We all want to host the kind of holiday cocktail party that everyone talks about until next year, but it seems like most people only have room to reminisce about one memorable event every season. Luckily, by following the easy steps below, you’ll be plenty prepared to host—and even more importantly, enjoy—one of the defining occasions of this year’s holiday season.
When getting ready to host a party, it’s best to start as early as possible. We’re all guilty of waiting until the last minute, but writing out a comprehensive list of what you need to purchase or prepare and continually adding to it as new ideas come to you is always worth the effort.
When you’ve completed something on the list, it’s best to leave it on there and simply mark it as done with a check, so there’s no confusion later about what tasks have been completed and which still remain.
With your list in hand, we recommend you get all the necessary shopping out of the way first—though this isn’t always possible with perishable items, or a household budget that doesn’t allow for too many big, one-off trips to the shop. A good way around this is to organize your list in order of priority, and leaving the more perishable items to last. Things like spirits, bar tools, canned goods, and the like can be picked up well in advance, though.
Once you have your lists all set, it’s good to start putting together a selection of playlists for various moods. Remember that your party will probably be longer than the average playlist, and having multiple playlists to keep the music fresh is the best way to avoid those awkward moments when one finishes and you’re stuck searching for something else to put on.
It can be good to start the evening off with an easy-listening playlist, and as your party livens up the music should change to fit the atmosphere. Sites like Spotify and Pandora have some great pre-made holiday playlists, but if you’re a real aficionado of seasonal music, by all means put one together yourself!
Pre-Batched Holiday Cocktails
Photo: Beautiful Booze
Naturally, only the best cocktails will do for you and your guests. When possible, the best route is to hire a local, professional bartender service in your area (if you’re in San Francisco, Mission District mainstay Elixir does a fantastic catering service). However, if your party doesn’t warrant hiring a professional, you certainly don’t want to be stuck behind the bar mixing drinks all night instead of actually enjoying the fruits of your labor.
In that case, it’s time for plan B: pre-batched cocktails. There are an abundance of punch recipes out there, many of which are perfect for the holiday season. Some of our favorites are Egg Nog (of course), this Christmas Bourbon Punch from Beautiful Booze, the Champagne Holiday Punch, and the strong but delicious Gaelic Punch. Alternatively, if you’re feeling creative, fashioning your own punch recipe can be very simple.
For some extra wow factor, a DIY cocktail bar is sure to be a sensation among your guests. There are some great, pre-arranged setups over on Beautiful Booze as well, like the Mimosa, Boozy Hot Chocolate, and Spiked Lemonade bars. Designated drivers and others who don’t want to drink can also join in with these delicious concoctions by simply leaving out the alcohol.
Finally, arranging a selection of fresh fruits and herbs in a colorful assortment around the drink table helps to complete the experience, and gives your guests a little something extra to snack on if they’re in the mood.
Simplifying Your Cocktail Menu
Limiting the open bar menu to one or two simple cocktails, a popular beer (maybe even a seasonal one, like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale or Anchor Steam’s Christmas Ale), and red and white wine of your choosing will make it a lot easier. Sure, if you’re at a venue with an extensive bar, your friends will be able to buy something top shelf to impress their date, but the cost shouldn’t come out of your pocket. If you’re hosting at your house and a friend or relative wants something more specific, simply let them know they’re more than welcome to bring it along!
Photo: Larry Hoffman via Flickr
Sit-down dinners are great for small, intimate holiday gatherings, but for a larger party it’s always easier to have smaller, appetizer-style dishes strategically placed around the area for guests to enjoy at their leisure.
When serving hot food, it’s always better to have someone help you take it around and specifically offer it to guests rather than just setting it on a table. This way you can judge the crowd and the popularity of each dish, and it doesn’t sit around getting cold.
Little things like Caprese on a Stick, Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes, or Mini Pastrami Sandwiches are perfect, as they can sit out for a long time and are easy for everyone to pick up. One big mistake people make is to offer bites that are either way too large, way too small, or way too messy.
Disposable Cameras and Photo Booths
One of the best parts of any party is seeing the fun, creative photos taken by your guests, and later sharing them either as a personalized thank-you card or simply in a Facebook album. Disposable cameras are great, since they’re easy for everyone to carry around and have some nostalgic fun with, but renting a photo booth (from a service like Two Dudes & A Booth, if you’re in San Francisco) is more reasonably priced than you’d expect.
Plus, guests can have their photos printed out right then and there, and the newer ones usually provide a CD or DVD for you to take home and sort through later. Some people like to take silly photos and take the originals with them, thinking they got away with the perfect party crime—it’s always fun to see the reactions when you post the backups online!
If you only take one thing away from this guide, it should be that preparation is key. Getting as much done as possible beforehand leaves you stress-free and capable of tackling any last-minute complications that will inevitably throw a wrench into things.
By the beginning of the event, you want to be greeting your guests at the front door with a smile and, ideally, one of your fantastic holiday cocktails in hand.