Merrily on highball
Drinks that make party season easy
Festive drinks don't have to bring down your spirit
The first party my parents threw as a married couple was for my grandparents’ anniversary. It consisted of a large ring of chairs set up in the living room, guests facing center. Excited about their new home, Dad stoked a robust fire in the hearth, though it was 65 degrees outside. And, my folks not coming from drinking families, the party was dry as a bone. As Dad moved to put yet another log on the blaze, a guest more acquainted with boozy holiday parties squinted through the sweat rolling down his face, his gin blossoms glowing like plum pudding. “If you put one more log on that damned fire,” he hissed, “I’m going to club you with it.”
Forever after, this has served as a cautionary tale. Parties need alcohol. It’s the original social lubricant, making everyone more at ease with each other, with the flow of conversation and, most of all, with themselves. BYOB covers a multitude of parties, but during the holidays, stakes are high. You’re spending time and money to curate a special experience.
While I’m sure they’re lovely people, your guests will miss the mark with their assorted offerings. Those bottles are gifts to enjoy later, not to serve there and then. And frankly, it’s not your guests’ responsibility to supply this party. It’s all on you.
So how do you get through this night without one of your guests threatening to bludgeon you at your own party?
Sealing your fête
First, consider what kind of party this is. Parties, even during the holidays, can range from informal gatherings of friends who bring a mishmash of bottles and snacks to tuxedoed affairs with hired bartenders and servers. For the sake of this article, let’s say it’s something in between, where funds are allocated to creating a special menu instead of hiring staff.
Next, think about your audience. Just like with the playlist (you’re making a playlist, right?) think about what they like more than what you like. Your passion for eggnog is adorable, but it should not be driving this party. From their grand entrance to when you bundle them into Ubers, you want your guests to feel comfortable but, well, sexy. That’s what holiday parties are all about, Charlie Brown. So create an approachable drink menu, but have a level of frill. More on that later.
Finally, consider quantity. Because we’re fortunate enough to live in an age of convenience, calculators for exactly this purpose are a Google search away. Input the number of guests, how long they’ll stay, whether they’re light, moderate, or heavy drinkers, and if there will be nonalcoholic offerings (there should be). Hit the button and cyberspace gives you a shopping list for beer, wine, and liquor. Err on the side of too much—leftovers mean your next party is already half in the bag.
What kind of host are you?
“Parties are like people,” says Cat Archer, manager at Radio Social, bartender, and events producer for the Rochester Cocktail Revival. “They all have their different personalities.”
Archer has worked in restaurants since she was fourteen and has tended bar for ten years in Washington, DC, and Rochester. She has coordinated events throughout her career, including organizing private parties for her patrons.
“There are two kinds of hosts. Some want to be part of their party and don’t want to do too much bartending, but they want to provide something excellent for their guests to drink. There are some hosts who really geek out on cocktails and enjoy playing bartender for an evening and showing off their skills,” says Archer.
Full disclosure: I’m one of those geeks. I’m not a bartender, but I’m not bad at making a short list of simple drinks. But, you know, shaking, muddling, walloping a Lewis ice bag—these are easy ways to impress a room. That said, if you’d like to stop making drinks at any point and enjoy your own party, you’re gonna need to batch.
Archer says punches, sangrias, martini pitchers—anything you can prep and store in the refrigerator or freezer—let your guests serve themselves, letting you enjoy your party rather than babysit a shaker. And, she says, batching doesn’t forgo presentation. Decorative ring molds with cranberries, citrus slices, and rosemary sprigs suspended in the ice are simple to make (check Amazon for the molds) and lend elegance to a self-serve station.
Punches specifically are a great area to save cash, as they include a lengthener like Prosecco, ginger beer, lemonade, or sparkling water. To make a great punch, simply remember the adage “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Obviously, weak is the lengthener.
A warm cocktail like mulled wine or glogg is another great play during the holidays. “That will make your house smell amazing,” says Archer. “You could make it ahead, put it in a Crock-Pot or any other slow cooker … buy some cute little glassware … and it still has that [presentation] impact.”
Finally, you could simply make a lot of one particular cocktail and serve in a pitcher. “If you’re not concerned about alcohol consumption, go straight for a spirit-forward drink,” says Archer. These would be your Manhattans, Negronis, and Martinis. That said, these concentrated cocktails are meant to be stirred with ice, AKA, diluted. So if you’re not serving over ice, add one cup of water for every five cups of booze. Otherwise, your drinks won’t taste right, and your guests will be bawling Auld Lang Syne by 7 p.m.
Now, if panache means more to you than palaver with guests, feel free to show off. “If you’re going to shake something, start with a basic sour formula,” says Archer. “The beauty of a sour is that you can use it interchangeably with anything.” Any spirit can be a base, sweetening agents are open to creative interpretation (why yes, I did make this rosemary simple syrup myself, and yes I am very impressive), and do whatever you want with citrus, be it lemon, lime, a mix of both, a bit of orange as well, and so on. For the holidays, Archer recommends the New York Sour, which takes advantage of the model’s flexibility while adding a festive wine float on top.