We learn both from our mistakes and from our successes, and as someone who's thrown many a cocktail party, I've had plenty of both. That means there's lots I've learned, and lots I now do to make the experience of having people over for drinks a much less stressful and much more fun one.
Here are my top 5 lessons learned over the years about hosting cocktail gatherings.
1. For the love of your sanity, don't mix individual drinks.
Yup, it's tempting to show off your cocktail-making chops by shaking or stirring each of your guests the tipple of their choice. But unless you're a professional (or at least very experienced) bartender and are serving a very small crowd, taking this route means you're basically going to spend most of the evening stuck behind the bar or in the kitchen with a shaker in your hands. Not so much fun for you, and not so much fun for your guests, who presumably came to your fête at least in part because they want to hang out with you. What to do instead?
2. Make friends with punches and other batched drinks.
If "punch" brings to mind that little blue-and-red Hawaiian dude mixed with a bottle of 7-Up and some bottom-shelf vodka, think again. There are endless recipes online for punches that are both easy and tasty, with actual decent ingredients—stuff you'd be happy to drink and proud to serve.
Almost as easy as filling a punch bowl with deliciousness is batching simple cocktails. With the right equipment (a good mixing glass, a spacious cocktail shaker, a sturdy barspoon, etc.) and the ability to scale up ingredient lists, it's basically a tiny step from mixing one Manhattan or one Paper Plane to mixing half a dozen. Just be sure to steer clear of anything that's high maintenance (cough Mojitos cough Ramos gin fizzes), and do yourself a favor by doing some basic prep work like juicing citrus in advance.
3. Don't forget about the food and the booze-free drinks.
Sure, it's a cocktail party, so it makes sense that your focus is on the tipples. But having the right—and enough—food is just as important as having delicious stuff to sip. Here, too, do right by yourself and plan for stuff that doesn't require you to be laboring over the stove or remembering when to pull things out of the oven. An awesome cheese plate is always your friend, as are dips you can make in advance and serve at room temp. Serve 'em with bread and crunchy stuff (chips, crackers, crudité), and don't forget something sweet.
Also don't forget that you'll need at least one thing to drink that's sans alcohol. If you know for absolute certain that everyone attending your fiesta will be enjoying whatever cocktails you're serving, you can get away with stocking up only on water (bubbly and still) for when folks need to take a break. But if there's even a chance one of your guests is abstaining from the hard stuff, be a champ and offer something more exciting. I often make a punch bowl full of non-alcoholic sparkling basil lemonade, with a bottle each of good vodka and gin on the side for folks who want to spike their own glass.
4. Enlist help.
Several years ago, after a long stretch of being a one-woman show when it came to hostessing, I hired a bartender to handle the drinks at my birthday party. And OMG, it was a revelation: suddenly, I didn't have to be the one to watch the levels in people's glasses and offer refills as needed, or to gather the glasses left hither and yon, or to deal with washing all of those glasses (et al) at the end of the evening. Instead, I got to actually hang out with my guests, have someone make me drinks, and basically have a grand old time.
Even if you're hosting a small crowd, consider hiring or enlisting someone (a bartender, a trustworthy neighborhood college kid, your roommate or SO...) to pitch in with stuff throughout the party: refilling chip bowls, opening bags of ice, fetching empty glasses, and the like. It makes a big difference to have another pair of hands, and another set of eyes watching to be sure things are running smoothly.
5. Decide—and communicate—how strict you're going to be with your party's end time.
Finally, well before you open your door to your first guests, do some thinking about how long you actually want people milling about your house, and let them know what you decide. Don't mind the idea of folks lingering until the wee hours? Say something like, "7 p.m. on" in your invite—and just be prepared for the chance that at least a few people will be refilling their glasses and scraping the last bits off the cheese plate even when your eyelids start to droop.
On the flip side, if you want to be sure guests get the hint that you're not going the Lionel Richie route, make that clear—something like "The drinks will start flowing at 7, with last call at midnight." And then be prepared with a few subtle but firm hints as the witching hour approaches—going into clean-up mode, actually cranking up the Lionel Richie, putting away the booze, what have you—so you don't have to end an awesome evening on a bummer note with folks who just won't leave.