Simple Holiday Cocktails to Dazzle Your Guests

Holiday Cocktails Hero

A frequent mantra throughout the winter season—in hopes of truly enjoying the little moments and not spiraling into stress—is to keep things simple. While this normally applies to gift giving and holiday-meal prep, shouldn’t simplicity also be the rule of thumb for the holiday cocktails you are making for a group? Hosting during the holidays is stressful enough under normal times, but especially right now, with health and safety at the forefront, keeping meals and libations simple will help you answer the door appearing relaxed, not frazzled. By keeping the bar’s recipes and contents simple you have an opportunity to convey a casual tone from the minute guests arrive, allowing you to focus on an enjoyable (and safe) experience for friends and family.

There are quite a few ways to keep cocktails simple but still not let go of the wow factor and not tamper down the deliciousness. After all, as a guest in someone’s home, you expect to be dazzled, right? From the moment you hang up your jacket and purse to when you are handed your first drink, you want to feel doted upon and treated to an experience different than at home.

Here are a few tips to follow when considering easy holiday cocktails for guests, as well as holiday cocktail recipes. But before we get into the details, there’s one tip that should be viewed as a rule: label everything. This includes garnishes, batched cocktails, juices and bitters, particularly if you are allowing guests to DIY their drinks as is probably advisable during this time. It’s easy to, in the rush of setting up the bar, turn your attention to simply making sure everything fits and looks pretty. But what if guests have an allergy to a particular fruit (they’ll want to know that’s a lime slice, not a lemon slice, if the lights are too dim) or accidentally grab the wrong ingredient, messing up their drink’s inherent flavors? By folding index cards in half and creating little tents, you have your labels. Or, use red, green or blue markers over Scotch tape to label any jars.

Skip the Fancy Garnishes

Unless everyone at your party is also an Instagram influencer, there’s no need to craft drinks that make a good photo. The most important attribute should be taste. The focus should be on simple holiday cocktails. Try not to worry about preparing hundreds of garnishes like sugared cranberries, graham-cracker crumbs for the glass rim or anything else that could be skewered onto bamboo cocktail picks. That said, a jar of drained olives or maraschino cherries moved to ramekins, or slices of lemons and limes at the bar area can be a nice touch, allowing guests to further customize drinks to their taste preference.

Simple Holiday Cocktail

Remember that drinks are only one piece of the entertaining pie. Are logs crackling in the fireplace and soft holiday tunes stemming from the stereo? Did you light holiday-scented candles? These atmospheric details are what guests will remember tomorrow, not the sprig of singed rosemary in their drink.

Limit Ingredients

Think about the last time you ordered a cocktail at a bar. You may have noticed the list of ingredients wasn’t a full paragraph. Maybe it didn’t even stretch to the next line. The trend in mixology has been shifting toward tasty drinks that use the fewest ingredients possible, similar to the farm-to-table movement in restaurants. Chefs vow to source the highest quality, local ingredients and avoid marring them with too many rubs, sauces, seasonings or spices. The idea is that these ingredients—both alcohol and accompaniments like juices, bitters, sodas and herbs—should support, not crowd, the overall flavor. 

This doesn’t, however, mean you must serve exclusively “back to basics” holiday cocktails such as a Rum and Coke or Screwdrivers (drinks everyone learned to make in college), or even hot toddies. Instead, add a new twist on old favorites. For example, with an Old Fashioned, you might tweak the standard recipe (brandy or rye whiskey, sugar, angostura bitters and an orange wedge) with cranberry juice or spiced simple syrup.

Holiday Cocktails

Consider Batch Cocktails

Remember the punch bowls of the ‘70s? If you have one, great. Dust it off and consider mixing a cocktail within, followed by serving with the ladle. But if you got rid of the punch bowl long ago, that’s okay. There are other vessels.

The idea here is that you are only making the drink once—several servings at a time—and not to order. Otherwise, you’ll need to designate a bar host while you greet new arrivals and work the room. You just can’t be making drinks and keeping an eye on the rest of the gathering.

Consider other large-scale vessels like pitchers—or even Mason jars—to hold the drinks once they’ve been prepared and before they are served. And if you do want to buy a punch bowl, creative examples come up for auction regularly on Invaluable.

Holiday Martini


For ideas on how to spruce up holiday whiskey cocktails, turn to flavors of the season: maple syrup, cranberry juice and cinnamon for starters. You might even top off with a fizzy soda for a little more glitz.


Naturally, when you think of vodka, you probably picture a martini. This is the perfect base recipe for amping up the flavor at a holiday gathering. Holiday gin cocktails might incorporate a little bit of peppermint, gingerbread, cranberry or nutmeg as an ode to the winter season. Pomegranate juice is another holiday-friendly pairing with gin.


If you want to forget you’re hosting in a wintry climate and turn everyone’s attention to, say, the beach then holiday cocktails with rum could be your friend. Only we’re not talking about Rum Runners or Painkillers like you might find in the Caribbean, but instead mingling—either in the rum or through other ingredients—with flavors like coconut, citrus or spice as a nod to the holiday season.


Everybody knows margaritas. But instead of preparing them like they’re served at the local Mexican restaurant, add some Grand Marnier with the tequila. Tequila holiday cocktails could also mean playing off of winter snow by adding coconut milk or coconut water to your favorite tequila-drink recipe. That whiteness will enhance the drink’s overall appearance, just like snow.


Bourbon is already well suited for holiday cocktails due to the “heat” it presents on the palate, featuring notes of toasty oak, vanilla and caramel. But you don’t have to offer guests the expected—such as a hot toddy (difficult to keep warm unless you have a slow cooker) or mint julep (more appropriate for spring). Play off of the season with new twists like apple in a manhattan or apple cider in an old fashioned.


Sparkling water when combined with vodka and cranberry juice is one example of a great holiday vodka cocktail that’s also simple to prepare. Other seasonal flavors that go well with vodka in a drink recipe are orange, ginger and pear. There are numerous ways to “dress up” a vodka cocktail classic for the holidays; just look to the season for inspiration. 

Don’t Forget the Bubbles

There’s something about holding a flute or coupe glass of sparkling wine, Champagne, Cava or Prosecco that makes it feel like a party. Only your guests might be bored with bubbles if they are making the rounds at other gatherings or uncorking bottles at home, as many of us are right now. Prosecco holiday cocktails are the most affordable option and, if you are going for a sweet note, work best. La Marca is an excellent option at an affordable price point. 

Of course, if you want to use the good stuff, don’t hesitate to prepare Champagne holiday cocktails. These wines are produced in the Champagne region of France—earning their right to be called Champagne—and popular labels that are easy to find include Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon. Really want to splurge? Dom Perignon runs about $175-$200 a bottle, or you can explore more rare varieties, such as this limited edition Cartier Champagne that recently sold at auction.

Holiday Champagne Cocktails

Don’t forget about domestic sparkling wines such as Mumm, Domaine Carneros or Schramsberg. All are in Napa Valley, California. A growing favorite is from the surprising state of New Mexico: Gruet Winery, begun by a Frenchman in the late 1980s and still family-owned. You’ll find Gruet Winery’s bottles on several wine lists across the country, proof it’s decent.

Fold in Local Products

These days, every town, no matter its size, probably boasts a distillery. If not, there is one within a few hours’ radius. Consider swapping out the Bacardi, Tanqueray or Ketel One for a local substitute. If you leave the bottles out, and suggest where you scored them, you may even turn some of your guests into fans. Everyone loves to buy local—they just need to know which products are.

As you start pondering the holiday cocktail recipes you’ll use for a simple and easy holiday gathering, keep these tips in mind. If you keep your eyes on simplicity then you can be a better host. And while this is a trite phrase it’s definitely true and it definitely applies to cocktails: it’s quality not quantity (number of ingredients) that makes a drink memorable.

By Kristine Hansen

Featured images via Unsplash

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