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cocktail party

Ramona King

Christmas sweater glasses from UncommonGreen add a festive touch to holiday cocktail parties


Southern Kitchen's ultimate guide to throwing a low-stress cocktail party

Santa Claus and Elf of the Shelf may demand much of the attention this time of year, but once you get shopping out of the way, December is all about cocktail parties. From mistletoe-laden holiday fetes to Champagne fueled New Year's galas, gatherings this time of year are full of martini glasses and single-bite snacks. 

There's no need to wait until your company throws its annual party — gather your bottles and best bar bites and throw a cocktail party yourself. It sounds intimidating, but cocktail parties are actually often easier (and cheaper) than elaborate dinner parties. You just need to be smart with your menu and your planning strategy. And not to worry — we're here to guide you through it.

Start with a guest list and a theme
Before you worry about making sure your paleo guests have their gluten-free margaritas and your Aunt Sue her mulled wine, write down your intended guest list. The number of people coming to your party will determine a couple of things: how you'll stock your bar and how much you'll want to cook. If you're throwing an intimate cocktail party with only your five best couple friends, you can offer more flexibility with the drinks and even have guests be their own bartenders. On the other hand, if you're trying to invite the whole neighborhood, you'll want to think punches and big-batch cocktails that are easy to serve and don't require too much investment in various types of spirits. Call them your "signature cocktails." Small parties also do well with one simple spread of food — say, a cheese and charcuterie board — while larger events require nibbles spread around the house in easy-to-serve sizes.

It's easiest to pick drinks and snacks if you've got a theme to work around. Since it is prime holiday season, perhaps that's your theme. Or pick a festive movie from which to draw inspiration, or perhaps a time period. (1920s is a tried-and-true theme for a New Year's party, for example.) From there, you can start to plan your menu.

Think make-ahead
There's nothing worse than being stuck behind the stove or the bar at a party while all of your guests are having fun. Make it easy on yourself by making as much as you can before the first guest rings your doorbell. Many appetizers can be served at room temperature, so plan to serve almost everything this way. One hot dip or mini-tart is fine if you've got it assembled ahead of time and just need to pop it in the oven for a few minutes before serving. Here are some great ideas:
Anne Byrn's Cheese Straws
Classic Deviled Eggs
Old-Fashioned Pimento Cheese
Old Bay Chickpeas
Vidalia Onion Dip

On the drinks side, you'll also want to make as much ahead of time as possible, especially if you're planning to have many guests in your home. Pick two signature cocktails to batch out in advance and put them out in punch bowls, pitchers or bottles come serving time. It's best to choose one cocktail made with a clear spirit, such as vodka or gin, and one with a dark spirit, such as bourbon, so that you will please the most number of your guests.

And to that point, unless you're having a party full of mixologists, stick to friendly, easy-to-drink cocktails here. This is not the time to create a new masterpiece with yellow Chartreuse, absinthe and Fernet Branca. Try infusing simple syrup with herbs and/or citrus to add some flair to a Tom Collins or pull out a few flavors of El Guapo Bitters to make creative twists on Old Fashioneds. (El Guapo's gumbo is a surprisingly versatile flavor.) You'll show off some creativity without alienating your guests. Here are some easy ideas:
Anne Byrn's Holiday Rum Punch
Bourbon Prosecco Spritzer
Homemade Mulled Apple Cider
"Run Rudolf Run" Cocktail
Topo Chico Paloma
In addition to cocktails, you'll also need to plan to serve some beer and wine for non-cocktail drinkers, as well as non-alcoholic options. A very easy way to make even water seem special is to serve infused sparkling water. You can also encourage guests to mix a flavored simple syrup with plain sparkling water, or simply serve sparkling cider.

Oh, and don't forget to stash away anything you don't want your guests to drink. If the party goes late, you're not going to want anyone to reach deep into your bar, pull out your prized bottle of Pappy and pour a glass for everyone. Keep those bottles hidden; you're better safe than sorry.

Back up. How do I "batch" cocktails? What does that even mean?
"Batching" a cocktail is simply the act of mixing up a large, well, batch, of a single drink ahead of serving. When you're scaling up a drink recipe, it is easiest to think about the drinks in ratios instead of actual measurements. So, if a drink is 2 ounces rye and 1 ounce vermouth, such as a Manhattan, it is a 2:1 ratio of rye to vermouth. You know that if you scale it up, you'll simply need twice as much rye as vermouth by volume. Pour your scaled up cocktail mixture into an easy-to-pour serving vessel, such as a carafe or an empty wine bottle, and place it in a bucket of ice to keep cold throughout the party.

If you're like most of us and you run from the thought of doing any math, stick to punch recipes — these recipes have already been scaled up for you! Choose two different punches for a really good time. Simply mix all your ingredients (minus anything sparkling) and refrigerate until it's party time. Drop in a bag of ice or large ice block and pour on the sparkling wine when the first guest walks in. Done!
Another easy solution is to make a drink that is served over ice, such as a Moscow mule or mint julep. For these drinks, simply mix the spirit with any syrups or juices the morning-of, and serve this mixture next to ice, garnishes, and any sodas or other mixers needed to top off the drink. Write up a "recipe" for how much spirit mixture and how much soda makes the perfect drink, or let your guests freestyle.

Cocktails that are served "up" after being shaken or stirred are a little trickier because of the role dilution plays in these drinks. Any time a drink is mixed with ice before serving, some of the ice melts in the drink to dilute the alcohol and chill the beverage. You can absolutely mix together each of the drink's components and ask your guests to serve them over ice, but you won't always end up with a balanced drink. For perfect cocktails, you'll want to include some water in your pre-made drink mixture.

One way to figure out how much water to use is to make a single serving of your signature cocktail in advance. Measure the volume of the drink before you pour it into your shaker (pre-dilution) and then measure it again before you drink it (post-dilution). Before you start drinking (math!), subtract the volume of the pre-diluted drink from the post-diluted drink to get the water volume. Scale that amount up accordingly with the rest of the ingredients in your drink. Or just check out these great scaled up recipes that include proper water dilution.

Give guests freedom to garnish with abandon
Especially if you're planning to only offer a couple signature cocktails, a great way to get your guests involved in their own drink making is let them garnish their drink however they'd like. Peel lemon, lime and orange peels. Gather Maraschino or Luxardo cherries, cocktail olives and onions and citrus wheels. Make a couple of flavored salt bowls for dipping rims and pick some fresh herbs, such as rosemary and thyme. Organize it all onto a platter filled with small bowls and call it a "cocktail board." (Because we're really leaning into the "board" this year.)
For glassware, more is better
Chances are, your guests are going to have more than one drink, and chances are even better that they won't re-use their glass. However, don't feel like you need to have actual glasses for every guest to have drink after drink after drink. Instead, plan for two pieces of glassware per person, and then stock up on those short clear plastic cups that you can find in any grocery store. Anyone that is sipping on more than two drinks will likely not care too much about his or her glassware once they pour that third drink.

Depending on the drinks you choose to serve, you'll want specific styles of glassware. Ice- and soda-filled drinks demand Collins glasses. Punches and anything served "up" can be poured into in martini or rocks glasses. Drinks served on the rocks should be served, as the name suggests, in rocks glasses. Or hey, embrace the mix-and-match trend and pull out all the glassware you've got in your house. Let your guests choose what they'd like to use. We won't tell!

Decorate, but don't fret
Here it is best to keep things simple. Make one large centerpiece and place it on your food table. We've got some great ideas here, or simply purchase a vase of flowers. If your house is already decorated for the holidays, even better. Just leave those decorations up and breathe easy.

Set up the bar on a separate table from the food to keep your guests moving around. Move both your food table and bar out from the wall if possible to, again, keep guests moving. Pull out a metal tub or two to fill with ice for beer, wine and your bottles filled with batched cocktails. In addition, you'll want to have an ice bucket to hold cocktail ice.

Finally, don't worry too much about cleaning. Cocktail parties, in their nature, are evening affairs, and you won't have bright lights showing off the dusty corners of your house. Wipe down surfaces and sweep the floor, and you're ready for party time. Pour yourself a drink!

Visit the Shoppe at Southern Kitchen for holiday gift ideas and more

Photo Credit (Cheese Straws): Danielle Atkins
Photo Credit (Bourbon Spritz): Cynthia Hoyt
Photo Credit (Punches): Danielle Atkins
Photo Credit (Sweater Glasses): Ramona King

Author image

Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.