Photography: Matthew Gilson
cheers with vodka
vodka tasting
tasting vodka

Tom Chiola (left) and Andrew Jemilo are masters of the pre-party. Their suggestion? A vodka tasting, since the liquor plays well with any sort of dinner that follows.

Daunted by the thought of having a crowd over for dinner? Consider a cocktail party instead. Once a staple of adult social life, this simple form of entertaining has fallen sadly and unnecessarily out of fashion. With a bit of planning, the "pre-party" is an easy, sophisticated option before a play or a dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Tom Chiola and his partner, Andrew Jemilo, have the pre-party down to a science. Jemilo, an Internet technology director, is a founding member of a networking group called the Big Gay Cocktail Club; Chiola is a judge on the Cook County Circuit Court. They keep their refrigerator stocked with party basics and their digital sound system programmed with an eclectic, party-ready blend of music. Friends at the door? Come on in.

You don’t need a wide-ranging liquor collection to stage a cocktail party. It can be more fun, in fact, to play with variations on a single type.

Chiola and Jemilo like to host vodka tastings for eight to ten people, and enjoy seeing loyal vodka drinkers seduced by a brand they’re not familiar with. A recent tasting featured Grey Goose, Krolewska and Chopin (both Polish), and Skyy (a milder, cost-effective brew-and a big winner) chilled in the freezer to increase viscosity and taste.

After pouring a modest shot for each guest, the hosts asked everyone to concentrate on the brief aftertaste to identify flavor-minerally, oily, citrusy, smooth, aggressive-and then write down their impressions. The conversation afterward was highly entertaining, Jemilo says, adding, "it’s amazing how much marketing does for a vodka’s reputation."

Other nights, Champagne is a must.

"Any time you serve Champagne, it’s a special occasion," says Chiola. He recently

discovered Drappier Brut, a true, yet reasonably priced Champagne (find it for $29.99 at Sam’s Wine and Spirits), through friends who own Pastoral, a Lake View gourmet shop.

When martinis are flowing, the couple use an eclectic assortment of martini coupes to help guests keep track of their glasses. Favorites include a pair decorated with hand-painted olives, a chalice-like version with a pewter stem, and color-streaked glasses bought in Puerto Vallarta.

And no matter what else is going on, there is always beer-Corona, Blue Moon, Hacker-Pschorr, and Bud Light keep all the bases covered.

Food? Of course there must be some, but it need not involve cooking. It only needs to be tasty and easily eaten with one hand. Chiola and Jemilo recommend dried Mission figs, Marcona almonds, and Turkish apricots, supplemented with assorted cheeses and charcuterie such as lean duck salami from Pastoral.

Finally, it simply wouldn’t be a cocktail party without olives. Our pre-partiers’ favorite source: Costco. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Vodka Tasting 101

glasses used for vodka tasting

Step 1: Pick up three or four different bottles at the liquor store. Use the tasting as an excuse to try that intriguing brand you’ve passed on before. Drinking straight vodka on an empty stomach is not recommended, so grab a tray of snacks while you’re out.
Step 2: At home, cover the labels to set up for the big reveal after the tasting. Stick the bottles in the freezer.
Step 3: When your eager guests arrive, pour a round of chilled vodka #1 into frosted shot glasses.
Step 4: Instruct everyone to do "the nose." Hold the shot glass about an inch from your nose and sniff the aroma. Is it fruity? Grainy? Spicy? Get your taste buds watering in anticipation.
Step 5: Throw back the shot and roll it around in your mouth, savoring the texture. The less burning, the better the vodka (and your friends’ facial expressions).
Step 6: Swallow and contemplate the aftertaste. Give everyone a couple of minutes to write down thoughts and discuss.
Step 7: Next!