For those of us who enjoy entertaining, the holiday season ushers in an irresistible desire to graciously open our homes to family and friends. And there is nothing like a cocktail party—be it swanky or casual—to give guests the chance to mix, mingle and share some holiday spirit. But before you deck the halls, light the candles or assemble the hors d’oeuvres, consult our handy guide for someÂ party-planning inspiration.
With your house already trimmed for the holidays, you’ll only need a few extra touches to set the mood for a festive fête. A striking wreath adorned with corks hung on the front door hints at the glasses of cheer that guests will find inside, and a jolly St. Nick figure ready to serve up some appetizers and a bottle of wine is whimsical and fun.
Jennifer Maximuck, Catering Sales Manager at Wolfgang Puck’s DC outpost the Source, thinks green when decorating. “It’s as simple as using moss or candles made of beeswax to accent your holiday table. And use vintage cake platters to add various levels of height to your holiday sweets.”
Decorate the bar or buffet area with fragrant bowls of ribbon- and clove-adorned oranges; or vases filled with lemons, bay leaves and water. Maximuck suggests placing food and beverage stations throughout the room to keep guests circulating and the conversation flowing.
Seafood never fails to make an impression at a holiday soirée. But including it on your menu doesn’t have to mean blowing your entire party budget on the food. “The key to not breaking the bank for the holidays is to buy high quality, but not necessarily high-priced, items,” explains Brendan Cox, Executive Chef at Washington, DC’s DC Coast. Christopher Clime, Executive Chef at sister restaurant PassionFish in Reston, Virginia, agrees. He recommends freshly shucked oysters mixed with chilled vodka and served in shot glasses; or mini lobster rolls, which allow you to stretch your entertaining dollars since the pricey shellfish is mixed with other ingredients. “Crab is also good, and you can do mini crab cakes or spring rolls,” suggests Clime.
To round out the buffet, offer Gruyere gougères, roasted winter squash or mushroom and goat cheese crostini, and an artfully arranged cheese board. Attractive presentation is key, so include accoutrements like kumquats, fresh figs, marinated olives and mushrooms, dried fruit, crackers, honey and wine-based jam. Small square appetizer plates give partygoers room to sample, and decorated cloth napkins are eco-friendly and classier than paper.
For less stress—and more time to mingle—Cox urges hosts to create a party plan and stick to it. “Write everything out as we do in a professional kitchen; this mise-en-place list is invaluable.” Create a timeline for duties, and check them off as you complete them. Finally, don’t be afraid to delegate to guests who arrive early—they will most likely be lingering and chatting with you in the kitchen anyway.
While it’s tempting to stock a full bar, you’ll stay composed—and enjoy the evening more—if you instead offer a selections of wines and beers, and one signature cocktail. Neil Smith, owner of WineSmith wine shop in Ashburn, Virginia, suggests seeking out unoaked or unwooded Chardonnays, which are lighter on the palate and more versatile for pairing with foods than their oakier counterparts. For reds, you can’t beat Tempranillo-based Spanish reds from Rioja and Toro. “These wines are usually fruity and smooth, with medium-body, good acidity and medium tannins, which makes them exceptionally quaffable,” he says. Use chillable wine sleeves for the whites rather than messy ice water tubs, and top bottles with holiday-themed bottle stoppers. Opt for festive tumblers rather than stemware to lessen the chance of spills or breakage.
Sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. For budget-conscious hosts, Smith suggests affordable Cava from Spain. For more of a conversation starter, he recommends France’s Blanquette de Limoux, which was made by monks from the Abbey of St. Hilaire one hundred years before Champagne. Serve it all by itself, or mix up an elegantly easy variation on the Champagne cocktail: place a sugar cube in the bottom of a stemless flute, soak with orange bitters, fill with 1 oz. of cranberry or pomegranate juice, and then finish with sparkling wine and an orange twist.
Holiday beers are chock full of the aromas and flavors of the season, like Belgium’s Delirium Noel and Rogue Santa’s Reserve from Oregon. But Smith cautions against selecting only this style of brew, as it tends to be too full-bodied and full-flavored for some palates. He recommends adding a light beer for those counting calories, as well as an all-around easy-drinking option. “Yuengling Lager is a great inexpensive alternative to some of the more established brands, and the beer is a real crowd-pleaser because of its balanced taste and medium body,” he says.
Serving one inventive cocktail rather than offering up the entire contents of the liquor cabinet streamlines your bartending efforts. Made from Jamaican allspice berries, exotic St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram liqueur tastes like a mixture of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Use it in the Maple and Spice cocktail created by Owen Thomson of Washington, DC’s Bourbon. These can be mixed in advance, shaken when requested and served in red and green cocktail glasses with stable bases—which eliminate the slosh factor of traditional martini glasses.
Maple and Spice Cocktail Courtesy of Owen Thomson, Bourbon Washington, DC
1.5 oz Pusser’s Navy Rum (can substitute Appleton’s or Mt. Gay)
½ oz. Fresh lime juice
½ oz. Grade B maple syrup
¼ oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram (see below for purchasing information)
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake vigorously, and then strain into a cocktail glass.
**To mix a batch, add all ingredients in desired amounts to a pitcher. To make each cocktail, first stir the pitcher contents to incorporate the syrup, and add approximately 2.5 oz. of the mixture per serving to a shaker half-filled with ice. Shake vigorously, and then strain into cocktail glasses.
Gourmet appetizers, artistically arranged centerpieces and carefully selected beverages will certainly add to the appeal of any gathering this December. But when it comes down to it, guests are more likely to remember the hospitality and socializing. So take Cox’s advice when planning your event: “Always make sure to have a glass of wine, and remember that the time spent with family and friends is the most important thing.”
Here are some tools to elevate your party from ho hum to fa la la:
Red and Green Dizzy Cocktail Glasses
Magnetic Wine Glass Christmas Charms
Metrokane Houdini Red Wine Chiller
Red and Green Foil Appetizer Plates
Christmas Tree Cocktail Napkins
Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters
Wine Cork Wreath
St. Nick’s Jolly Wine Service
Blitzen Bottle Stoppers
On the guest list this social season? Consider giving one of the following thoughtful gifts to your gracious host:
Wild Hibsicus Flowers
Kelly Magyarics is a wine educator and writer basedÂ in the Washington, DC area. Kelly can be reached through her website, www.trywine.net.