Take it away!
One of the great joys of the holiday season is entertaining-- being surrounded by family and friends, reflecting on all the ups and downs of the past year and looking forward to the next. Especially around this time of year, I receive a lot of questions from readers regarding the mechanics of hosting cocktail parties-- which cocktails go with which hors d'oeuvres? how many bottles of liquor do I need? how much food should I make? what about people who don't like gin (or rum or whiskey)? To help ease some of the confusion for first-time party planners, I've put together a few tips on hosting a cocktail party.
1. Plan ahead
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.
And while you're thinking about planning ahead, 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.
2. Keep the guest list under 20
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. 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.
3. Make a menu.
This is where I sent 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. There are a few simple rules I follow when putting together menus:
If your party begins before 6p.m. or after 8p.m., expect your guests to eat less than they would during the dinner hour. Two pieces per person of six or so hors d'oeuvres is a good place to start.
If your party takes place between 6 and 8p.m., expect guests to be hungry and prepare more portions. Two pieces per person of 10 or so hors d'oeuvres is a good place to start.
Prepare food in bite-size portions. 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.
Have plenty of napkins on hand-- liquor plus food requires some mopping up.
Plan for three drinks per guest. Choose your cocktail recipes accordingly, so that you don't wind up with a room full of guests who can't drive home.
One 750mL bottle of liquor will give you approximately 25 one-ounce pours. If you are preparing drinks that call for two ounces of liquor per cocktail, expect to get 12 cocktails per 750mL bottle of spirit.
Choose drinks that use some of the same ingredients. This will save you money, time and labor, especially if you need to juice fresh citrus. I like to pick a theme for the drinks, like Classic Sours (Whiskey Sour, Margarita, Pisco Sour Sidecar), Champagne Cocktails (French 75, Kir Royale, Death in the Afternoon) or Holiday Warmers (Hot Buttered Rum, Tom & Jerry, Fresh Eggnog).
Keep wine and beer on hand for those guests who don't drink hard liquor. I usually stock a good local microbrew and bottle each of white or red, or a couple bottles of champagne during the holidays.
4. Don't panic, something always goes wrong.
I've hosted a lot of cocktail parties, and something, inevitably, 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 this is to have a good time. Your guests will never see the burnt toasts, so just throw more in the oven and focus on the things that have gone right.
5. Have fun, you earned it.
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.
To get you started, here is a simple champagne cocktail recipe-- the Kir Royale:
Ingredients: champagne, sparkling wine or cava; creme de cassis (black currant liqueur)
Fill a flute three-quarters full with champagne and add a splash of creme de cassis. Garnish with a spiral lemon twist and serve.
To make a non-alcoholic version, substitute non-alcoholic sparkling wine or sparkling apple juice for the champagne, and use black currant or raspberry syrup in place of the cassis. Garnish with a spiral lemon twist and serve.