Be the Family Bartender: How to Make Amazing Holiday Cocktails

6 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

During the holidays, drinking is inevitable. Even if it’s just a mocktail, this season brings out the fanciest stemware for sipping delicious sparkling beverages. Why not join in? Start a search today to learn how to make amazing holiday cocktails.

A holiday party calls for an elevation of the usual glass of wine or mixed drink, so this year, get your head in the game with our guide to mixology. We’ll teach you how to set up a home bar, and prep for any party in style.

Explore Your Preferences

When you first start getting into cocktails, it’s helpful to have an entry point. This won’t be difficult, unless you’re a real newbie when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Most people make it through college and come out the other side with at least a few opinions when it comes to booze.

Unless you’re completely loaded, it’s easiest to focus on a few drinks rather than spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars stocking a bar with bottles you’ll never touch. The trends in liquor are changing every day, and there are always new products to try.

Find the Perfect Shaker

The most basic cocktail tool you’ll need is a cocktail shaker.

It comes in three varieties. The cobbler, which is most common for household bartenders, is made of three parts — the body, a strainer, and a cap. Most professional bartenders use a Boston shaker, which is comprised of a tin body and mixing glass which wedge into each other to form a seal. If you go with the Boston shaker, you’ll probably need to buy a strainer at some point, which is most often sold separately. The third type of cocktail shaker is a French shaker, which is basically a hybrid of the first two. It has a metal bottom and a metal top, and also requires a separate strainer.

There are pros and cons for all three types, but a cobbler shaker is a good starting point for a beginner.

Collect Your Tools

Once you’ve gotten a cocktail shaker, you may decide you need some other tools as well. Depending on the type of shaker you buy, a strainer is probably a good idea. It allows you to hold back ice easily, and strains out solids if you’re making a drink with egg white, or herbs.

Other tools that are nice to have but not strictly necessary for beginners is a long bar spoon (which is great for mixing things in a shaker), or a muddler, which helps you crush herbs or fruit. A zester makes pretty spirals of citrus peel, which can be used for a professional-looking garnish. You’ll also want a jigger, or shot glass for measuring.

Amass a Great Glassware Collection

Most cocktails have a matching glass that they’re traditionally served in — think martinis in martini glasses, or a Tom Collins in a Collins glass. While it’s not strictly necessary to do this all the time, having a variety of glasses is useful even for the most basic of home bars. You’ll want tall glasses for mixed drinks, shorter glasses for drinks with ice, and stemmed glasses for shaken drinks that are served without ice.

If you like all of your glassware to match, you’ll want to hit up a home goods store, but if you don’t care that much, visit some consignment shops. They always have the coolest mismatched glassware, and you can usually walk out with a bag full of treasures for less than $20.

Do Your Research

Walking into a liquor store without doing your research first is never a good idea. If you have no idea what you want, you’re at the mercy of the sales associates, whose first job is to upsell you to the highest-priced product available.

Check out some reviews online, and when in doubt, find something made locally; you’ll be supporting a smaller company, and it’s always nice to see your neighbors thriving. Make a list of what you want to buy before walking in to the store, and you’ll be less tempted to buy novelty items or things that are on sale.

Stock Up on the Basics

When you’re first building your home bar, you can either buy one of everything (which is definitely the more expensive option), or focus on a few bottles to start yourself off. If you’re starting with a few bottles, pick options that allow you to make at least one cocktail. Think tequila and triple sec for margaritas, or whiskey and vermouth for Manhattans.

If you’re thinking about doing the full bar all at once, you’ll want to get the basics first- think whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, cognac, and tequila to start. These liquors are usually the backbone of drinks, and you’ll want to get them first.

Buy a Few Bottles of Premium Favorites

When you feel like you’ve got a pretty good basic bar put together, it’s time to get a bit more creative, and pick out some variations on your favorites. It’s a good idea to wait to do this until you’ve gotten a taste for what you like, and what you don’t. Wait until you’ve had a few cocktails already, and buy some variations on the liquors that you’ve gravitated to so far. It’s pointless to splurge on something that you won’t enjoy, so taste carefully.

Pick Some Supporting Liquors and Liqueurs

One of the most difficult things when building a great bar at home is figuring out which other bottles you should add to your collection of basics. Triple sec, amaro, vermouth, and bitters are all things that you may not be familiar with and are generally not drunk on their own, but are integral to basic cocktails. This may be a place to save money if you need to, since you’ll use so little of it at a time.

Pick Some Savory and Sweet Additions

One of the most enjoyable things about a cocktail is the magic that comes from adding simple ingredients like citrus juice or peel, cherries, herbs, or sugar to alcohol. It brings out all sorts of nuances that you would have never tasted before. Once you’ve built up a good liquor selection, add to your repertoire by buying or even DIYing tasty additions and garnishes like brandied cherries, flavored simple syrups, olives, or pickled pearl onions.

Practice The Basics

If you’re planning a party or just want to up your cocktail game, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with several basic cocktails, so you can make them without a recipe. Even if it seems as simple as mixing two liquors together, you can always improve your technique.

Stirring and shaking a drink both require more skill than you would think, not to mention more advanced techniques like using a Boston shaker, measuring with a jigger, or straining. If you get a bit of pre-party practice on basic cocktails like the martini, Sazerac, gin and tonic, or gimlet, you’ll be able to impress your guests with your dexterity and speed.

Plan Ahead for Parties

If you’re planning a party to celebrate the holiday season, you’ll want to make sure that the liquor in your bar is fully stocked, along with wine, beer, and mixers. Think about whether people will be walking around, or seated, and how long the party will last.

An easy way to make sure that you have enough alcohol on hand is to serve a signature cocktail, rather than having an open bar. Mix together a giant bowl of festive punch, or pour out a few pitchers of various cocktails so that people can serve themselves.

Put Your Spin on Some Classics

A great way to impress family and friends this holiday season is to invent a signature cocktail of your own! Focus on festival or seasonal ingredients like bracing rosemary, tart cranberries, or sweet apples and cinnamon, and put a spin on a classic — think rosemary gin gimlet, apple and cinnamon sangria, or a cranberry kir royale. The only way you can figure out what you like is if you experiment. Start with a small amount, and keep going until you find the perfect balance.

Jordana Weiss