Entertaining

Cocktail Hour

How to throw the perfect fall cocktail party

It's Spirits Month! Get in on all the booze-filled fun.

Throwing a summer cocktail party can be as simple as sharing pitchers of sangria on the rooftop, but come fall, hosting a cocktail party suddenly seems more complicated. A whole new set of indoors-only questions arises: If the word cocktail appears on the invitation, does that mean you need to have a fully stocked bar and the ability to mix up Mad Men-style drinks? And speaking of Mad Men, are you supposed to get dressed up? What kind of food should you serve and how much of it?

I'm no cocktail guru, so I turned to my friend Maria del Mar Sacasa, a professional food stylist and author of Winter Cocktails. Her beautiful book has more than 100 recipes for cold-weather libations and great advice on everything from stocking your bar to creating the perfect ice-ring mold. Maria shared a few of her best tips with me and helped me realize that throwing a fall cocktail party doesn't have to be so complicated, after all.

Start with hot cider. "In the fall, I always have a pot of Applejack-spiced hot cider with peppercorns, coriander and cinnamon sticks simmering on the stovetop to offer guests as they come in," says del Mar Sacasa. "Plus, it makes my house smell great."

Stock up on the basics. "I keep a bar set up with the basics: A bottle each of gin, vodka, whiskey and bourbon, classic mixers like club soda and tonic, and pre-sliced lemons and limes. I also keep a few six-packs of beer in the fridge—something light like Stella, plus a pumpkin lager for fall—as well as a few non-alcoholic options like good ginger ale or soda. I just let guests serve themselves. It's your party—you should be mingling!"

Create a signature punch. "There's something so festive about a punch bowl, and it gives the room a centerpiece, even if you're just using a big glass salad bowl as the vessel," says del Mar Sacasa. "A punch is great because you can make the base the day before, and just pour in the bubbly as the first guests arrive. My favorite recipe is the Sweet Surrender, a chamomile tea-base spiked with chamomile pear-infused gin or vodka and finished with sparkling wine. It's very mellow—even though it's chilled, it feels like you're drinking tea."

Run the numbers. "Punch goes down easy, so count on four cups per person, with two ounces of liquor per serving. For a punch, I just use one strong spirit, with some sort of fruit flavoring, some acidity and sparkling wine or cider to finish."

Don't forget the ice. "I love using silicone ice molds for mixed drinks—they create bigger ice cubes that melt slowly, so your drink doesn't get as watered-down," says del Mar Sacasa. For punches, make an ice mold. It's easy: Fill a Bundt pan with water and freeze it. Run the bottom under hot water to loosen the ice and place it in your serving bowl to keep the drink cool without diluting it."

Timing is everything. "Normally I invite people to come from 6 to 9 p.m., like an extended happy hour. For the holidays, I'll extend it to 10 p.m., since everyone is juggling parties, so people can come early or late."

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Pad their stomachs. You don't need to feed your guests a full dinner, but you should have something on hand to snack on. "I do a big cheese and charcuterie board with good bread and crackers," says del Mar Sacasa. "In the fall, I love to make a braised pork shoulder. It's really inexpensive; it feeds a crowd, and you can make it in advance and just reheat it. I'll shred it and serve it right from the pot with mini potato buns on the side so people can make their own sliders. And people love pigs in a blanket made with puff pastry."

Keep it casual. Dress code for cocktail parties can be confusing. "If it's during the week, I like to keep it casual. If someone goes to work in jeans, I don't want them to feel like they have to go home and change to come to my party," says del Mar Sacasa. "Sometimes I'll wear a fun dress since I'm the hostess, but usually I'll just stick to jeans and a nice blouse to make everyone feel comfortable. I'll only ask people to dress up if it's something like an engagement party."

Skip the flowers. "In the fall and winter, I love covering surfaces with fresh greens like eucalyptus or pine. Or I'll create piles of apples or clementines for centerpieces, and people can eat them if they want."

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