… Or Maybe You’d Prefer to Leave it in the Experts’ Hands
Everybody loves to eat these days, but the proposition of thoughtful cocktails served in antique glassware is too easy—and distinguishing—of an upgrade for your next dinner party to ignore. And we’re making it even easier by telling you how to pull it off.
By Scott Edwards · Photography by Matthew J. Rhein
Before we move forward, think back, back to your last dinner party and the way you let your guests have at your wet bar. Left to their own devices, a gin and tonic became a highball brimming with Bombay Sapphire, a glass of red became a goblet so full it needed to be sipped before it could be moved. In hindsight, their reception of each course was a little overly enthusiastic, even considering the care you invested in every morsel you plated.
Now imagine your next party, only this time, instead of saying hello and immediately retreating to the kitchen, you’re saying hello and escorting your guests, one by one, two by two, to a properly manned bar—your co-hosts for the night. You’re still dipping into the kitchen, but you’re doing so with a finely crafted cocktail in hand. Your guests are enjoying the same—in antique glassware, no less. And they’re actually enjoying them, not just getting blitzed.
Welcome to a night with Spirit Forward, a craft cocktail caterer. Yes, the “craft cocktail” part is worth noting because this is not a simple bartending service, like the kind you’re relegated to at a wedding. With all due respect, those are hired hands being paid to pour heavy (or light, depending on your budget). Spirit Forward, on the other hand, is Dan Hamm, who works as the bar manager at a.bar, which is pretty much the epicenter of Philadelphia’s craft cocktail scene, and Stephanie Smith, a consummate hostess who cut her teeth at the revered Vernick Food & Drink. Hiring them for your party is akin to recruiting Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to fill in for your next rec-league game.
Cocktail catering is such an easy and distinguishing upgrade, it seems impossible that it’s not more prolific. Because it’s not, the inquiries that Smith and Hamm field are fairly simple: I’m having a party, and I’d like to do more than vodka and sodas and wine. What can you do? We tend to marry ourselves to the same drink or two for no real reason other than it’s what we’ve been drinking for as long as we can remember. Really, the idea of sifting through prospective candidates is exhausting, and we just want a drink, our drink. But what if you had an expert do the sifting for you? That’s essentially what this is like. They’ll ask you for the details of your party—how many people? What kind of vibe?—and then they’re going to ask you what you like to drink. And even if, try as you might, all you can come up with is “vodka and soda,” they’re going to be able to dig a little deeper to flesh out a full-on flavor profile. That way, you’ll end up drinking a revelation, even if it’s just the best vodka and soda you’ve ever tasted.
Hamm possesses a rare ability to elevate both the most tried and true and obscure classics with novel-but-appropriate twists, and always with an eye toward fresh and seasonal, not unlike a French-trained chef. He started bartending in the deep end. Overnight, he was expected to memorize the recipes for and accurately reproduce hundreds of cocktails, classic and contemporary. He responded by digesting it all remarkably fast and then promptly riffing on that newfound knowledge. In short order, finicky regulars started seeking direction from him. They’re the same ones who planted the seed for Spirit Forward. Can you teach me how to make this? Can you tend bar at my wedding?
He met Smith around the start of all this. And the more he began to conceptualize Spirit Forward, the more he realized how ideal a complement she was to him. “She has an amazing palate and she has that eye for design,” he says.
Smith’s fully capable of jumping behind the bar and thinning a thirsty crowd, but her stamp’s all over everything else—booking, planning, organizing, marketing and the staging. “When we go to an event, we really want our bar to look custom-made, as custom as the drinks themselves,” she says.
That’s right; they design their own bars. In fact, the only thing they don’t supply is the booze; it’s prohibited by law. So what they do instead is provide you with a detailed list of what they’ll need. If you were doing this on your own, you were going to stock the bar anyway.
Another reason we tend not to stray from our limited repertoire is a bar of any kind can be an intimidating and pretentious place. If you don’t have the ingredients and preferred brands of your drink of choice down, there’s a high degree of likelihood that you’re going to be sniffed out as a fraud. This isn’t that. For one, Smith and Hamm also teach cocktail-making classes through Spirit Forward, so there’s a conscious, gentle way that they go about enlightening. For another, this is your home and these are your friends. Should you or anyone else ask how a drink’s made—and you will—Smith and Hamm are obliged to stop what they’re doing and write it down. Experience has taught them that “that stays with them more than any drink you’ll make them,” Hamm says. The same will be said of the night as a whole.