It’s the holidays — time for a cup of cheer. Only this year you don’t want to throw a rager for 50 guests. Still, there are ways to have a festive gathering of those in your bubble if you get creative about it.
Enter two savvy books just in time to kick-start your planning. “Very Merry Cocktails,” by Jessica Strand, contains more than 50 recipes with seasonal themes. “Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home,” by J.M. Hirsch, is a collection of drinks to enjoy any time of year and it’s loaded with tips on how to make craft cocktails at home.
We turned to Hirsch, the editorial director of Milk Street, and Dena Rayess, an assistant editor in food and lifestyle at Chronicle books who worked on “Very Merry Cocktails,” to get their takes on hosting guests for drinks — which is very different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously we can’t approach it the same way we used to,” said Hirsch, who was planning an event that week. “So we’re going to batch a cocktail and I bought tiny little four-ounce glass bottles — flasks, essentially — with screw caps. I’m going to make these cocktails, bottle them and put them on a tray so that everybody can help themselves.”
Rayess makes individual servings, too. She also thinks it’s a good year to be extra thoughtful, so she phones guests pre-party.
“I talk to everybody ahead of time just to gauge their comfort level,” she said. “I prepackage a lot of stuff, and there are ways to make it special, like pre-mixing the cocktails and putting them in nice little carafes or having all your glassware set up ahead of time, like a whole bunch of mason jars. … You can really customize that stuff and make it cute and special.”
So a pandemic party is possible, it just takes a bit more planning. Here’s some expert advice on how to host a stress-free event, followed by details on these handy, timely books.
Create a vibe
Rayess suggests setting the scene by adding decorative touches to your bar, even if it’s just a cart. “I’m a big fan of those LED twinkle lights,” she said. “They’re super flexible. I intertwine them throughout the bottles and it gives a nice kind of glow.”
Hirsch says a casual, safe space sets a relaxed mood. “Have an outdoor party, so everybody can kind of mill around and enjoy their drinks,” he said. “I think the name of the game this year is get outside and keep it as simple as possible.”
Stock the bar
Get the basics. They don’t have to buy the most expensive brands because you’re drinking them with mixers,Rayess says. “Very Merry Cocktails” has a recipe for Evergreen Sparkler, a delicious fizzy lemony drink made with rosemary syrup that enhances the piney taste of everyday gin, garnished with a sprig of the herb that echoes a Christmas tree twig.
“Gin is an unsung hero of holiday cocktails,” she said. “A lot of people tend to think of whiskeys and heavy, heavy stuff, but even things like tequila have a certain depth and flavor to them, I think they can be really fun to play around with.”
Once you’ve stocked up on the spirits, add a special liqueur or two to expand your repertoire. It’s a good way to enhance a drink without adding too much sweetness rather than loading up on syrup or sugar.
“Liqueurs bring something unique to the table and they mix really well,” Hirsch said. He suggests ginger liqueur for a spicy, wintry note, and Licor 43. “It’s a Spanish liqueur that is orange, vanilla, spice,” he said. “And you don’t find that as a flavor in many liqueurs.” It’s a secret recipe that goes back centuries and combines 43 ingredients, he said.
Enjoy your own party
Don’t fuss over fancy glassware that you’ll have to handle all night and then get stuck washing at the end of the evening, Hirsch says.
“I think the first thing we should all do is abandon the notion of proper glassware. Because proper glassware requires prolonged contact. It requires serving. And I think the easiest way to do a cocktail for this era is going to be these single servings,” he said. He’s noticed Bonne Maman preserves come in containers that are the perfect size for old-fashioneds. “Use a jam jar or bottles or whatever and make the cocktails in advance.”
Rayess completely agrees. She suggests making two simple contrasting cocktails, a lighter one and a more spirit-forward one, then adding festive ice or garnishes. Prepare them ahead, answer the door and have a great time with your guests.
“I think everyone needs to just focus on comfort first,” she said. “So it’s OK to get rid of all the pretenses and all of the traditions as long as people are happy and cozy.”
‘Shake Strain Done: Craft Cocktails at Home’
Author: J.M. Hirsch
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Quick Take: A great read with an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails that’s never too geeky or snobby. Hirsch has an unusual palate and dreams up flavor combinations most of us never could. He also has fun naming his drinks: Eye Roll, The High Falutin’ and Pooh Bear. Must-mix drink: The Cardamomattan blends rye, dry vermouth and bitters with a pinch of ground spice in the shaker that makes it exotic and aromatic.
‘Very Merry Cocktails’
Author: Jessica Strand
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Quick Take: Enticing color photos of nearly every cocktail and its fits-in-a-stocking size make this book a great gift. The format is incredibly well organized and quick to flip through. Drinks are approachable with no odd-ball ingredients. Tips on making lightning-fast shrubs and syrups; mocktails are included. Must-mix drink: It’s a Wonderful Life is a dreamy blend of creme de menthe, Irish cream liqueur and half-and-half in a lovely green pastel color that will make you want to serve it again on St. Patrick’s Day.
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