Picks

The Best Approach to Holiday Cocktails, Bar None

Offer your guests these Champagne refreshments for something simple, elegant, and festive.

A Champagne flute, glasses, and other products mentioned in this article.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos from Amazon.

For more holiday beverage ideas, read Rebecca Onion on why punch is the perfect festive drink for your whole crowd to enjoy.

One of the first lessons I learned about entertaining as a twentysomething upstart was the importance of the welcome drink. The good host, my older mentors demonstrated time and again, connects a freshly poured glass with each newly arrived guest as quickly as he can. This is because entering someone’s home, particularly for a special occasion like a dinner or party, can be a stressful affair. There are the logistical challenges of travel, of course, and then, past the doorway, one enters a thicket of social uncertainties and anxieties. Am I too early? Who else is here? Was I supposed to bring wine? The simplest way to assuage all this disquiet, to usher a guest out of the cold and into the warm glow of a convivial evening, is with a beverage—cheerfully offered and ideally made to order.

Assuming a well-stocked bar (including nonalcoholic options) and basic know-how, the individualized approach is simple enough to pull off—to a point. Taking drink orders for eight diners or even 15 intimate cocktail minglers, spread over a gracious arrival window, is doable. But beyond that? Once you’re simultaneously preparing a sit-down Thanksgiving feast, or hosting the sort of bustling soiree especially common around the holidays? The drinks have got to be hands-off—guests will need to hydrate themselves.

However, just because I’m going to excuse you from spending the entirety of your evening shaking up Martinis does not mean your beverage service must be limited to wine and beer, or regress to a sticky “bar” strewn with cups, half-empty bottles of flavored vodka, and absolutely no mixers. There is a more elegant, and still quite affordable, solution! This season, join me in toasting the bubbly, easy-living delights of the Holiday Champagne Bar.

I don’t need to convince you of the thematic propriety here: Nothing says culturally enforced festivity like a flute of sparkling wine. What I should convey to you, though, is that unless you know a guy, said wine should not be actual Champagne. As you begin to curate your bar, the first step will be to solicit your local shop for their options in prosecco or, my favorite, cava. These are as a rule cheaper (especially by the case) and often as good as or better than the French stuff. Determine how much you need by keeping in mind that most bottles will yield something like six healthy glasses, though one could always be daintier. When faced with the polite, “What can I bring?” one could also instruct guests to bring bubbles for extra assurance.

Now that you have the fizz, you need some basic gear to channel it where it belongs. You could go the plastic route (stemless, please), but I think investing in an inexpensive dozen or three of “party wine glasses” is worth it if you entertain often (or break a lot of wine glasses). Note I say glasses and not flutes. I love specialty glassware on the daily scale, but at a large party, I opt for pragmatism over specificity. A sip of cava tastes no less refreshing from a modest white wine glass than a slender flute. But do avoid red balloons.

Aside from conveyances (and cocktail napkins!), you’ll naturally need a trusted corkscrew and a set of stoppers for bottles in progress. We also have to think about temperature: For a party of size, I’d seek out a large washing tub (instant farmhouse chic) and stow my well-iced hoard there, to the side or under the table, so guests can grab as needed.

Up top, one or two chillers will do well to keep things cool, and a stack of attractive dish towels will keep them clean. I like to go ahead and spread a few out under the general serving area as part-décor, part-prophylactic—there will be spills.

Now that you’ve simplified your offering to a single base drink, it’s time to add a little interest.
Arrange an array of mix-ins at your bar for guests to customize their own Champagne cocktail. You could certainly offer classic spritzy liqueurs like sassy Campari, dreamy Crème de Cassis, ethereal St. Germain, or my current squeeze, a bottle of moody amaro, like Averna. Same goes with an assortment of bitters. (You might even slip a bottle of gin in there for the “real” cocktail die-hards, though then you may just consider making a sparkling punch.) Fruit juices are also welcome, though perhaps save the orange for anyone who sleeps over.

If you want to impress with a more personal touch, my slightly more involved suggestion is to forgo the liqueurs and whip up a selection of homemade flavored syrups. While this sounds ambitious, the process could not be easier: Create a basic simple syrup by stirring equal parts granulated sugar and water in a pot over medium heat until the sugar dissolves (say a cup per intended syrup). Then, ready as many steeping vessels as flavors you plan to offer (canning jars are ideal for this). In these, simply place your chosen ingredients, pour over the hot syrup, let cool to room temp, and then chill until you’re ready to serve.

Your flavor options here are wide, but for the holidays, I’d hew toward the sugarplums already dancing in guests’ heads. How about: ginger and star anise; citrus peel (wide strips of lemon/orange) and clove; fresh herbs (rosemary/thyme); and for a literal pop of color, cranberry? Decanted into little swing-top serving bottles as needed (presented nicely along with labels and a bit of the associated ingredient), these will add a splash of color and delight to every glass of bubbles they touch.

On the question of garnishes, I’m of two minds. Champagne (cava!) drinks are so fun I don’t really think you need them. But then again, if there’s a time for painting the lily, it’s now. Citrus twists, made quickly with the right tool, would do nicely. Or you could do as they do in Barcelona with Gin and Tonics, and offer a spread of whole spices like cardamom, peppercorn, and hibiscus (there are great kits for this purpose). I grant this sort of thing isn’t exactly traditional with sparkling wine, but there’s already enough tradition during the holidays—why not experiment?

One last consideration: Keeping track of your glass. I’m not a huge fan of those tags that presume most adults can’t keep track of the thing that’s getting them tipsy. But these metallic, washable pens are a neat solution for the forgetful. And if you presented me my coup cosseted in one of these ebullient pompom slippers, I would not be at all mad. How could I be? ’Tis the season to make merry, and with an endless flow of bubbles at the ready, spirits can go nowhere else but up!