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How to host the ultimate Zoom happy hour

Zoom Happy Hour tips
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

With everything going on in the world today, plenty of us could use a stiff drink and some good conversation. But with nightlife at a necessary standstill, how are we supposed to get together? 

Enter the Zoom Room Happy Hour.

Make no mistake: replicating the “where everybody knows your name” community of your local watering hole is no easy task. But die-hard drink-slingers have been adapting and evolving these past few months, using webinars, video conferencing, and smartphone apps to innovate with tech that simply didn’t exist before. Whether you’re into cocktails or mocktails, virtual get-togethers are a fantastic way to destress and reconnect with fellow humans during the time of COVID. At least, they can be. 

Keep reading. We’ll show you how to plan (and host) the ultimate Zoom Room happy hour, complete with music suggestions, ambiance options, and some delicious cocktail recipes that can be whipped up with just a few ingredients. Don’t worry, it’s easier than you might expect.  

For the purposes of this story, we’re using Zoom, as it’s one of the best video chat apps around. However, there are plenty of Zoom alternatives, such as Skype, Google Meet, and Discord.

Schedule your happy hour — mindfully

While many city-dwellers remain socially isolated (at least for now), that doesn’t mean we’re off the clock. Spontaneous Zoom-based shindigs can become stress-traps for those caught unprepared. Try to consider everyone’s schedule—especially across multiple time zones—and don’t be offended by declined invitations; excessive screen use is a concern for many right now, particularly when it comes to socialization and dedicated family time. 

Try to schedule your happy hour at least one week in advance. Craft cocktails often require fresh ingredients and premium liquor, which will take time for you and your friends to purchase; the less rush, the better.

Make sure invitees are universally familiar with the Zoom platform, and that everyone’s software has been properly downloaded/installed/set up well in advance. Unnecessary technical issues can bring group chats to a screeching halt. Don’t harsh the vibe with your lag issues, man.

Note: Zoom is compatible with Google Calendar, making it easier to coordinate with everyone if you have their email addresses. 

Create a custom cocktail menu

Sure, it’s easy enough to pop a can of beer or uncork a bottle of wine, but for a more memorable event, create a list of cocktail recipes that are easy to make, and share that list with invitees ahead of time. Ask everyone to pick one or two recipes from the menu, and to plan their grocery shopping accordingly; many liquor stores in NYC deliver, but online services like Drizly.com can also be useful. Try to pick recipes that offer something for everyone—including a non-alcoholic beverage or two. 

Check out the sample menu below for some tried-and-true happy hour recipes!

Set up your bar

happy hour

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Mixology is all about proper food prep, so you’ll want a sink and garbage can nearby. Lay all of your bartending tools out on the counter so that everything is within reach. If possible, choose a dedicated cabinet/drawer area for bar storage; this will make your setup and breakdown process easier. 

For those with limited counter space, a bar cart might be just the ticket: these elegant, mobile workstations are the perfect place to stash your bartending/mixology tools—and some liquor bottles, too. Bonus: if you’re handy at carpentry, building a bar cart is a great quarantini side project!

Top pick: Haotian Bar Serving Cart (FKW56-N)

Sporting an “industrial vintage” look, this functional furniture can double (or triple) the counter space for your home bar—and make it mobile! It’s especially useful if you plan on taking your cocktail station outside.View Deal

As you finish creating your speakeasy space, set up your laptop nearby and test out the webcam. Think of your bar as a miniature production studio, and yourself as a mixologist-food stylist-videographer; play around with decorating this vignette however you please. (I’m partial to soft pastels and earth tones myself.) But, if you’d rather your guests not see your apartment, here’s how to change your Zoom background, so that you can make it look like you’re in an actual bar. And be sure to check out our picks for the best free Zoom backgrounds.

Let’s take an inventory of your bar tools:

  • Cocktail shaker & strainer (a sealable Mason Jar works in a pinch)
  • Stirring glass (a draft glass will fill the bill)
  • Stirring spoon (long and skinny, if you have)
  • Muddler (the blunt end of a wooden spoon should do it)
  • Jigger (or something else that measures liquid ounces)
  • Paring knife
  • Cutting board
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Cocktail glasses (double rocks will do for most drinks) 
  • Ice (the chunkier the better)
  • Shot glass (optional)

When happy hour is about twenty minutes away, take everything out of the fridge that you might need, and migrate it over to the bar area. This includes chilled mixers, herbs, citrus, fruit, and other garnishes. (See sample shopping list below. Don’t forget the ice!)

Looking for a starter bar kit? Here’s one I like, if you’re going for the rustic look. 

Get better with bitters

happy hour

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

These concentrated tinctures are an essential ingredient for many classic cocktails, and they come in dozens of flavors. Just three will get that collection started, though: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Regans’. 

Bonus: snag a copy of The Flavor Bible for the ultimate culinary resource.

Adjust the webcam (and fix the lighting)

Zoom Happy Hour tips

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

OK, it’s five minutes to showtime. These two tips are super simple, but they make all the difference when it comes to your Zoom box interactions. 

First, set up your laptop, tablet, or smartphone where you intend for it to stay for the duration of happy hour. (Sticky fingers = sticky keyboards.) Make sure everything is properly framed, and position yourself so that the webcam is just a hair above eye level, tilted slightly downward; this is a flattering angle for most. 

Next, make sure that your primary light source is behind the laptop, facing you. A bright window in the wrong place can turn even the most beautiful of home speakeasies into a washed-out silhouette. 

While bars have never been the most brightly lit places, you’ll want your Zoom friends to be able to see you well, so it’s worth investing in some lighting.

Top pick: Neewer Ring Light Kit

This dimmable ring light is perfect for distributing bright, even lighting; the smartphone holder is a huge plus. It’s an absolute essential for any aspiring product photographer, blogger, or video-conference regular.View Deal

Keep it cheap: Auxiwa Selfie Clip-On Ring Light

You can let there be light without breaking the bank. Instead of a dedicated tripod stand, this miniature ring light clips right to your phone or laptop.View Deal

Add music

Have you ever hung out at a bar that’s dead silent? Well, it’s weird. Zoom lets you share music from your computer in a snap: just navigate to the Share Screen button at the bottom of the window, and make sure the “Share computer sound” box is checked off in the bottom left corner. If you click on the Advanced tab, you can choose to share music from your computer without actually sharing your screen. 

In the interest of good vibrations, here are a few Spotify playlists I recommend: SwingSoft JazzMetallica | ClassicalOldies70s

Come up with a good toast

Zoom Happy Hour tips

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but here are a few toasts I like to use as everyone is settling in:

  • “May the sun always shine on your shoulders; may the wind always blow at your back; and may a story always live in your heart.”
  • "May you always find your lover in your bed and the wolves in the hills."
  • “Cheers to the beers from across the years!”

Five easy-to-make cocktails

Need some drink recipes to get your party going? Here are four cocktails and one non-alcoholic mocktail that you and your friends can make together.

The Perfect Margarita
Base liquor: Tequila/mezcal 

Blanco Tequila, 2.0 oz
Grand Marnier Liqueur, 1.0 oz
Lime Juice (fresh), 0.75 oz
Lemon Juice (fresh), 0.5 oz
Agave Syrup, 0.5 oz
Garnish: lime wedge & sea salt rim

  1. Coat the outer rim of a double rocks glass with salt; fill with ice and set aside.
  2. Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker; fill shaker ¾ to the top with ice.
  3. Shake vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds; strain over clean ice into rocks glass
    from step #1; garnish with lime wedge.

Variations (optional):

  • Make it smoky: substitute blanco tequila for mezcal in step #2.
  • For an extra kick: add an additional 0.5 oz of reposado/añejo tequila or 0.5 oz mezcal
    to the shaker in step #2.
  • For more dynamic citrus essence: Add 3 dashes of grapefruit/citrus bitters in
    step #2.
  • Substitute agave syrup for maple syrup or simple syrup.
  • Substitute Grand Marnier for Cointreau or cognac.

Old-Fashioned Fink
Base liquor: Whiskey

Bourbon/rye whiskey, 3.0 oz
Angostura aromatic bitters, 3 dashes
Brown sugar, ½ tsp
Maraschino cherry, 1
Garnish: orange twist 

  1. Build in the glass: muddle the brown sugar and maraschino cherry in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass (i.e., “double rocks”). Add a few drops of club soda and 2 dashes of bitters; crush the sugar and cherry with muddler until mixture is completely broken up and sugar is mostly dissolved.
  2. Tip and rotate glass so that the sugar grains, crushed cherry, and bitters form a partial lining (i.e., “legs”); set glass aside. 
  3. Pour whiskey into stirring glass (and add another dash of bitters).
  4. Fill glass halfway with ice and stir briskly until chilled (about 15 seconds).
  5. Strain whiskey into Old-Fashioned glass from step #2 over one large ice cube; garnish with orange twist. Finish with one dash of bitters (as a float), if desired.

Variations (optional): 

  • Substitute different kinds of bitters during step #1 and step #5 (e.x., orange, spiced cherry, black walnut, ginger, cassia bark).
  • If you don’t have Angostura bitters, you can substitute with a few dashes of  Worcestershire sauce instead.

Into the Outer Woods
Base liquor: Bourbon whiskey

Bourbon, 1.5 oz
Simple syrup, 0.75 oz
Angostura bitters, 3 dashes
Blackberries, 2
Lemon slices, 3
Mint leaves, 4
Garnish: mint leaf & lemon wheel

  1. Muddle the mint leaves, lemon slices, blackberries, and simple syrup in cocktail shaker.
  2. Add whiskey and bitters; fill shaker ¾ to the top with ice; shake vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds; double strain over clean ice into double rocks glass.
  3. Garnish with mint leaf (slap it first) & lemon wheel (thinly sliced).

Variations (optional):

  • Experiment with different kinds of berries/fruit in step #1 (e.x., strawberries, blueberries, mango, even cherries).
  • Experiment with different kinds of bitters during step #2 (e.x., orange, mint, spiced cherry, ginger).

The No-Baloney Negroni
Base liquor: Gin 

Hendrick’s gin, 1.5 oz
Campari, 1.5 oz
Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, 1.5 oz
Grand Marnier orange liqueur, 0.25 oz
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6, 3 dashes
Garnish: orange slice & orange bitters float

  1. Combine all ingredients in stirring glass.
  2. Fill glass halfway to the top with chunky utility ice.
  3. Stir for 10 seconds; dump entire concoction into double rocks glass.
  4. Garnish with orange slice and orange bitters float. (Rub the orange slice around the rim of the glass, then dunk it under the ice as you squeeze out the juice.)
  5. Take a sip. If too strong for your liking, wait 5 to 10 minutes for proper dilution.
    (Add another ice cube, if necessary.)

The Sorcerer’s Soothsayer
Base liquor: Non-alcoholic

Club soda, 10.0 oz
Grapefruit juice (fresh), 1.0 oz
Orange juice (fresh), 1.0 oz
Lemon juice (fresh), 0.25 oz
Angostura bitters, 4 dashes
Garnish: orange/lemon/lime wheel & rosemary/thyme sprig

  1. Build in the glass: fill 16-oz draft glass ¾ to the top with ice.
  2. Pour lemon juice, orange juice, and grapefruit juice over the ice; add the bitters.
  3. Top with club soda; stir briskly a few times; garnish as desired.

Variations (optional):

  • Make it alcoholic: add 1.5 oz of gin/vodka/tequila in step #1.
  • Experiment with different kinds of bitters during step #2 (e.x., Angostura, orange, ginger, Bittermen’s Boston Bittas), or no bitters at all.
  • Substitute club soda for unfiltered ginger beer in step #3.

Mixologist Bio (@the.artisanal.alchemist)

As a writer, cocktail consultant, and extroverted storyteller, TJ teaches improv-friendly bartending classes in New York City. When he’s not slinging drinks at local fundraisers, pop-up shops, restaurant openings, or other social gatherings, TJ can be found sipping Negronis in his living room and crafting Dr. Seussian poetry inside a tattered moleskin. Need help hosting your next virtual speakeasy event? Reach out for a consult.