ compelling testimonials. —Kevin Purdy
For larger parties, grab big bags of ice from the supermarket or gas station and then separate the ice into two groups: ice that cools your beverages (and won’t be consumed) and clean ice meant for drinks. The clean ice needs its own container—nobody should have to stick a hand in the cooler to grab ice meant for chilling dirty off-the-shelf cans of beer.
After 20 hours of watching ice melt, we can say that our favorite ice bucket is the Oggi Stainless Steel Ice Bucket. Double-walled for insulation, this shiny, stainless model has a removable lid, a 3-quart capacity, and an included pair of tongs. In our tests, it didn’t sweat at all on the outside, keeping stacks of napkins and tablecloths dry.
As for keeping ice cold, it outperformed other options like the OXO Good Grips Plastic Ice Bucket, the Threshold Hammered Metal Ice Bucket, and the Oggi Double Wall Ice Bucket—we saw ¾ cup less meltwater at the bottom of the steel Oggi after letting it sit out for 20 hours. Instead of a scoop, the Oggi comes with tongs, which we prefer: While poking through chunks of ice with tongs can sometimes feel a bit precious, scoops don’t work well in narrow buckets, as the ice just slides off.
The Oggi also looks like it belongs at a drink station, which is a problem with the OXO Good Grips Steel Ice Bucket. The latter has some nice features, such as an attached lid and beefy tongs, but it looks a lot like an appliance sitting out on the bar, and it’s about $20 more expensive than our choice. The new Oggi Stainless Steel Ice and Wine Bucket with Flip Top Lid costs less but has the same off-putting plastic lid and scoop, and somewhat resembles a paint can. Our pick looks good enough to double as a wine bucket on the dinner table or as beverage service on a cocktail cart. —EO
Filling a big glass punch bowl with cocktails before your guests arrive frees you from bartending duty and makes a striking conversation piece, too. The Dailyware 10-Piece Punch Set, made by Libbey (it’s the same product as this 10-piece set), features a modern-looking glass bowl that’s more durable than other options in the same price range. It holds 11 quarts, which might sound enormous, but after the addition of ice and garnishes, our testing shows it’s the perfect size for showing off a 3-quart cocktail recipe, the right amount for serving a room full of people.
It also comes with a 5-ounce plastic ladle, which doles out the right serving size and won’t break if someone clunks the side of the bowl with it, unlike ladles made of glass. It comes with eight matching glasses that hold 11.7 ounces each, the ideal size for two ladles of punch.
The Libbey Selene Punch Set (the same product as Macy’s The Cellar 10-Piece Punch Bowl Set) seems great at first glance. But when we set it side by side with our top choice, we discovered that the opening at the top is more restrictive, so you can’t fit a full size ice ring; the largest it can accommodate is 8 inches, whereas our pick can take a ring up to 10 inches, keeping your cocktails colder longer.
And the Libbey is more durable. We washed both bowls, and both require handling with care (avoid grabbing the top as best you can), but overall our pick felt less flimsy than the Selene. Acrylic punch bowls are available but still priced about the same as our pick and burdened with all the problems of acrylic, which could include clouding, staining, and hairline cracks. If serving punch is a regular occurrence in your household, investing in a sturdier and thicker bowl might be worth the money. But such a set can cost upwards of $100 and get pricier from there, so for once- or twice-a-year use, the Dailyware punch set can’t be topped. —EO
It’s nice to keep beer and wine at counter level, where your guests can see the selection. For this job, the Tablecraft Remington Collection Galvanized Steel Beverage Tub is our favorite tub for the third year in a row. Made of galvanized steel with neat seams and attached handles, it’s the perfect size for countertops or folding tables, capable of holding about 13 to 15 beers or six bottles of wine with plenty of ice comfortably. It’s also perfect for outdoor gatherings come summer.
If you have a smaller table or just prefer a different look than galvanized steel, the Prodyne Big Bath Party Tub is a good option. It can hold eight beers or four bottles of wine, plus ice, and the big rounded lip acts as a sturdy handle, making it easy to relocate. The disadvantage of the Prodyne is that the clear acrylic will show the ripped bottle labels and bits of debris collected in the ice throughout the evening, so if that sounds gross, go with the Tablecraft.
We’ve now looked at more than 30 tub models from Amazon and major retailers in many different styles. We eliminated models that cost more than $40, which seemed like a reasonable price for something that sees infrequent use, and the Tablecraft bucket was the perfect size. We liked the price on the big Behrens Round Galvanized Steel Tub, but the seams were sloppily sealed with glue. And the Grasslands Road Silver Metal Party Drink Chiller Tub was flimsier than our top choice without being a whole lot cheaper.
Etiquette expert Lizzie Post recommends tubs of galvanized metal and plastic for less formal occasions. “I don’t pull those out for formal parties, because I would rather pour drinks into the glass for those,” she told us.
Place a towel underneath to absorb any condensation that might build up over the course of the evening. Get a dedicated ice bucket for the ice you’re going to serve to guests, too. There’s a small chance zinc can leach out of galvanized steel if it comes in contact with acidic substances. The American Galvanizers Association and the FDA both say that galvanized steel should be safe for food otherwise; regardless, though, you’ll have all kinds of crud floating in the tub that doesn’t taste so great floating in a cocktail.
Wherever you keep your beers, put the bin for recycling right next to it so when a guest grabs a new one, they’ll know where to drop the one they’ve polished off. —GS
Stocking a bar is a matter of personal taste: It’s your party, so buy what you prefer. As long as you’re offering something to drink, your guests will be happy to linger. But if you need to stock up from scratch and want suggestions for basic, crowd-pleasing bottles of liquor that are good for most cocktails but won’t blow your budget, we narrowed the field down to seven selections. How much booze should you buy? The best advice is to buy plenty. Martha Stewart also has a helpful party calculator to determine how much to buy.
After speaking to eight celebrated bartenders, researching what the entertaining experts had to say, and cross-referencing their responses, we recommend the following.
- Vodka: Absolut. Dale DeGroff, formerly of the Rainbow Room, told us, “If you want something a little more viscous, with a little more flavor, we’re talking pastry flavor, you get the malty, grainy: Absolut.”
- Gin: Tanqueray. Chad Solomon of beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons called Tanqueray a “Rolls-Royce–quality” gin.
- Dry vermouth: Dolin. Solomon and John deBary of Momofuku both picked Dolin for dry vermouth, a key ingredient in martinis.
- Bourbon: Wild Turkey. “Right there in the heart, at 101 proof, is Wild Turkey,” DeGroff said. “This man is the master.”
- Whisky: The Famous Grouse. Solomon gave points to The Famous Grouse whisky for being “more of a mixer than a sipper … it’s not overly sweetened and has a little bit of smoke to it.”
- Tequila: Pueblo Viejo blanco. The tequila that got the nod from two of our surveyed mixologists was Pueblo Viejo. Brandon Wise of Imperial and Portland Penny Diner told us, “It’s under $20, the juice is good, and you’re not paying for marketing.”
- Rum: Bacardi Silver. For white rum, DeGroff told us, “obviously Bacardi.”
Case of sparkling wine
Real Champagne is expensive and not commonly bought by the case. Luckily, you have much to choose from beyond the French stuff these days, and if you’re having a celebration and you don’t want to go broke, we recommend Gruet Brut. This non-vintage sparkler from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is made in the French style by a family from Champagne.
To find a great bottle that’s available for purchase by the case, we first consulted “best of” lists from various sources, including Food & Wine, Good Housekeeping, Huffington Post, The Nest, Serious Eats, and Wine Enthusiast. Then we sought out the experts.
Chad Solomon, a Milk & Honey bar alumnus and partner of beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons, told us, “It’s quite lovely to sip on.” Michael McCaulley, wine director and partner of Philadelphia’s Tria bar-cafe, said, “It’s toastier, it’s bready, it’s complex, it’s awesome with luscious cheese.” It’s also widely available across the US, including at online shops such as Astor Wines & Spirits.
Again and again, our sources listed Gruet Brut as one of their favorites, even without our mentioning it. Just to make sure, we pitted it against the Wine Enthusiast–approved Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, which pops up on top sparkler lists, as well as against the similarly well-received Segura Viudas Aria Brut Cava, yet in taste tests the Gruet was the clear favorite.
This year we did another sweep for any new standout bubbles, but very few new sparkling-wine producers are around since it’s expensive to make. Nothing we dug up comes close to the Gruet in availability or in critical acclaim. —NG
With the quality offerings available today, plus the fact that one box equals four bottles, you have no reason to be embarrassed about serving boxed wine to guests. After sitting down to dinner and tasting 10 popular and widely available boxed wines, we discovered that Big House Cardinal Zin was everyone’s favorite red. Our tasting panel included sommeliers, graphic designers (we judged each box on appearance, too), and regular people who love to eat, and this flavorful, rich Zin pleased both the sophisticated palates and the drinkers just in it for the buzz. In addition, our panel singled out La Petite Frog Picpoul de Pinet as the best boxed white for a party.
One 3-liter box holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine and tucks neatly into a fridge. In addition to the box’s taking up just a tiny bit of space next to bowls and trays, the wine inside a box can take three weeks or longer to go bad, as oxygen doesn’t enter the package. Then, after opening, you store the box in the fridge (even the reds) to preserve the longevity of the wine. This means you’ll have wine ready for multiple parties, even if they’re weeks apart. Your typical bottled red, should you have any left, would last only until the next morning.
Big House doesn’t get as much press as some of the more exotic boxed varietals do, but for us the positive real-world response over dinner was evidence that it could hold its own: “Mmm.” “This is really good.” “Wow, this is so pleasant.” “I’m surprised.” “Yum!” There wasn’t a single hesitation, reservation, or negative comment in the group (except maybe one crack about the “cheesy” hand-drawn label), but of all the options available, we thought the Cardinal Zin packaging was well thought out. The shape of the box is nice, the colors are nice, and no one felt as if they were looking at a box of trash bags or an advertisement.
On La Petite Frog, our panelists’ commentary ranged from “I think the Frog would go great with a holiday meal” to “The box doesn’t look like shit and it’s a decent tasting wine” and “I would feel cool showing up to dinner with the Frog.” Wine Enthusiast, Forbes, and The Atlantic have sung its praises.
Judging the taste of a wine by its packaging usually does the wine a disservice, but since this recommendation is meant for entertaining, we enlisted a professional packaging designer to help critique our choices. Most of the side panels aren’t fun to look at. Several boxes were easier to eliminate because of distracting brand messaging and text placed directly where the pour spout is. The Frog was the favorite box of the bunch. —EO
Giving guests a single glass for the evening reduces the amount of washing you have to do at the end of the night. But expecting people to keep track of their own glass over the course of a long evening may be a bit too much to ask if you’re also pouring plenty of wine.
We recommend these white Sharpie Peel-Off China Markers. These cheap markers last a long time, don’t require a sharpener, and write easily on either the bowl or the base of the glass. The key thing is to write names on the glasses when they’re dry and empty—otherwise, condensation from the chilled wine makes the glass wet and cold, and the china markers won’t work.
We recommend white because black is difficult to see against red wine, but white can still be visible through lighter-colored wines. We love that you can use these markers on wine and champagne glasses of all sizes, stemless glasses, highballs, and even plastic cups.
The china markers don’t rub off on hands or clothes, don’t dissolve under condensation, and come off with soap and water (or in the dishwasher) at the end of the night. Wine writer Anthony Giglio told Improvised Life, “The china marker is my secret weapon: I bring them to dinner parties as host gifts.”
These disposable Oenophilia Stemtags are a good runner-up, but they don’t work if your glasses lack a stem, and in the long run they’re more expensive than the china markers.
We didn’t love the Wine Enthusiast Wine Glass Markers, which come with opaque, metallic ink that takes one to three minutes to dry and, even when dry, can rub off a bit onto hands and clothing. If you’re serving a chilled wine, you also have to remember to write above the fill line so the names don’t get dissolved by condensation. However, these markers are a better choice if you’re passing around glasses without stems.
And even those markers are much better than plain dry erase markers, which are too translucent against the glass to read easily and wiped off with a brush of the thumb.
We tried Trudeau wine glass charms but found them too fussy to put on. Also, while it’s easy for a guest to forget what color their charm is, they won’t forget their own name. —GS
Cups (disposable, cold drinks)
Save the red plastic cups for summer barbecues —a good all-purpose indoor party cup looks better when it’s clear.
Transparent, sturdy cups like the Chinet Cut Crystal Tumblers can go a long way toward promoting your party from “college” to “adult.” They hold 14 ounces, enough to serve most mixed drinks or a full 12-ounce beer, but they’re not so large that a healthy pour of wine gets dwarfed in comparison. The cups look classy, and reviewers say they’re not prone to breakage—although with any hard plastic, don’t be surprised if they do crack eventually, especially if you’re using them repeatedly.
We didn’t see a whole lot of info out there about disposable cups, so we turned to trusty Amazon for our research. We pored through reviews of more than 10 models of clear cups, looking for ones that were sturdy, attractive, not too cheap, and big enough to hold a wide variety of drinks. Only with the Chinet tumblers could we check all of those boxes. And after researching disposable cups again in 2015, we found no new competition for the Chinet tumblers. —JW
Cups (disposable, hot drinks)
When it comes time to wrap up the evening, a cup of anything hot will do the trick. Our favorite option for serving coffee, tea, cider, or cocoa is the Genuine Joe Insulated Ripple Hot Cup.
A great disposable cup should be able to hold near-boiling liquid without burning your fingers, and the corrugated insulation on the Genuine Joe made it the clear front-runner in our tests. It holds 10 ounces, so it’s big enough for a medium-size coffee but not so large that your drink will grow cold by the time you get to the bottom. Nevertheless, you have 8-ounce, 12-ounce, and even 16-ounce options if you prefer any of those sizes.
The corrugated exterior adds a nice visual element and also eliminates the need for a sleeve. After I filled these cups with boiling water and tested them side by side with noninsulated models, the difference was remarkable. Though the Genuine Joe was still a little hot to the touch, I could pick it up almost immediately and carry it across the room to where I wanted to sit. In contrast, I couldn’t pick up the Choice Paper Hot Cup for almost 15 minutes. And since the corrugated exterior isn’t a sleeve but rather an integrated part of the design, the Genuine Joe cup itself acted as a lining and didn’t get soggy in spite of repeated uses, or when I let it sit full on the counter for several hours.
Though I initially thought the print on the 10-ounce Office Depot Brand Hot Cups might not be so bad, when I saw them in person they made me feel exactly like I was standing at a water cooler in an office—not what you want for a party. —EO
Table and snacks
A good disposable plate should be sturdy, and our favorite is the Vanity Fair Impressions line. (Cook’s Country also likes Vanity Fair plates, writing: “Loaded with food, it didn’t bend or crack, and with the largest surface area, it would be welcome at a buffet.”)
The plain white coloring is guaranteed not to throw off your decor, unlike the garishly ugly Dixie Ultra plates, which took home The Daily Meal’s Overall Best Performer award. (That site didn’t test the Impressions.) We tested the Impressions plates alongside Chinet 10⅜-inch plates, which have the added benefit of being compostable. We piled both plates with soggy baked beans and then let them soak through. Nothing got through the Impressions—nothing. However, after 20 minutes the Chinet was definitely weaker, though it wasn’t leaking. After a spin in the microwave, the Chinet’s bottom was even soggier, whereas the Impressions held strong.
While the Chinet is compostable and we appreciate its environmental pros, it isn’t worth getting a pile of piping-hot food poured into your lap. One other big plus for the Impressions: It’s available in smaller 12-packs, so you won’t be overburdened by 100 or 200 plates as with the Chinet and a lot of the other styles you’ll find online. —JW
In our tine-to-tine face-off of three plastic utensil sets, the clear winner was Kirkland Signature Crystal Clear Cutlery. These utensils won’t break on you mid-meal unless you’re dining with the Hulk, and they come in a huge quantity for cheap, so one box (which can be even cheaper in-store at Costco) should last you through quite a few dinner parties, bake-offs, and picnics. The 360-piece set comes in real-world proportions of 180 forks, 120 spoons, and 60 knives.
It took two hours of research looking at all of the best-selling, best-reviewed models on Amazon, Walmart, and elsewhere on the Web for us to come to this conclusion. We looked at 10 models, narrowing the field down to Kirkland, Dixie Ultra, and the silver-look Reflections Heavyweight Plastic. We then ordered the cream of the crop to check out in person. The Kirkland tableware wound up on top or tied in every test.
Dixie’s old-style white plastic forks receive good reviews for sturdiness, but unfortunately, reviews of the matching spoons point to sourcing issues and label inaccuracy. Though we like Preserve’s eco-friendly mission, it currently sells its plastic cutlery only in bright colors and sets of 24 (eight each of knife, fork, and spoon) for about $7, so costs can add up quickly for a large party. —JW
Our pick for the best folding table is the 6-foot Banquet Table from Target. Sturdy yet lightweight, it folds in half for easy transport and storage. Plus, it’s very easy on the budget.
A 6-foot table can fit six humans comfortably, eight if you put two unlucky (and, we hope, short-legged) guests on the ends. (A 4-foot table fits four or six.) It’s made of molded plastic with steel folding legs, so you can use it indoors or out. Target doesn’t list a weight limit, but the table will hold plenty of dinner plates or gifts—just don’t dance on it.
We found it to be as sturdy as similar tables at Office Max and Home Depot, and the folding mechanism is solid and simple to use. It stays in a folded position thanks to a simple plastic clasp that’s secure but easily opened with a flick of your thumb.
If you don’t have a Target nearby, the 6-foot Mainstays table from Walmart is identical to the Target table except for the carrying handle, which is made from a slightly different material. It’s almost the exact same price, so either table will suit your party needs. Walmart now has an 8-foot version of this table as well. —Ed Grabianowski
One of the worst problems to have at a dinner party is insufficient seating for your guests. That’s where folding chairs come in handy.
After four hours of research, we suggest going for the Mity Lite Flex One folding chair (available in a set of four on Amazon or individually at Sam’s Club), a durable, ventilated seat made of steel and flexible polypropylene that molds to the sitter’s shape and can purportedly hold more than 1,000 pounds. It’s an inch and a half wider than your standard folding chair, slim enough for you to stuff it into a closet, and comfortable enough that your seated guests won’t feel like second-class party attendees. As a bonus, it even comes in white.
We tested the Mity Lite Flex One against the IKEA TERJE for comfort, and the winner was crystal clear. We were able to sit in the Mity Lite Flex One for hours. The Mity Lite’s wide seat and back move slightly with your body, while the tall, 9-inch backrest provides plenty of support. The TERJE’s rigid slatted-wood seat is 2 inches narrower than the Mity Lite’s, with no give.
Much of the editorial around this category focuses on the looks of the chairs. While the IKEA TERJE folding chair got nods from several sources for its neutral, Scandinavian looks and its excellent price, its durability is dubious.
On Amazon, the National Public Seating padded metal folding chairs have equally high marks from customers but offer less width and flexibility.
We eliminated metal folding chairs without covered seats because nobody needs that cold-metal-against-warm-thighs feeling at a party.
A quick tip: Make sure to position all seats so that diners can push them in comfortably around the table—don’t try to crowd a guest into a corner where the table leg blocks their knees.
If you’re hosting a really big function, renting (rather than buying) 50 or so chairs may make more sense. Check your local listings for party-furniture rental companies, which may offer a variety of chairs for as little as $1 to $2 per chair, though frequently with a minimum charge alongside delivery and pickup fees. —GS
Cutting boards for prep and presentation
*At the time of publishing, the price was $16.
After spending more than 120 hours on research, including interviewing chefs and materials experts and chopping 23 pounds of produce for our cutting board guide, we found that Progressive’s Prepworks Cutting Board offers the best balance of cutting feel, durability, and ease of cleaning. Although some butcher-block boards may look more pleasing, the plastic Prepworks doesn’t require any maintenance and won’t split from misuse. And it’s affordable enough to replace every two years or so.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $93.
If you want a hefty wood cutting board for cheese and charcuterie, we highly recommend Proteak’s 24-by-18-inch board with a juice canal, the larger version of one of our cutting board recommendations. It feels better under a knife than all but one board we tested, and it’s easier to maintain. It stays in place with minimal help, but it isn’t so heavy that you can’t easily move it. Proteak grows and processes its own sustainably harvested teak, and the company’s boards look striking and sophisticated. —KP
With a slow cooker you can put a roast with mouthwatering, braised flavor on the table without spending all day tending to it. Plus, preparing your main dish in an independent appliance can help free up valuable oven and stove space.
We considered many slow-cooker models across the budget range and couldn’t find the perfect one—most of them run too hot. After 58 hours of research and testing, we decided that our pick is the slightly fancier but still affordable Hamilton Beach 6-quart Programmable Set & Forget, which is large enough to hold a 4-pound brisket. The built-in meat probe seems gimmicky, but slow-cooker expert Phyllis Pellman Good told us that it’s a useful feature. Keep in mind, though, that the short probe may not be long enough to reach into the front cut of every brisket.
Slow-cooker recipes generally require about eight to 10 hours in the machine, which you can easily program into the unit’s timer. Even with that long sub-200° cooking, you can take additional steps to guarantee a buttery brisket with excellent flavor. In an article on the topic, The New York Times’s Melissa Clark suggests starting with a fatty deckle cut, also known as the point, a second cut that you may have to special-order from your butcher. It has more veins of fat; they melt in the cooking process and create a tender, looser mouthfeel.
If your brisket has gone eight hours and hasn’t reached optimal melt-in-your-mouth texture, keep cooking it on low for a few more hours. The writer behind Smitten Kitchen, a big fan of slow-cooker brisket, lets hers go for 10.
Instead of cooking on the day of, Christine Cyr Clisset, who wrote The Sweethome’s original slow-cooker guide, recommends making your meal two days in advance. She has found that roasts prepared in slow cookers are incredibly flavorful by day three. Just pop the stoneware container holding your food into the fridge until you’re ready to reheat it in the cooker (or on the stove in a Dutch oven). You’ll then be able to skim off any chilled fat that rises to the top, which makes for a less greasy, more elegant sauce.
Is a roast too formal or hearty for your soirée? Slow cookers set on low are also the perfect serving vehicle for hors d’oeuvres like glazed meatballs, crowd-pleasing dips, mulled wine, and even decadent desserts. —Camille Chatterjee
*At the time of publishing, the price was $16.
In testing nine models for our best cookie sheet guide, we found the heavy-gauge aluminum Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet baked cookies evenly without warping at high heat, for a fraction of the price of some of the other sheets. And because the Nordic Ware has rims, it also works well as an all-purpose pan for baking pizza and roasting vegetables. It’ll work great for hors-d’oeuvres, too. —CCC
Ready-made puff pastry offers an easy and sophisticated option for entertaining. It’s a great staple to keep on hand for making fancy-looking desserts, special entrées like beef Wellington, and even breakfast pastries. Using puff pastry is also one of the best ways to make tasty, impressive-looking appetizers with the bare minimum of effort.
Most people don’t want to make puff pastry from scratch, as it’s a labor-intensive process. The store-bought variety can be a real time-saver, especially when you’re prepping for a gathering, and we found Trader Joe’s Puff Pastry Dough to be the best you can buy.
As the name suggests, puff pastry puffs up as it bakes. The resulting pastry should have an airy, flaky texture. The flavor should be buttery and have a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Good ready-made puff pastry should be relatively easy to work with. Ready-made puff pastry dough usually comes in a sheet; it should roll out smoothly, without cracking where it was folded in the package. The dough should feel slightly moist but not wet, and no sections of the dough sheet should be dry or suffering the effects of freezer burn.
Generally you can find premade puff pastry dough in the freezer section of a grocery store, near the pie crust and phyllo dough. After testing Trader Joe’s dough against the high-end Dufour Classic Puff Pastry and the commonly available Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets, we found the Trader Joe’s brand to offer the best taste and the best value.
TJ’s puff pastry comes thinly rolled in parchment, which makes it easy to unroll and work with immediately. Although we like that the Dufour Classic dough is made with butter (which we could particularly taste in our apple tart), we also tasted the butter in the Trader Joe’s brand (which is created with a combination of butter and non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening made from palm oil). And at about a fourth of the price of the Dufour dough, Trader Joe’s puff pastry is a steal. It’s available only during the holidays, so if you like it, stock up; it should keep in a steady freezer for about six months. Otherwise, Dufour’s puff pastry is our offseason pick. —CCC
A toaster oven is a must for parties: It frees up oven space and heats up canapés without heating up your whole kitchen (which is good if you have a lot of people congregated in your kitchen). For our best toaster oven guide, we spent over 51 hours on research and went through stacks and stacks of toasted white bread, mini pizza bagels, and cookies. Our main pick is the Panasonic FlashXpress, which is smaller than most competitors and cheaper, too. But for a party we’d recommend a larger toaster that can function as an auxiliary oven, the Cuisinart TOB-260 Chef’s Convection Toaster Oven. —Raphael Brion
Stain removers (for clothes and carpets)
We pitted three instant spot stain removers against some DIY methods, and Shout Instant Stain Remover Wipes remain our favorite. We splotched a silk shirt with wine, coffee, lipstick, and mustard, treating the fresh stains immediately. In our tests, the Shout wipes easily outperformed the Tide to Go pen, and they were the only stain remover that eliminated almost all traces of lipstick on the collar.
Since the towelettes are single-use, you won’t wind up redepositing an old stain on another piece of clothing. In testing, they also did a fair job on wine and coffee spills, leaving a minimal ring where the stain spread out across the silk. The Tide to Go pen, on the other hand, seemed to work in the center of the stain, but the coffee and wine just widened out, spreading a stain outline around the nucleus. Plus, if you use the Tide to Go pen on a stubborn stain, you might want to think twice about rubbing that nib on another shirt.
If you’re serving red wine, you should absolutely keep Wine Away on hand. This stuff is impressive: Spritz some on a red-wine stain and watch it disappear almost instantaneously.
The liquid does disperse the darkest stuff to the edges of the wet mark, so you should launder or rinse out the material after you’ve addressed the stain. The bottle doesn’t list ingredients, saying only that “it is made from fruit and vegetable extracts,” and it smells pleasantly of citrus oil.
The fact that it didn’t do anything for mustard and pretty much just spread our coffee stain around doesn’t detract from this pony’s one trick. Everyone—from cleaning expert Jolie Kerr to Good Housekeeping, Cook’s Illustrated, and more—raves about this stuff.
The home remedies we tried were a mixed bag. Using salt to soak up red wine didn’t seem to do anything but leave a blotch of purple sediment. Blotting and rinsing with a bit of dish soap worked very well on coffee and mustard—of course, you have to be prepared to take your shirt off to rinse through the stain, presumably while you tie up the bathroom and stand half-naked as your shirt dries. Note too that absolutely nothing but the dish soap worked well on French’s yellow mustard.
If someone at the party spills something onto your carpet, we recommend BISSELL Power Shot Oxy for Carpet & Area Rugs, which powered through our day-old ketchup, soy sauce, and wine stains much better than Resolve did. The BISSELL formula also did a surprisingly good job on fresh mustard, though it left a trace of turmeric yellow. Consumer Reports named BISSELL Power Shot Oxy as the top stain remover, and Good Housekeeping gave it an A- grade. (Both reviews call it Bissell OxyPro, but we confirmed with the company that Power Shot Oxy is the new name for the same formula.)
The nozzle shoots a foaming white stream that helps you see where you’ve already soaked the stain. BISSELL Power Shot Oxy is also on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice list, which means the EPA deems it a product that “contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.”
Amazon reviewers love it, giving it a 4.4-star rating (out of five) across more than 80 reviews as of this writing. We should note that we found it hard to track down at neighborhood supermarkets and big-box stores—buy it online, or look for it next to the vacuums at a big hardware store like Lowe’s.
While Resolve Triple Oxi Advanced Carpet Stain Remover had a more pleasant citrus smell, it wasn’t as effective on our mustard stain and had a lot more trouble with our day-old, set-in stains. Without the oxygen bleach power of the other two competitors, the popular Folex Instant Carpet Spot Remover was a lot less tough on mustard. And the BISSELL Professional Power Shot Oxy, which contains an additional antistain agent (PDF) that our pick doesn’t have, smells overwhelming, like a nose-burning cross between Irish Spring and Windex. Regardless of where the stain happens, drop everything and treat it right away for the best chance of removing the offending splotch. —GS
Our pick for the best kitchen trash bag is the Glad Tall Kitchen Drawstring Bag, which works fine for a smaller dinner party. But as anyone who has had to clean up after an excellent party knows, a tremendous amount of garbage and recycling can pile up—especially if you’re using disposable flatware. For these situations, you’ll want a contractor bag.
After sifting through professional and customer reviews alike, we found that Husky’s 42-Gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags are your best bet. We looked at more than a dozen brands and dozens more variations of each bag. This bag has won over Amazon reviewers and Good Housekeeping alike, and it received a secondhand nod from Popular Mechanics.
The key feature for an effective one-bag cleanup is the material’s puncture-and-abrasion-fighting thickness (typically measured in mils, or thousandths of an inch). A 3-mil contractor bag is notably tougher than 0.5-mil or 1-mil kitchen bags. Factors that make Husky’s variety stand out include winning reviews on Amazon, near-flawless marks on Home Depot’s site, a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping, and a smart price: about $1 each if you buy a 32-pack on Amazon or just 45 cents each if you buy 50 at Home Depot.
Another great option, if your local hardware store happens to carry them, is EconoGreen’s 42-gallon Contractor Clean-up Bags. They’re not available on Amazon at the moment, but these 3-mil, inexpensive, recycled bags prevailed as Popular Mechanics’s preferred big bag after some brutal testing. —KP, GS
(Lead illustration by Loris Lora; photos by Amadou Diallo.)
Originally published: January 25, 2016