Mrs. C says: Just those three little words thrill me to the core. A promise of sophistication and fun…a stylish gathering with carefully crafted cocktails and delicious little morsels to tempt the taste buds…and all set in a festive scene. What’s not to like?
Ed Elf: The shrimp blinis. They repeat on me something awful.
Mrs. C: Ignore him and enjoy our fun guide to Christmas cocktails and canapés. Let inspiration sweep over you and enjoy the process of creating an occasion for your friends.
The origin of the cocktail is often assumed to be American. However, search through the history books and you will find references to cocktails on both side of the Atlantic dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: in 1798 in The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a London newspaper no longer in print, and in 1803 in a Vermont newspaper stateside. May 13th is World Cocktail Day and celebrates the printing of the reference to cocktails in the 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York publication. The word ‘cocktail’ has no precise origin and there are several theories as to how this variety of drink got its name. Cocktail parties were at their most popular in Britain in the twenties and thirties, with such stylish venues as Claridge’s and The Savoy firmly establishing the place of the cocktail in glamorous society.
You can recreate a little of the sparkle of Britain in the twenties by holding your own cocktail party with a festive twist. Typically most parties will last around two to three hours, during which guests will mingle and chat to the accompaniment of delicious cocktails and simple canapés. Such parties are often a good way of gathering work or business colleagues together without the formality of a sit down dinner. It can also be used as a theme for an open-house gathering for family and friends.
Cocktail parties don’t have to be elaborate and complicated affairs: they can be held for a small and select gathering of close friends with just a couple of cocktail choices and a limited but tasty range of food. But if you’re feeling more ambitious and would like a larger scale event with a full bar and a range of canapés served throughout the evening, go for it. Once you have decided on the guest list and how much time and money you have to spend on the organisation of the party, you can address the issue of whether you will offer a full bar or a limited cocktail menu and also the type of food to accompany the drinks.
Plan your fridge space carefully. Too many different food types can be tricky to store and later find. You may have an ice dispenser in your fridge-freezer to cater for your needs. If not, ensure that you have a sufficient supply of ice in your freezer either pre-bought or pre-frozen by you. The larger bags of ice from supermarkets may need to be placed into several smaller bags to make things manageable. You could purchase novelty ice trays in the shape of trees or snowmen to turn the ordinary into something a little more special. You can also cut a lemon or lime into thin slices and place on a freezer proof tray until frozen. Remove as required for drinks. An ice cube and a zest slice all in one.
The drinks are the highlight of the party and need to dazzle and delight your guests as soon as they see them. An almost shocking display of sparkling, colourful bottles or a tray of elegant glasses adorned with sugared rims or succulent fruits and olives definitely shouts ‘party time’. The general definition of a cocktail is: an alcoholic mixed drink that has at least two ingredients. Many cocktails are spirit based but champagne is often used as well. The addition of mixers, garnishes, fruit juices and even cream makes the drink complete. Ice cubes look lovely with any kind of berry or torn mint leaf frozen inside and make great additions to Mojitos and other cocktails. As it’s the festive season, any cocktail that echoes the colours of Christmas will add to the overall atmosphere of the occasion. Red cocktails and punches trimmed with green mint leaves, lime peel or green sugared rims work well – as does the inclusion of edible gold, especially in any champagne based cocktail. A good cocktail book is essential to all of this – as are the various spirit measures, shakers and pourers. A full list of equipment will be outlined in any decent book. We like “The Little Black Book of Cocktails: The Essential Guide to New & Old Classics” by Virginia Reynolds. It opens flat, looks chic and can be wiped clean. “The Classic 1000 Cocktails” by Robert Cross is a useful, unfussy all-rounder of a book on this subject – and then there’s the recommended “Experimental Cocktail Club: London. Paris. New York. Ibiza”. Treat your taste buds to this collection of very special cocktail recipes that take inspiration from classic American and French cocktails – served with the unmistakable Experimental Cocktail Club flair and style. All are available at amazon.co.uk or check bookstores.
Cocktails require specific styles of glassware in order to be fully appreciated. From the classic Martini glass, through to highballs, champagne flutes and margarita glasses, all will signify this is a special libation prepared with care and attention to detail. For more advice on glassware and lots of fabulous cocktails recipes try goodcocktails.com. Wine glass charms are a decorative way of helping guests identify their glass and can also be given as a small gift. You will find a comprehensive selection at notonthehighstreet.com.
You may wish to offer a full bar to allow guests to choose their own drinks. This is great if you have a well-stocked bar but can be quite costly if you need to buy a good range of spirits, liqueurs and mixers. This may also entail having someone to perform bartender duties, unless you feel the gathering is small enough for friends to have fun mixing their own drinks. Instead of a full bar, a drinks menu can offer guests an opportunity to try something different and it also allows you to control both your spending and preparation a little more.
The number of drinks you need to allow per person will depend on how long you anticipate people will stay and to a degree what you already know of their drinking preferences (are some thirstier than others, if you get our meaning). Cocktails can be quite potent so keep a caring eye on any of your guests who might underestimate the drink’s strength and perhaps guide them to a softer option for a little while. It’s also important to remember guests that don’t drink or are designated drivers. Offer a selection of ‘Mocktails’ – delicious non-alcoholic drinks – as well as water and juices.
A selection of cold food is good as you can prepare this well in advance. Remember you are not serving dinner – just tasty morsels. It is easy to over-buy which then defeats the object of having a cocktail party in the first place. Keep it simple but spectacular with fabulous flavours and garnishes and beautiful Christmas tableware. Mouth-watering finger food is readily available in the run up to Christmas from some of our favourite stores like Waitrose, Booths, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s. Trays upon trays of mini mouthfuls fill the Christmas shelves. Pop them in the oven for 10 minutes or so and they are good to go. There really is no need to go to any great trouble making specially prepared, cooked canapés. But if you like the idea of creating a few simple dishes of your own, start with something like tiny rye bread squares topped with smoked salmon, sour cream and chives. Blinis topped with prawns, Marie Rose sauce and a sliver of fresh chilli are simple to make and scrumptious. Now if you want to be even more adventurous, there are dozens more suggestions online, especially on the BBC food website, and you can turn to our treasured friends Delia, Nigella, Mary and Jamie.
If guests have arrived by taxi, have a few phone numbers of local taxi firms to hand for when they prepare to leave – just in case their usual firm is busy. At Christmas, it is always advisable to pre-book returns to avoid the busy switchboard period later in the evening.
Timing is Key
It can be hard to organise and run a cocktail party on your own so don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to handle an element of either the preparation or the party itself. You may have an aspiring Brian Flanagan (played by Tom Cruise in Touchstone Picture’s 1988 film “Cocktail”) to mix drinks or teenage family members that can serve the canapés. There are many local caterers that will provide both the food and staff for your party: just remember to book them well in advance for this busy time of year. With that in mind, send out invitations early enough for guests to put the date in their diary. Late November can be a good time to hold a cocktail party as it’s early enough for the festive season to have started but more unlikely to clash with work and family functions that arrive in a flurry in December.
If you are hosting a cocktail party during the Christmas period, your home will probably be decked with suitably festive decorations. But if you want to add a little extra sparkle then partypacks.co.uk has a wide range of food and drink embellishments, such as decorative food picks for your canapés, straws, napkins and table confetti. Partypacks also provides a wonderful range of props and decorations for any themed parties you may wish to throw. Whatever the style, size or theme of your cocktail party, make it one your guests will savour by adding those caring extra details. Make it memorable.