5 Tips for Cocktail Party Success

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.


My Thanksgiving Drinks Plan

I considered traveling for Thanksgiving for about a New York minute, then promptly reconsidered and decided to host a potluck Friendsgiving for any of our peeps in the Bay Area who are also sticking close to home. Yes, I have to clean the house and make sure we're well stocked with enough plates, silverware, and glassware (um, not really an issue on that last one), and I'll be cooking a few things, but the potluck-ish-ness of this feast means the entirety of the meal doesn't fall on me. 

In the spirit of keeping things simple and low-stress, I'm also keeping the liquid part of tomorrow's menu straightforward and unfancy. Here's what's on tap.

Booze-less Options

We'll have a handful of kids joining us for Thanksgiving, but even if we didn't, I'd plan some fun stuff that doesn't have alcohol in it, because it sucks to be the person who's not drinking for whatever reason and has only water or milk to choose from. 

I always keep a stash of interesting soft drinks on hand (holla, San Pelligrino!), so those will come out, along with sparkling water with "spikers" like lemon and lime juices and simple syrup. But the centerpiece will be this Sparkling Apple Cider Punch from Liz DellaCroce of the Lemon Bowl. Will there be a bottle of bourbon next to the punch bowl for those who want to go that route? Yup huh. I'm all about choices.

Wine and Beer

I'll have a couple bottles of wine on hand (because I always do), but in general, I'm leaving this category up to my guests. I generally try to have one bottle of red and one bottle of white at the ready when things kick off, just in case the person responsible for bringing more of either of those gets stuck in traffic, but beyond that, my friends will decide where we go on our wine journey.

And to round things out, the friend who knows the most about beer (and also happens to be German) will bring a 6-pack or two for those who want to go with brew tomorrow.


Thanksgiving is not the time for me to hang out behind the bar mixing drinks, but I'm also kind of constitutionally incapable of having a party of any kind that doesn't include at least a few cocktails. So in addition to the spikeable punch, I'm going to put out the makings and recipes for a couple of dead-simple drinks that guests can make themselves:

The Paper Plane: equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Nonino, and lemon juice, and 100% delicious

The Paper Plane: equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Nonino, and lemon juice, and 100% delicious

  • Sam Ross' classic Paper Plane, with equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, and lemon juice
  • The Applejack Old Fashioned from Julie Reiner, which replaces rye with applejack and sugar with maple syrup, and is basically autumn in a glass.

After-Dinner Drinks

Is there any meal that calls out for after-dinner drinks as much as Thanksgiving dinner? I'm gonna say no—which is why tomorrow will be the time when I pull out from my bar everything that's a dessert wine, a cordial, a liqueur, a digestif, or an amaro and let everyone choose their own adventure. There will also be tea, coffee, and hot chocolate for the non-tipplers, those whose livers start to cry uncle, or those who just want to mix things up a bit. 

2016 has been a doozy for many folks, so I'm even more excited than usual to be able to bring together a bunch of people I dig for a day of eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and generally being reminded that there's still plenty of awesome in the world. However you're celebrating tomorrow, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving and plenty to be grateful for in the year ahead!