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How to host a cocktail party you can enjoy as much as your guests do

Invest in a set of charms to mark people’s glasses. Picture: Suchman for The Washington Post.

Invest in a set of charms to mark people’s glasses. Picture: Suchman for The Washington Post.

Published Dec 30, 2021


By Aaron Hutcherson

I relish inviting people over for creative cocktails, lively banter and, most importantly, a good time.

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But sometimes I get in my own head, stressing out over making sure everyone has a glass in hand and is enjoying the party to the fullest.

Be it for New Year's Eve or just a casual Friday, hosting a cocktail party should be festive and as stress-free as possible. Here are a few tips to help make that happen.

First things first: Check the latest coronavirus guidance. It's hard to have fun if you're worried about contracting coronavirus, especially with the omicron surge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for the holidays have recommendations for minimising risks, but don't forget to consult local ordinances for mask-wearing and how many guests to host, too.

Other things to consider include hosting the gathering outdoors and asking people to get tested before attending, regardless of vaccination status.

Serve a batched beverage you can make ahead.

"Batched cocktails are great for large parties because you don't have to worry about making a different cocktail for each guest as they arrive," says Amber Mayfield, founder of event company To Be Hosted and annual magazine While Entertaining. Instead, people can serve themselves.

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"In the holiday season, I like to break out my crockpot or a large stock pot for spiked apple cider or hot chocolate."

Mulled wine is another great option during the winter, and in warmer months, opt for a cooling bowl or pitcher of punch.

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John deBary, creator of non-alcoholic beverage company Proteau and author of "Drink What You Want," echoes this sentiment.

"The key is to make things really easy on yourself and find recipes that you can batch," deBary says.

"If you want to create something that's a bit more unique and special, seek out recipes that rely on infusions that you could do a couple days beforehand, such as an infused syrup or spirit, so it feels really fancy."

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Make sure there are nonalcoholic options. The mark of a good host is the amount of care put into serving your guests.

"Having beverage options that accommodate every consumption preference is important if you want to make your guests feel welcomed and seen," Mayfield says. And that doesn't require much.

"Just put three minutes of thought into non-alcoholic options," deBary suggests. "If you're feeling cocktail happy, it's easy to serve people really strong drinks. Having something non-alcoholic is nice to break it up."

That could mean a selection of sparkling water, a full-blown non-alcoholic cocktail, or picking up something from the array of non-alcoholic drinks on the market. "Just doing a little bit can go really far."

Use fancy ice cubes for festive garnishes.

While beverages in a bar or restaurant might come with fresh herb sprigs and pieces of fruit, or glasses rimmed with edible glitter or sprinkles for a bit of extra fun, deBary tends not to do that at home.

"I think a lot of times people will take the garnish off their glass and put it down. It just creates extra clutter," deBary says.

One easy way to add some flair without ending up with "a gloopy lime wheel on your kitchen table" is with ice.

You can opt for moulds that create clear ice to evoke the feel of a fancy cocktail bar, or choose novelty ones that come in shapes such as snowflakes, cats and even unicorns.

You can also fill ice moulds of any shape with fresh herbs or fruit that add a pop of colour and infuse drinks with flavour as they melt.

Mark people's glasses. Especially when people are having a good time, there's a tendency to set down a cup only to forget two seconds later which one is yours. Particularly in the age of caution around spreading germs, many would opt to grab a new one in this scenario, increasing the amount of waste or number of dishes the host will have to wash. Marking cups is an easy way to solve this issue.

Hand people a permanent marker when they walk in to write their name on plastic cups. Or in the case of real glassware - "I'm a fan of using all-purpose wine glasses for everything," deBary says - invest in a set of charms for people to choose from.

Serve finger foods to keep people satiated. While guests shouldn't expect a full meal at a cocktail party, you should serve them something to nibble on and line their stomachs.

Some simple solutions are chips and dip or a charcuterie board, but feel free to go as elaborate as you wish.

Remember: Don't forget cocktail napkins to wipe those fingers!

Make a playlist to set the vibe. "Music sets the mood. Think about how you want people to feel throughout the gathering and select music that fits the vibe you want to create," Mayfield says.

(So I probably wouldn't suggest playing emo music at your holiday party.)

And as a host who has fallen asleep once or twice while guests partied on into the wee hours of the morning, I appreciate Mayfield's reminder:

"Be sure to make the playlist longer than you think you need, so you don't run out of songs if the night goes longer than you initially anticipated."

Cocktail parties are meant to be fun for everyone involved - host included. "Giving yourself a bit of space and time to plan things out strategically will really pay off," deBary says.

"Just be easy on yourself. There's a reason cocktail bars exist, so don't even try to go for that.

“Just go for what you're comfortable with and what is fun for you." If you're having fun, I'm sure your guests will, too.

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