Inevitably, as the holidays descend, even the most social butterflies begin to think of the time-honored tradition of holiday entertaining at home. For some of us, it can be as simple as a potluck shared with friends, while for others the holidays are time to host an eight-course meal. I am a big fan of the cocktail party—it’s simple, elegant, easy to prepare, and can be as casual or formal as you choose to make it.
The biggest stumbling block that I find with first-time party planners is the general unease about what to serve—which cocktails go with which hors d’oeuvres? How much food should I make? How many bottles of liquor do I need? What about people who don’t like gin (or rum or whiskey)? To answer these questions and more, here’s a list of ten steps and suggestions to aid you in your holiday party preparations.
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, since this entire process is called “party planning.” However, a good outline will keep you sane and prevent a lot of last-minute panicking and changes. If you know ahead of time how much food to buy, how many days ahead of time you can prep the food, how many bottles of liquor you need, etc., it will allow you to feel calm, cool and collected all the way through the party.
Twenty is the magic number where bartending for your guests becomes a job, and one best done by a bartender if you intend to enjoy the party. Keep in mind that you aren’t just making the drinks—you’re also going to be rinsing the shaker between rounds, refilling the ice bucket and busing dirty glasses. I try to keep my parties between 12 and 15 guests, which is where I have the best mix of time spent entertaining and time spent making drinks or refilling food trays.
…by which I do not mean “Hawaiian Luau” or “Pirate’s Cove.” A theme can be as simple as the unifying theme of your menu (think: fall produce, Italian) or your cocktail list (e.g., sours, classic whiskey cocktails) or something as simple as decorating with the color red and choosing drinks to match. Invitations may be used to set out the theme, but one of the great perks about cocktail parties is that they do not require formal invitations—you can invite friends by phone or email, so how involved you’d like your theme to be is completely up to you. Keep in mind, though, that a casual invitation results in guests who expect a casual party—if you’d like a semi-formal, cocktail-attire gathering, you should consider sending out an invitation and specifying the dress code.
This is where I spend most of my planning time. Parties are all about the food and company, and a cocktail party is all about the drinks, food and company. Fortunately, you can plan the drinks and food ahead of time, all the way down to the last detail. Here are a few simple rules I follow when putting together menus.
As portion sizes have become larger, it is common to see plates at cocktail parties, but this tends to be a very unwieldy prospect for guests. If you do not have the space or have not planned for guests to fill a plate and then sit down to eat, expect that they will have a drink in one hand and thus only one free hand to eat with. Bite-sized portions that are easy to nibble without a fork make things easy. Also, be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand—liquor plus liquid plus food sometimes requires mopping up.
There is absolutely no shame in preparing an entire menu of food that can be done in advance. No one expects you to be slaving in the kitchen for four hours before the party, so why would you? The same goes for cocktails—pick recipes that will allow you to do the least amount of work during the party, either because they don’t require any special labor or because you’ve already juiced the citrus or pre-measured the ingredients.
When planning your menu, choose drinks that use the same style of glassware. It will be easier to fill, wash and reuse twenty highball glasses or champagne flutes during the course of the party than to clean sixty different types of dirty glasses throughout the evening. I try to keep the glass style the same or similar for all of the cocktails on my menus to keep the dishes from piling up.
No matter how much time you put into your cocktail list, there are people who don’t drink hard liquor. I keep wine and beer on hand for those folks—usually a good local microbrew and bottle each of white and red, or a couple bottles of champagne during the holidays. Champagne is also great if you plan to do champagne cocktails, as you won’t have to stock up on anything special for wine drinkers.
I’ve hosted a lot of cocktail parties, and inevitably, something always goes wrong. Most of the time it’s something minor, like burning the crostini, but don’t panic—just roll with the punches and remember that the point of all of this is to have a good time. Your guests will never see the burnt toast, so just throw some more in the oven and focus on all the things that have gone right.
If you don’t have a good time, there’s absolutely no point to hosting a party. If you plan ahead, stick to your menu and do the prep beforehand, there’s absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t enjoy every minute.
Marleigh Riggins Miller is writer, photographer and publisher of SLOSHED! Begun in early 2005, the focus of SLOSHED! is on cocktails—good, bad and indifferent—with a definite bias toward the classics, homemade ingredients and entertaining. Marleigh is BarSmarts Certified and is a member of the Cocktails & Spirits Online Writers Group. When not writing or shooting photos for SLOSHED!, she works as a graphic designer and design instructor, gardens and favors cold Belgian-style ales.