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The Ultimate Guide to Serving Cocktails This Holiday Season

How you can imbibe in style.

cocktail guide Adobe

It would be easier this year, understandable even, to pare down any event to a kind of pandemic minimalism. But at the same time, making the most of a sub-optimal situation is the very nature of cocktails, their raison d’être (think Prohibition). The whole point from the beginning was to take a spirit you’re less than enthusiastic about (say, bathtub gin), and transform it, through effort and ingenuity, into something special.

Parties will certainly have fewer guests this year, but if you’re hosting anything at all, whether it’s outdoors, within your bubble or fully masked, the principles and guidelines of cocktail-making still apply. These tips should bring your vision into reality and increase the luster of your drinks without requiring nerd-level homework.

Cocktails are not, and have never been, strictly necessary, but in a way that’s what makes them shine. It’s the frame around a picture or the frosting on a cake, or dressing up for date night even if it’s just you and your spouse—they’re the definition of making an effort. Crafting, serving, sipping a great drink is one of the million small choices that add up to the difference between surviving and thriving. To that end, we’re here to help with recipes for can’t-fail cocktails and spirits.

Make a Low-Alcohol Punch to Start the Night

holiday cocktails punch bowl



How to make a punch in a pandemic? Clearly, all signs point to a communal open bowl of punch being a terrible idea, and yet there are too many positives to ignore: It’s easy, it’s precise, it’s all pre-made and it remains the quickest way to get a glass in someone’s hand. Keep it on the lower-alcohol side, and it’s the perfect opening salvo to ease into the night.

Instead of a big bowl, pre-dilute it and keep it ice-cold in large, sealable bottles. With an empty glass in hand, your guest can be poured the punch as if it’s a bottle of wine.

Personal Punch

  • 5 oz. Suntory Roku gin
  • 5 oz. Fino or Manzanilla sherry 3.5 oz. lemon juice
  • 3.5 oz. grapefruit juice
  • 2.5 oz. simple syrup
  • 2.5 oz. Amaro Meletti
  • 0.25 oz. absinthe
  • 9 oz. cold water

Stir well. Pour into a one-liter bottle with a stopper. Serve ice-cold.

The Best Gin for Serving Martinis

Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin

Monkey 47

There’s nothing like a good martini. It is, and has been for 100 years, the touchstone of elegance. Bracing and ice-cold, with a diamond-like brilliance, from the first sip to the last it has the clarity of a bell ringing on a cold night, and making a perfect one for your guests is the quickest liquid way to bring refinement to your party.

The best tool to make an outstanding martini is the right gin, and without a doubt one of the finest is Monkey 47. It eschews the structured juniper backbone of most gins (go for Tanqueray No. 10 if you want that kind of martini) and instead is all silky finesse. If Tanqueray is a linebacker, Monkey 47 is a soccer midfielder, lithe and capable, with more gears and a softer touch.

Bottled at 94 proof and even with nearly four dozen ingredients, this gin feels synergistic, each sip delicate and fascinating, with chamomile and evergreen and citrus and tea tree and cucumber and on and on and on. It’s almost hauntingly complex. Wine critic Robert Parker called it the greatest gin he has ever tasted.

Try it 5:1 with Dolin Dry Vermouth, stirred, and a lemon peel. Or, for that matter, use it in a gimlet or French 75. A happy corollary of a gin that’s ideal for martinis is that it’s ideal for most everything else, too.

Tips on Hiring a Private Bartender

professional bartenders holiday cocktail guide

Valentino Longo

There’s only one guaranteed way to make sure you won’t be spending all night making drinks for your guests, and that’s to get someone else to do it. Hiring a talented bartender outsources not only the drink making but also the drink planning, juicing, syrup making, setup and break-down, to say nothing of the anxiety of worrying about all those details.

If you want proper cocktails for your party, finding the right bartender can be a little tricky. The straight catering types have heaps of event experience but exactly zero experience making balanced craft cocktails. Not much better are the newly minted bartenders, who make respectable drinks in controlled environments but don’t know how to improvise with non-professional equipment.

Your Private Bartending Options

Elite: If you’re in or around a major city, there is probably a mixology event company available for hire. It’ll have a website, sleek photos and detailed pricing structure (though the prices won’t be on its site). These are almost uniformly professional operations that will meet or exceed your expectations. They have mobile ice buckets that accommodate drainage, Instagram-ready signs for the bar, precious/elaborate garnishes, etc. They’re also usually wedding-grade expensive.

Professional: Go to your favorite cocktail bar and bartender (or message them on Facebook or Instagram) and ask them if they work events. Everyone’s on a side hustle right now: If yours isn’t, he or she probably knows someone who is. They won’t have a website but will bring as much (and possibly more) personality, professionalism and talent to your event. Make sure they’ve worked a few events before so they know where the potential pitfalls are, and work with them to build bespoke drinks for your party. A talented barman can make $250 to $500 or more a night at the bar, so if you want them to plan, prep and take the night off from work, you’ll have to double that at least. On the plus side, you’ll be helping out your favorite local expert, and it’ll almost certainly be much less money than the Elite choice.

Amateur: If you feel comfortable pre-batching your cocktails so that all your enlisted help needs to do is pour something from a single bottle, then any warm body over 21 will do. With sufficiently pre-batched cocktails, as long as someone can put ice in a glass, they can bartend your event.

A Showstopping Cocktail

Queens Park Swizzle

Photo: courtesy Adobe Stock

The nicest thing you can say about the Queen’s Park Swizzle is that it tastes as good as it looks. It’s one of those drinks that force you to do a double take. If your other cocktails could get jealous, they would be jealous of the Queen’s Park Swizzle.

At its core, it’s just a mojito—not exactly a winter phenomenon—but made richer by aged rum and heavily spiced by a float of Angostura, the legendary cocktail bitters. The arresting presentation and the festive color scheme, not to mention it’s fairly easy to make, scream events. The only special thing you’ll need is crushed ice, which will require a container that drains so it doesn’t turn into a sloshy mess. If you have that, deploy this drink at your next event, and watch the heads turn.

As for style of rum: It’s not too prescriptive here; most aged rums taste good. Try the muscular depth of Rhum Barbancourt Réserve Spéciale or Appleton Estate 12, or the friendly richness of Angostura’s own 1919 rum.

Queen’s Park Swizzle

  • 2 oz. aged rum
  • 0.75 oz. lime juice
  • 0.75 oz. simple syrup
  • 5 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 6 to 10 mint leaves

Gently muddle mint leaves in the bottom of a tall glass. Add rum, simple syrup and lime juice, and fill halfway with crushed ice. Swizzle or stir until the glass frosts, then fill with crushed ice and top with three to five dashes of Angostura bitters. Garnish with mint crowns, and serve with a straw.

Batch Cocktails So You Can Enjoy Your Own Party

Sometimes you want to show off your drink-making skills but don’t want to spend your whole party mixing drinks. So borrow a trick from your favorite bar and batch your ingredients ahead of time. You’ll have impressive cocktails fast and still be able to mingle.

Sugar, water and alcohol are what’s called “miscible” with each other, which means once they’re combined, they’ll stay mixed until the end of time. Just as a bottle of liqueur isn’t sweeter or stronger on the bottom than it is on the top, so your pre-mixed, pre-bottled Manhattan or negroni will stay perfectly mixed, ready to pour, forever. In fact, if it contains aromatic ingredients (such as vermouth), it will actually mature and improve with age.

Here are a few tips to make your cocktails as easy as twisting a cap:

  • Measure everything into a large container, and stir well for 20 to 30 seconds.
  • If you don’t want to have to shake or stir drinks to order, you still need to account for dilution. So
    add water to the recipe ahead of time, and chill well to serve. If you’re serving your cocktail on ice, measure your batch and add 20 percent of that volume as water. If you’re serving it straight up, add 30 to 35 percent water.
  • If you’re adding citrus, add it the day of and agitate the batch before pouring, as citrus has tiny
    particles that sink to the bottom.
  • Make small signs or labels so your guests aren’t chasing you down wondering which bottled cocktail they’re looking at.
  • If it’s a bottle guests can pour themselves, put some unscented hand sanitizer nearby. Thanks, 2020.

A Non-Alcoholic Spirit Everyone Will Want to Drink

Lyre's spiced cane spirit


Of all the bottles you can buy stoppered with a cork, who would guess the most dynamic and exciting is the one with no booze? The market for nonalcoholic spirits has exploded with innovation over the last two years, and perhaps best in class is the Australian brand Lyre’s. It was early to grasp that you need a little fire if you’re going to imitate alcohol: Lyre’s infuses its spirits with small amounts of oak tannins, bitterness and/or spice, yielding a drinkable and surprisingly accurate impersonation of everything from American whiskey to Amaretto. Try the spiced “rum” mixed with Coke, or the “vermouth” and “Campari” for an N/A Americano.

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