Raiders of the Lost Drink

Dear Helena,

I was at a party that got pretty busy and I happened to notice the drinks were running low, and there were wadded-up napkins collecting on the bar. I was itching to spring into action and help the host. But is this OK? How much is too much? Can you go rummaging through their fridge and cocktail shelf to locate ingredients to batch up another round of cocktails? What’s OK and not OK in the name of helping? —Pinch-Hitter Host

Dear Pinch-Hitter Host,

If you’re at a party where the bar looks sloppy, it’s not your job to fix it, any more than you’re obliged to apply a touch of blush to a wan-looking friend. After all, poor presentation alone isn’t enough to kill the evening. Neither will a lack of food. But the one thing a party can’t survive without is drink. If the bar has run dry and you’re close to the host, it’s your duty as a friend to step in. (If you don’t know the host that well, it might be time to call it a night.)

There’s no need to slip out for a six-pack. You can make a pretty good drink from what you can rustle up in the kitchen. Caveat: To make a good cocktail, you need ice. If there’s none left, then you do need to run to the store or dispatch a volunteer.

Feeling shy about peering into someone else’s kitchen cabinets? It’s polite to ask before using anything that looks fancy or expensive. Lou Bustamante of St. George Spirits says he’d be pretty miffed if someone drank from his bottle of De Profundis, a 20-year-old pear brandy that retails for $200 a pop.

With that said, if the host is locked in the bathroom with one of the other guests, rummage away. After all, if someone has a big party, he should expect that guests will get sloshed and, when that happens, plunder the fridge and maybe the liquor cabinet too. The host should hide any special bottles he’s saving before the party starts. And I mean really hide them, like at the bottom of his laundry hamper.

What should you put into your ad hoc libation? I consulted CHOW’s drink expert, Jordan Mackay, and he offered a couple of handy formulas you can use to improvise.

Fruity = clear liquor + fruit + acid
Clear liquor: This could be vodka, gin, sake, or all three. Check the freezer as well as the liquor cabinet, as you might find a bottle of vodka stashed in there.
Fruit: Raid the fridge for juice, or fruit you can juice or purée. Maybe there’s a can of frozen juice concentrate. Or, Mackay suggests, use jam.
Acid: Don’t worry if there are no lemons or limes. “You can also use an unfinished bottle of white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc,” says Mackay. “Or you could even use a few drops of vinegar, very, very judiciously.”
Extras: Check the crisper or window box for a green herb like mint or basil.

Milky = liquor + milk + egg
Liquor: As well as clear liquors, you can use whiskey, brandy, or rum in this one.
Milk: Most people have milk in the fridge, but it’s often overlooked as a mixer. Vanilla soy milk works in a pinch. Or, suggests Bustamante, maybe there’s a dusty can of sweetened condensed milk in the cabinet.
Eggs: You can use just the white or the yolk too.
Extras: Add a dash of honey or maple syrup. A drop of vanilla “adds a floral note,” says Bustamante. Or sprinkle a little nutmeg or cardamom over top.

Finally, give your drink a name. This will make it seem less like something made by an 11-year-old who just mixed together random stuff from his parents’ liquor cabinet. A combination of vodka, strawberry jam, and Sauvignon Blanc dregs? Call it the “MacGyver.” It might not win any cocktail competitions, but it will probably win you friends.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.