It's Your Party

How to Throw a Festive Cocktail Party Even Scrooge Would Love

A handy guide for your next dressed-to-the-nines shindig.

November 29, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

We're highlighting clever tips and tricks for pulling off any holiday get-together without breaking a sweat. It's Your Party, after all, so you might as well enjoy it!

There are few things I love more than a chance to break out the lipstick, high heels, and the fancy dress that’s been hanging in my closet just waiting for the right occasion. But gathering all my favorite people in one place for merrymaking with proper cocktails is definitely one of them. Combine the two and you’ve got the world’s best excuse to shine yourself up: A dressed-to-the-nines-cocktail party so festive that even Scrooge himself would crack a smile. I’ll be hosting one this year and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Should you want to, too, here’s my blueprint for a good time.

The All-Important Invite

I’m a “more the merrier” type of person, so I usually end up inviting, oh, I don’t know…everyone I know. I’m also a shoebox New York City apartment dweller, which means I’ll be hosting my party open-house style: Drop in when you can, stay for one or many drinks, then be on your merry way. Noting this policy on the invite gives guests permission to party hop (it is holiday party season, after all) and helps spread out the fun, keeping my place from feeling too crowded at any one point in time. And it might seem overly formal, but I also usually ask my friends to RSVP any plus-ones—not to shame the singles, but to be sure I’ll have enough drinks, snacks, and cups to go around. (The world’s easiest way to do this? Paperless post!)

Oh, and if you do really want everyone in their Sunday best (or dancing shoes, or ugly Christmas sweaters, or fluorescent yellow sweat is your party after all!) don’t be shy about putting that on the invitation, too!

The Drinks

I happen to love making cocktails, so that’s usually the focus of my bar. I also know my friends love to contribute, so I’ll specifically ask them to bring wine or beer (which happens to be the easiest way for me to make sure the wine and beer drinkers will be happy, without having to haul a few cases home from the corner store). When I’m feeling overly prepared I may also buy a few giant party wines—one red, one white, and one sparkling—to get the evening off to a good start.

The Setup

To keep people moving and socializing through the party, I like to set up a few different drink stations: One for the cocktails, another for the wine, and the beer goes in the fridge and/or in a big cooler or galvanized metal tub filled with ice somewhere else in the room. And for the non-drinkers (well, actually, all of us...hydration!) I’ll stock up on flavored seltzers and plain San Pellegrino, as well as fill glass pitchers with water and festive accoutrements like orange or blood orange rounds, cranberries, and rosemary (it’s so pretty it’s almost like another decoration).

The menu

Cocktail-wise, I’ll either go with a punch (festive! Fun! An excuse to bring out my single-use punch bowl!) or pre-batch stirred (read: all booze, no-citrus) cocktails—they can sit around as long as you want, actually taste better the longer the flavors have to mix and mingle, and don’t need to be shaken up again like citrus-based drinks do. I mix mine up in my biggest measuring cup, then pour them into large swing-top bottles or clear wine bottles with the labels removed (that I’ve washed out of course!) and store them in the fridge. If you’ve got leftovers after your party, just pop them back in your fridge and you’ve got a pre-made cocktail whenever you need one. This time of year, I especially like anything made with Campari and/or sweet vermouth for the festive red color.

I generally have a fully stocked bar (in all honesty, because I like the way it looks on my bookshelf) so those who don’t like my cocktail of the evening will still have plenty of options—I’ll leave a cocktail mixing glass with a bar spoon out near the ice for any overachievers, but folks are usually happy with a vodka soda and twist...which I’ll also pre-cut and place in a pretty bowl or cup and set out as part of the cocktail spread.

The Snacks

When you’re serving strong cocktails, make sure you’ve got some snacks on hand (trust me… you’ll wind up with fewer broken glasses).

Simple & Savory

I’m past the stage where I kill myself trying to do everything from scratch, so for me, it’ll be a nice big cheese board and crudité situation, plus some roasted nuts and olives (no hot hors d’oeuvres in sight!). I might also splurge and set up a “Russian nachos” situation, a brilliant idea I stole from the bar at the New York Park Hyatt: Thick-cut potato chips served alongside a tin of caviar, crème fraîche, chopped boiled egg, sliced red onion, and snipped chives. (For a slightly more affordable treat, salmon roe is just as good with the same set up. Even cheaper? Grate some parmesan and crack some black pepper over thick cut potato chips spread out on a sheet tray...they’re seriously addictive.)

If you do want to serve warm food, go with something that doesn’t need too much prep or tending, like a simple puff pastry tart, an oven-baked dip, or (yum) baked brie.

Sweet & Nibbly

Also: Don’t forget something sweet! I always make Dorie Greenspan’s butter sablés because they are so dainty and so very easy. It’s a just a butter cookie you roll into a log, then egg wash and roll in colored sugar before slicing and baking. (They’re a great secret weapon to keep in your freezer this time of year—store them in the paper tubes from empty paper towel rolls to help them keep their shape in the fridge or freezer!) I also make my mom’s toffee recipe, which is the perfect combo of deeply caramelized toffee and dark chocolate, topped with chopped almonds, walnuts, or pistachios. To keep things even simpler, I might take a page out of my coworker Emma Laperruque’s book and make some chocolate bark, which has the same vibe with one less step. (Caramelizing all that sugar and butter can be finicky!)

The rest of the details

You're almost there...just a few more i's to dot and t's to cross. Once the food and drinks are out of the way, scampering around to light the candles and fluff the pillows while sipping a cocktail by myself—the anticipation brewing—might be my favorite part of all the prep work.

The playlist

A great tip I got from Heather Wautelet, an events coordinator here at Food52, is to ask every guest to include a song or two with their RSVP, so you can add it to the playlist. It winds up being a conversation starter as guests wonder who put each song in the queue. If you don’t feel like making a playlist, no sweat—this is what Pandora and Spotify radio were made for.

The decor

Instead of flowers, which can be extra expensive this time of year, I’ll go for greenery only and put out some teeny-tiny vintage bottles and bud vases each holding a few sprigs. I also love using bowls of citrus as part of the decor, especially if I can find something like satsumas with the leaves and stems still attached—they’re so pretty and bonus: You get to eat them later! They even look nice just strewn here and there across your table or bar.

I love tall colored taper candles and pillar candles, so I’ll set a few out around my place, but I avoid lighting them—too drippy. (I’ve ruined a lot of tablecloths this way.) Instead, I light up tea lights in mismatched mercury glass votives (the light the votives throw off feels perfect for a glitzy evening). I’ll also set up one scented candle in each room—scent can set the mood just as much as the lighting. I’m truly a sucker for pine or spruce, but go with whatever makes you feel happy.

In years past, I’ve always gotten a tree, which, all lit up, definitely puts people in a festive mood. If you don’t have room or that’s not your thing, consider going with a garland or even just some old-fashioned string lights for a little bit of that holiday spirit.

Are you planning to throw a fancy cocktail party too? Let me know how it goes—and share your best tips in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • tia
  • Cory Baldwin
    Cory Baldwin
Cory Baldwin

Written by: Cory Baldwin

Food52's director of partner content Cory Baldwin has been an editor at food, travel, and fashion publications including Saveur, Departures and Racked.


tia November 29, 2018
Sounds like you need candle tutus! OK, that's not what they're really called but it's sure what the look like. They're little glass plates with a taper-sized hole in the middle and they sit around the taper on the candleholder to keep the wax from running onto the table. The real name is "bobeche". Super handy.
Cory B. November 30, 2018
Aha! Thanks for the tip. Although do you think they'll look weird with my candle sticks??! I've got a bunch of vintage brass ones similar to this and then also some black marble modern ones from Ferm Living.