How to Plan for Holiday Cocktail Parties

Once again, it's the holiday season, that crazy time of dinner guests, food preparation, gift giving, and wacky relatives. Is it any wonder we could all use a strong one? If your plans involve hosting a cocktail party this season (or pouring a few rounds of cocktails on Thanksgiving day), you might want some advice to help you cope. If you feel yourself starting to panic, relax: careful planning and a few tips should help relieve the stress.

Why You Shouldn't Mix Drinks to Order

The first rule of a successful cocktail party is simplify, simplify, simplify. Nothing will raise your blood pressure faster than finding yourself making cocktails one at a time. Remember, you're a host, not a bartender. Even if you're a cocktail geek like I am, a party should be fun, not stressful. Take some of the pressure off yourself and have a good time.

I should know. We once hosted a party for 25 friends, and I decided that in addition to having wine, beer, sodas, water, and a few premixed cocktails around, I'd mix drinks to order.

What I learned is that, logistically, it's trickier than it sounds. For example, you need to have a lot of ice handy if you're going to be shaking or stirring cocktails to order. As my column about ice indicates, to make great drinks, you need ice that's dry and dense, two attributes that seldom describe the ice you'll pull from a cooler during a party. Your ice may be perfect at the beginning, but it's harder to sustain that as the hours tick by.

Another problem: what do you do with your shaker between drinks? I was mixing cocktails outside, on our back patio. Why? That's where our guests were. My wife was in our very small kitchen, preparing snacks and plating food. Moving from patio to kitchen to clean the shaker between drinks wasn't feasible. I used a tub full of clean water and rinsed the shaker between drinks, but it didn't take long for that water to get swampy and gross. If you're going to mix to order, have plenty of clean cocktail shakers on hand, and a plan for cleaning them once they're filthy.

A third problem: obscure drink requests. I have a friend who simply loves blue drinks. They're not my bag, but he was my guest and I wanted to accommodate him. I had blue curacao on hand, but then he requested a signature cocktail from a nightclub I'd never heard of. And he had no idea what was in it. I grabbed the nearest cocktail manual and just whipped up the first blue drink I found. He was happy with it, but I was frazzled.

Which leads to another point, don't feel you need to accommodate the blue-drink drinker. Each guest will have his or her own drinking foibles; to a certain extent, you can ignore their peculiarities. By all means, provide something non-alcoholic for the nondrinkers, for example, but don't go crazy sourcing out blue curacao or some obscure kümmel just to impress one specific person.

If You Insist...

If you do decide to make drinks to order, consider having a "Happy Hour" at the start of the party. Mix cocktails for guests as they arrive, and then move, perhaps, to pouring wine along with your hors d'oeuvres. This way, you can stash some good, hard ice in the freezer just for cocktail-making, and you can limit the number of clean shakers you'll need to worry about.

Otherwise, simplifying your drinks menu from the start will relieve most of your pressure.

Make Signature Cocktails In Advance

If you want to make sure your party is fun for everyone—including the host, follow this advice. Mix one or two signature cocktails in advance, then offer those along with a well-stocked, self-serve bar. Punches and bottled cocktails are your friend because you can have everything ready to go and kept cold. Here's my guide to making big batches of cocktails in advance, and a punch recipe to have on hand.

The other advantage of simplifying your menu is that it allows you to worry less about the other essentials of a cocktail party: glassware, liquor, mixers, and ice.

Keep in mind, cocktails that require juice need to be batched up the morning of your party. The reason for this is that juice can go off if it's squeezed even one day in advance, leaving you with sour-tasting cocktails.

For this reason, the easiest drinks for parties are such classics as the martini and the Manhattan. Composed entirely of spirit and wine, they don't require fresh ingredients such as juices, so they're the easiest cocktails to batch up in advance and store in the refrigerator.


How Much to Buy, How Much to Serve

One of the prime challenges in party planning is figuring out how much hooch to have on hand. If you're focusing on a few signature drinks, that will help you buy your booze according to what you need for each drink.

"Expect each guest to consume 1 or 2 drinks per hour."

As for the number of bottles you'll need to buy, the general rule of thumb is to expect each guest to consume 1 or 2 drinks per hour. So multiply the number of guests by the number of hours your party will last, and then multiply that by 2, just to be safe. If you're having 20 guests for two hours, you'll need 80 drinks. Keep in mind, this number includes cocktails as well as wine, beer, and non-alcoholic beverages.

A standard bottle of wine or liquor—what we used to call a fifth—holds 750 milliliters, or a little over 25 ounces. If you're pre-batching a pitcher (or carafe or bottle) of margaritas that uses 8.5 ounces of tequila, you'll get almost 3 pitchers of margaritas from one bottle of tequila.

Essential Liquor and Mixers

Even if you're serving one or two cocktails that you've mixed up in advance, you should plan on having these spirits on hand for 'on the rocks' drinkers and do-it-yourselfers:

  • Whisk(e)y (at the holidays, either bourbon or a good blended Scotch)
  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • Tequila
  • Rum
  • Brandy

Your guests will come to your party with varying tastes: some will be in love with your cocktails, but others might just want a gin and tonic. Be prepared by stocking the following mixers:

  • Tonic water
  • Seltzer or club soda
  • Cola
  • Lemonade or lemon-lime soda
  • Ginger ale or ginger beer

Be sure to have lots of lemons and limes on hand for these renegade drinkers, too.


One of the trickiest parts of planning a party is knowing how much glassware to have on hand. If you've stripped down your drinks menu, though, you needn't worry. For example, if the only wine you're offering is champagne, the only wine glasses you need are flutes. If you're serving mainly highballs, the same highball glass can also hold beer or water.

If you think you'll be hosting parties with some regularity, consider ordering glassware online, in sets of 12 or 16. A set of 12 champagne flutes, for example, will cost you about $40; a set of V-shaped cocktail glasses will run about the same.

Expect breakage; we lose one or two glasses at every party. Just keep a small broom handy and a smile on your face.

Don't worry if all your glasses don't match. Older glassware with some character to it is a great conversation starter. Keep an eye out on eBay and at thrift stores for good deals on vintage glassware.

Find more information on selecting glassware here »


The frozen stuff chills your drinks in several different ways, and the types of ice you'll want to have on hand will vary based on what it's doing.

Bagged Ice

Bagged ice is perfect for keeping a bunch of bottles and cans of beverages chilled in a cooler or tub. Send someone out the morning of your party to buy ice—a bag or two per cooler or tub. If you have ample freezer space to store extra bags, then go ahead and have a few extras on hand.

Break up the ice a bit and pour it into the cooler or tub. Fill with water and add your bottles. Beverages chill faster and colder in ice water than they do in ice alone, but you'll have to replenish the ice as it melts so the drinks don't warm up too much.

Cubed Ice

Consider investing in snazzy silicon ice cube trays, such as those made by Tovolo. If you have enough freezer space, you can start freezing ice several days in advance and store it until the day of the party.

Molded Ice

Great for chilling bowls of punch, molded ice also gives you a canvas for a bit of creativity. Here's what you do:

Fill a large bowl, or several small bowls, with a mix of water and fruit juice. If you're making a punch recipe that calls for pineapple or lime juice, for example, you can add pineapple or lime juice to the ice. Add slices of lime or chunks of pineapple to the bowl as well and freeze, at least overnight.

As the ice melts, it will "water" your punch down with juicy flavor instead of just water. You can even add edible flowers (or other edible garnishes) to the ice, if they're in season. When you're ready to serve the punch, simply dip the ice bowl in warm water until the ice loosens from the bowl.

Find more information on ice here »

Have Fun!

Isn't that what a party is for?