Good cocktails take attention and focus, the very gifts you might prefer to bestow upon your guests.
When I spoke to bartending legend Dale DeGroff for a recent column, I asked him about what makes a great bartender. He emphasized that one of the keys is to get to know your recipes so well you don’t even have to think about them, so you can make drinks and charm your guests at the same time.
He might as well have told me the key was taking a dose of unicorn powder every morning. Having driven the same commute for 10 years now, I arrive at work some mornings and cannot remember any of the details it took to get there, but the day I can cocktail on automatic pilot is still a long way off. For me, one of the worst moments of hosting a party is that early stage when guests arrive and want to catch up while I’m trying to focus on their drinks. The chances of someone’s receiving a Manhattan with a blue cheese-stuffed olive in it go up exponentially.
A DIY champagne cocktail bar brings the bubbles that lift so many winter celebrations and creates a shared activity for guests to socialize over. You don’t need to use the greatest of sparkling wines. In fact, you shouldn’t, because who wants to obscure a really wonderful champagne with other flavors? A decent brut-style sparkler will suffice.
An ideal setup would be a tallish round table allowing guests to gather and converse around it. Set out an assortment of liqueurs, mixers and garnishes, and an ice bucket in the middle to keep the champagne chilled. Keep the glasses chilled, too, if you have room in your freezer. Leave out a few recipes and let your guests enjoy themselves.
Here are six options, but there are many more; if you have a favorite, bring it into the mix. Most of the ones here result in a lovely range of holiday reds and golds. Just throw in some candles to catch their colors, and your drinks become part of your decor.
Tips for setting up a champagne bar:
▪ You’ll want enough champagne flutes for all your guests and buckets of ice to chill the champagne in advance.
▪ Along with glassware, depending on the size of your party, you’ll need several jiggers for measuring so guests aren’t waiting too long for each other to finish making drinks.
▪ Depending on which drinks you’re serving, set out fresh citrus for zesting, and a Y-peeler for the same. The Angostura-soaked sugar cubes (for the champagne cocktail) and the spiced cranberries can be set out in small bowls.
The best of the classic sparkling-wine cocktails, this drink was created during World War I and named for a 75-millimeter French artillery gun, which should suggest that it is not as gentle a drink as it might first appear. “Hits with remarkable precision,” writes Harry Craddock in “The Savoy Cocktail Book.”
The original recipe is reported to have used cognac, but it has become standard to use gin instead. Champagne works best here, but Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine makes a reasonably priced substitute. Adapted from “The Bubbly Bar,” by Maria C. Hunt (Clarkson Potter, 2009).
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup (see NOTE)
4 or 5 ounces brut champagne
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the gin, lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds, then strain into a champagne flute. Top with the champagne as needed, and garnish with the twist of lemon peel.
NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through; store indefinitely.
Nutrition per serving: 199 calories, 0 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 20 g sugar
The Negroni Sbagliato is basically a Negroni that calls for prosecco or asti spumante instead of gin. “Sbagliato” means “wrong” or “mistaken,” as in, “I messed up and mistakenly put sparkling wine in this Negroni instead of gin.” From Jason Wilson, whose recipe first appeared in the fall 2007 issue of Imbibe magazine.
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
2 ounces prosecco
Thin whole slice of orange, for garnish
Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice. Add the vermouth and Campari, then top with the prosecco; stir to combine. Garnish with the slice of orange.
Nutrition per serving: 166 calories, 0 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 18 g sugar
Many recipes for the champagne cocktail call for the brandy, but you can leave it out if you want a drink that’s lighter and highlights your chosen bubbly. Adapted from “Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible,” by Simon Difford (11th edition, Firefly Books, 2013).
1 sugar cube
2 to 4 drops Angostura bitters
1/2 to 1 ounce cognac or other good-quality brandy (optional)
3 ounces chilled champagne (may substitute other brut-style sparkling white wine)
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Chill a champagne flute.
Place the sugar cube in a small cup; let the drops of Angostura bitters (to taste) fall on it, so the cube is soaked.
Add the cognac or brandy, if desired (to taste), and the bittered sugar cube to the flute, then top with the champagne.
Run the lemon peel (exterior) around the rim of the glass, then drop it into the drink.
Nutrition per serving: 90 calories, 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
This lovely and festive sipper from Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man behind famed London bars White Lyan and Dandelyan, needs some quick advance prep: You make a spiced cranberry syrup to supplement the cognac and curaçao that are added to the champagne. The result is a drink that’s lightly sweet and tart, with the enlivening bite of cranberries afloat on the bubbles. Adapted from “Good Things to Drink With Mr. Lyan & Friends,” by Ryan Chetiyawardana (Frances Lincoln Limited, 2015).
MAKE AHEAD: The cranberry syrup (with its cranberries) can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks in advance.
For the syrup
1/4 cup unsweetened 100 percent cranberry juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
3 tablespoons fresh cranberries
For the drink
1/2 ounce cognac
1/2 ounce dry curacao
3 ounces chilled champagne (may substitute brut-style sparkling white wine)
For the syrup: Cut strips of the orange zest (no pith) and place in a small saucepan, then cut the orange in half and squeeze its juice into the saucepan. Add the cranberry juice, sugar, star anise, cloves and fresh cranberries. Cook over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar has dissolved. The cranberries should not pop.
Remove from the heat; discard the zest and reserve a couple of the cranberries for garnish. The yield is a generous cup.
For the drink: Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add 1/2 ounce of the cranberry syrup, the cognac and curaçao; stir until chilled, then strain into a champagne flute.
Add 1 or 2 of the reserved cranberries, then top with the chilled champagne.
Nutrition per serving: 170 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar
This classic was created in London in 1861 to mark the passing of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Adapted from “Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion” (M. Barrows, 1941).
3 to 4 ounces stout beer, preferably Guinness
3 to 4 ounces champagne
Fill a champagne flute halfway full with the stout so that it has a foamy head. Gently add the champagne by pouring it over the back of a spoon and through the foam; this will create a visually pleasing effect as the champagne and beer mingle gradually in the flute.
Nutrition per serving: 87 calories, 0 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, None g sugar
Named for a French priest who fought in the resistance during World War II and was known to serve a non-bubbly white burgundy version of this drink, the Kir Royale needs a dry sparkling white (brut style) to avoid cloying sweetness. Go for crème de cassis rather than the Chambord called for in some recipes. Adapted from several traditional recipes.
1/2 ounce creme de cassis
4 to 5 ounces chilled champagne (may substitute a brut-style sparkling white wine)
Chill a champagne flute.
Pour in the crème de cassis, then fill the glass with champagne, as needed.
Nutrition per serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar