For the cocktail lover, this season of festivities can be full of temptation. Specifically, the temptation to gift your friends and family with the fruits of your bibulous labors: to tinsel up the place, invite friends and start mixing craft cocktails.
But good cocktails take attention and focus, the very gifts you might prefer to bestow upon your guests.
When I spoke to bartending legend Dale DeGroff for a recent column, I asked him about what makes a great bartender. He emphasized that one of the keys is to get to know your recipes so well you don’t even have to think about them, so you can make drinks and charm your guests at the same time.
He might as well have told me the key was taking a dose of unicorn powder every morning. Having driven the same commute for 10 years now, I arrive at work some mornings and cannot remember any of the details it took to get there, but the day I can cocktail on automatic pilot is still a long way off. For me, one of the worst moments of hosting a party is that early stage when guests arrive and want to catch up while I’m trying to focus on their drinks. The chances of someone’s receiving a Manhattan with a blue cheese-stuffed olive in it go up exponentially.
The classic (and excellent) solution to this mix-or-mingle stumper is to make punch, festive and convivial, the flowing bowl around which guests can gather. But it’s not the only option. While a punch can be made before guests arrive, a DIY champagne cocktail bar brings the bubbles that lift so many winter celebrations and creates a shared activity for guests to socialize over. You don’t want to be stuck churning out eight separate craft cocktails, but eight maids a-mixing is plain old fun.
What’s more, this is a case where you don’t need to use the greatest of wines. In fact, you shouldn’t, because who wants to obscure a really wonderful champagne with other flavors? A decent brut-style sparkler will suffice. The Post’s wine guru, Dave McIntyre, suggested two cavas, Jaume Serra Cristalino and Segura Viudas (each available for around $10), and Domaine Ste. Michelle and Piper Sonoma as inexpensive but unembarrassing domestic options. Go pricier if you choose, but it’s not a necessity here.
An ideal setup would be a tallish round table allowing guests to gather and converse around it. Set out an assortment of liqueurs, mixers and garnishes, and an ice bucket in the middle to keep the champagne chilled. Keep the glasses chilled, too, if you have room in your freezer. Leave out a few recipes and let your guests enjoy themselves. The recipes should help the newbies feel more confident, while allowing the more adventurous to play around. After a champagne cocktail or two, the newbies will probably join the more adventurous set.
I’ve highlighted six options here, but there are many more champagne cocktails; if you have a favorite, bring it into the mix. You can go modest with a few liqueurs and mixers, or go big with a wider range. Most of the ones here result in a lovely range of holiday reds and golds. Just throw in some candles to catch their colors, and your drinks become part of your decor.
Spiced Cranberries in Champagne: This sweet, tart drink makes use of the season’s favorite fruit in a beautiful, seasonal quaff from “Good Things to Drink with Mr. Lyan & Friends,” the new cocktail book by Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man behind much-loved London bars White Lyan and Dandelyan. The cranberry and orange liqueur are a perfect pairing.
Champagne Cocktail: Jerry Thomas provides a recipe for this drink in his “How to Mix Drinks,” but there’s no mention of cognac. Then again, he also recommends shaking it. Such a prescription with a sparkling wine would leave your guests wet, sticky and grumpy. This is one case where you don’t want to follow Jerry’s lead. With the cognac, it’s worth quaffing; without, there’s not a ton to recommend this drink beyond the pretty trail of bubbles created by a bittered sugar cube.
Negroni Sbagliato: With bittersweet, appetite-stimulating Campari on board, this is a particularly good option if you’re planning to feed people after they cocktail. “Sbagliato” is essentially Italian for “messed up” or “botched”; supposedly this drink was created when a bartender grabbed a bottle of champagne instead of gin while making a Negroni. The story may be a myth, but the drink is the real deal.
French 75: A classic — tart, light, refreshing. If you’ve got cognac on offer, too, you can suggest your guests try subbing in equal parts of cognac for the gin.
Kir Royale: Some people make this with Chambord, a raspberry liqueur. I’m not a fan, and it’s not true to the drink’s history; it evolved from a crème de cassis and white burgundy drink popularized by a French Catholic priest/resistance fighter named Félix Kir — an amusing origin for what’s become known as a “girly” drink. I’ll take on the politics of “girly drinks” when I have more space for yelling, but since you’re throwing a party, this is a fun recipe to set your guests loose on. If you have other fruit liqueurs on hand, a dollop of apricot or pear is a nice variation.
Black Velvet: Possibly the weirdest of this bunch. I’m always surprised at how much I like drinking this Guinness-and-champagne beast. You’d think it would be a disaster, but the drink (created in London on the death of Prince Albert) just works; the yeastiness of the champagne and the dark, bready beer taste like an ode to carbs and carbonation. And it’s a good one to include in case you have some folks who prefer a less sweet drink.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.