Taste-testing cocktails is the best kind of party prep.
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Montgomery Punch
Credit: Photo: Iain Bagwell; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller

I grew up with many examples of thoughtful entertainers in my Southern family, but when I consider a truly effortless host my mind immediately goes to a woman that I never even met. Several years ago, my family rented a house in West Palm Beach, Florida for a long weekend. When we arrived we saw that the homeowner left all the trimmings for a festive cocktail hour. She'd frozen a batch of homemade appetizers that we could simply pop in the oven, complete with baking instructions taped to the top of the tin foil. She kept her bar cart and her fridge stocked with the ingredients for her own signature punch recipe, the Pecky Cypress, named for a type of wood commonly used in historic homes throughout the area. 

I couldn't tell you what liquor she included in this tasty libation, but I've never forgotten her hands-off approach to welcoming guests. As I've started hosting more occasions in my own home, I often consider how these thoughtful details made me feel comfortable, but also didn't even require the host to be present. While I prefer to attend my own gatherings, I do like to enjoy my time with guests rather than running around the kitchen frantically. 

When you have a go-to punch for company, it's easy to keep a running checklist of ingredients you'll need to have on hand before guests arrive. Not all of the items may be shelf-stable, but when you know the recipe by heart you can throw everything in your buggy during a last-minute grocery run. There's no better way to welcome out-of-town guests than with a cocktail that showcases regional ingredients or has a name that requires the telling of a local legend. 

Down here, neighbors or family members are known to drop in unannounced. You could pop open a bottle of red wine or quickly throw a six pack over ice, but with a house punch you can craft a memorable beverage at a moment's notice. If a very dear friend stops by, she might have already memorized the method behind your go-to drink and can whip up a few of her own. 

With the right recipe, you can even use cocktail hour as an excuse to showcase a beloved family heirloom. Did your Great Aunt Wilma leave you a beautiful glass punch bowl? Dazzle your next crowd with this recipe from the Junior League of Montgomery, Alabama. Did Mama share her collection of vintage coupe glasses with you? Make the most of Kentucky's finest with our Big Batch Bourbon Ginger Ale Punch

I haven't found the one drink I'll stick with forever, but in a busy season of weddings and showers this four-ingredient Champagne Punch has become a favorite of mine. I almost always have a bowl of fresh lemons on my kitchen counter, so I just have to check on the prosecco and gin supply before cocktail hour can begin. I often let fresh fruit inspire my garnishes, and can't wait to experiment with Texas Hill Country peaches this summer. 

Experienced Southern entertainers know that a relaxed host makes for a comfortable guest. Do the hard work ahead of time, and taste-test a few punch recipes until you find your favorite. In no time at all, your porch will become the most popular spot in town.