Holiday party season is upon us. And if you’re hosting, the question of what drinks to serve is almost as pressing as gift lists.
As with most things, the trick, of course, is to not overthink it.
“People are looking for more streamlined drinks,” says Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast. “I think it's a backlash to years of overwrought cocktail books written by bartenders who mean well but have access to a bar that's so much more vast than anyone has at home. No one should need 10 bottles to make a single drink.”
In Shake. Stir. Sip. More than 50 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts for a Crowd (2016, Chronicle Books), Newman has found that the easiest “easy” cocktails are the ones that have equal proportions of ingredients. She advises prebatching the drinks and chilling them in the fridge. Skip the bitsy jigger and simply pour cupfuls into a pitcher, stir, and decant into bottles.
“That's the beauty of equal-parts drinks, they scale beautifully,” enthuses Newman. “You don't really need a recipe. You don't even really need a measuring cup—you could use a Quaker Oatmeal canister, and as long as you measure the same amount of every ingredient, the drink will work.”
There’s one caveat: If the drink is meant to be shaken or stirred with ice, but you opt to pop it into your fridge instead, be sure to add a little water to approximate the dilution you would have gotten as you mixed each individually.
Robert Simonson, the celebrated drinks and liquor writer at the New York Times, has also written a book that doubles as a resource for stressed hosts. His 3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon (2017, Ten Speed Press) points out that classic cocktails have endured because they are, by and large, simple.
“If the Manhattan had eight ingredients, nobody would be making it today—at least not at home and probably not at many bars,” he opines in his book. He doubled down on that in an email, noting that there’s a move at present toward simplicity. “After many years of bars serving up rococo cocktails with elaborate presentations, I do think there is at present a movement back toward simplicity. Complex cocktails will always have their place, but that place should be in the bar, in the hands of professionals.”
He notes that besides his and Newman’s books, more are on the way, such as Maggie Hoffman’s upcoming The One-Bottle Cocktail. “They are a reminder that excellence is within the grasp of the home bartender without maxing out your credit card at the liquor store and renting a U-Haul to bring your purchases home.”
Whatever you decide to make—and we have five can’t-fail recipes below—use top-notch liquor and think about having two instead of five. To paraphrase venerated mixologist Jim Meehan, this holiday drinking season make it quality, and make it count.
From: 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson.
The author created this drink for a party at an architecture gallery decorated in white that didn’t want to risk the spillage of dark spirits. It cleverly riffs on the classic, brandy-based Harvard.
Ingredients: 24 oz. pisco, 12 oz. bianco vermouth, about 36 dashes of orange bitters, and 12 lemon twists.
In a large pitcher, combine all the ingredients except the lemon twists. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into another pitcher or container and refrigerate until serving.
To serve, pour into chilled coupes. Twist a lemon twist over each drink, drop into the glass and serve.
From: Shake. Stir. Sip. by Kara Newman.
Like a regular Negroni—equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari—Newman notes that it’s easy to scale this drink up or down; you can double it for a bigger crowd or make just one drink. New York bartender Lynnette Marrero created this variation in which the rich, deep tones of aged rum combined with luscious amontillado really do evoke caramel and toffee without overt sweetness.
Ingredients: 12 oz. aged rum, 12 oz. amontillado sherry, 12 oz. Aperol, and 12 grapefruit twists.
In a large pitcher, combine the rum, sherry, and Aperol. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into another pitcher or container and refrigerate until serving.
To serve, pour into a rocks glass over a large cube of ice. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.
From: Shake. Stir. Sip. by Kara Newman.
Newman credits Audrey Saunders, co-owner of New York’s famed Pegu Club, for reviving this martini style, tweaking it, and giving it a saucier name. “This is literally two ingredients, in equal parts. It does not get any easier than this.”
Ingredients: 36 oz. gin, 36 oz. dry vermouth, 24 dashes orange bitters, and 12 lemon twists.
In a large pitcher, combine the gin, vermouth, and bitters. Add about half a cup of water to mimic ice dilution. Refrigerate until serving. To serve, pour into chilled martini glasses and garnish with lemon twists.
Note: To make a more classic martini, omit the orange bitters and substitute olives for the twists.
From: Thomas Waugh, The Pool Lounge, New York.
Waugh calls this the “Millionaire’s Tequila Old Fashioned”—Don Julio 1942, a premium aged tequila, meets Don the Beachcomber, thanks to a cinnamon-grapefruit-flavor combo known in the trade as “Don’s Mix.” Keep this one reserved for more intimate occasions.
Ingredients: 12 oz. Don Julio 1942, 12 oz. añejo tequila, 6 oz. Grapefruit-Cinnamon Syrup (see below), 24 dashes Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters or Angostura bitters, and 12 grapefruit twists for garnish (optional).
In a large pitcher combine all the ingredients except the grapefruit twists. Add about half a cup of water to mimic dilution. Refrigerate until serving.
To serve, pour into rocks glasses with one large ice cube and garnish with grapefruit twists.
To make Grapefruit-Cinnamon Syrup, simmer cane syrup (or equal parts water and sugar) with two to three cinnamon sticks over low heat for five minutes. Remove from the heat, add large strips of zest from one grapefruit, and let infuse until the syrup is flavored. Keep the extra on hand for all your tequila drinks.
The Trifecta PunchFrom: Meaghan Levy of HGU Hotel in New York.
During the holiday season, Levy turns (and returns) to this simple, hassle-free punch recipe with three easy-to-find ingredients that anyone can whip up in three minutes. “That inspired the name, the Trifecta Punch. Gin is a nice alternative to brown spirits often used in punch. Slightly bitter Aperol provides contrast and lends a great winter feel.”
Ingredients: 24 oz. gin, 12 oz. Aperol, 64 oz. chilled sparkling rosé wine, and cranberries, for garnish
In a pitcher, combine the gin and Aperol. Stir and refrigerate until serving.
To serve, add the sparkling rosé wine and stir again gently. Pour into rocks glasses or cups and garnish with cranberries.