Glasses of sangria with a pitcher behind
Upon reading the title, you may be thinking: “It’s a few weeks before the holiday, and I just started to write my shopping list. I still have to fight the crowds at the grocery store, to then go home and start preparing the meal. Now you want me to make cocktails!?” Yes, I do. Wine…


How to Serve Cocktails for Your Holiday Crowd, from a CIA Beverage Expert

Upon reading the title, you may be thinking: “It’s a few weeks before the holiday, and I just started to write my shopping list. I still have to fight the crowds at the grocery store, to then go home and start preparing the meal. Now you want me to make cocktails!?” Yes, I do. Wine is for dinner; cocktails are your reward for all your hard work up to that point, that happen to be perfect for sharing. When entertaining a crowd, many people default to making a punch, and for good reason – it’s delicious. While I do love punch, it’s an expected answer, isn’t it? There are many recipes online for wonderful seasonal punches, but leave the punch for your cousin. I’m going to share the secrets on how restaurants and banquet venues use batch cocktails to adjust from making cocktails one at a time to serving hundreds of guests a drink, in minutes. The first decision that needs to be made when planning batch cocktails is whether the drink is going to be pre-made in totality, or compartmentalized. When making the decision for my entertaining purposes, my primary deciding factor is: how much work do I want to do when my guests are here? If you are entertaining your partner’s business clients or your in-laws, maybe having a lot of last-minute tasks to finalize is exactly what you want… If you want to mix the drinks as your guests arrive, you can combine the alcohol together days in advance and follow the timeframes below for preparing each of the remaining ingredients. Today, we’ll focus on making a complete drink three or four hours ahead of the arrival time for a carefree party. Even once you have your recipe for your favorite cocktail, there is a little more to consider before you multiply the ingredients and start measuring. While not listed in order of importance, each section below discusses how to think through each element of the cocktail, to make it taste as if you mixed each cocktail individually (you can pretend you did!)

Water - The Most Important Ingredient

The primary reason why people struggle with cocktails—especially in large batches—is because they don’t pay enough attention to the addition of water. When an individual cocktail is made, the ice not only chills the liquids, but also contributes a slight amount of water to the final product. This water is important, since it balances all the other ingredients. Think of musicians tuning and practicing prior to the first song of the concert: though still playing notes at the same time on the same stage you hear noise rather than music. Water smooths together the elevated acid, alcohol, and sugars. Next time you make a cocktail, mix the ingredients without ice and taste how easy it is to pick up on the disjointed nature of the components. Add ice until chilled and try it again, noticing how everything mellows and becomes cohesive: noise versus music. When scaling up a recipe you need to add ¼ to ½ ounce of water per drink to the overall mix. For twenty portions, you will add 5 to 10 ounces of water. The determining factor of whether to use ¼ or ½ an ounce of water per portion is based on the final service style. If the beverage is going to be served over ice, add less water to the batch since the ice will still contribute additional dilution. If the beverage is served without ice, then increase the amount of water slightly.


There are two common types of citrus juice available, fresh-squeezed and store-bought. While there is no substitute for fresh-squeezed citrus’ balance of sugar and acid, the quality of bottled juice has increased greatly. Due to the processing method for store-bought juice, it is common to have a slight bitterness in the final product. If you are using bottled citrus juice, after mixing the entire batch try a portion as it will be served, you may need to add a little more sugar in the form of simple syrup for balance. If you are squeezing your own juice, add lime juice and grapefruit juice three to four hours before service, since these citruses improve with a little age. Oranges and lemons should ideally be juiced and added no more than an hour before service.


Syrups, liqueurs, and cordials all contain a high amount of sugar, making them heavier than alcohol. If these ingredients are used in your recipe, they will settle to the bottom over time, so remember to stir the final product prior to service. In restaurants, we fill the holding container 90% full, to allow for a few rotations end-over-end before serving. However, a couple stirs from a spoon in the pitcher will work just as well.


Bitters are an integral part of many cocktails. Their purpose is to enhance flavors in a drink, just as salt livens flavors when cooking. Bitters should be added no more than an hour ahead of time. If you are short on time, you can have the bitters premeasured and stored in a sealed container, but for such small amounts this usually unnecessary. I have two pro tips for you. First, take the shaker spout off the bottle and use a measuring spoon. There are 32 shakes per teaspoon. Second, round up. Pouring into the measuring spoon is a great start but keep pouring until you get nervous – that’s the right amount.

Herbs and Carbonation

These items have to be reserved as last-minute additions. Herbs lose their aromatic properties very quickly, and often turn brown in contact with acid. If you are using a few leaves for garnishing, you can pick your herbs ahead of time and refrigerate them submerged in ice water for a couple of hours. If you are using the whole stem, pre-select the size you want, and roll them in a damp paper towel. Frankly, this is how you should be storing your herbs already. They can stay in the fridge a couple of days wrapped in damp towel without any worries. As for carbonated components, there is no getting around this one, they are the last ingredient in the glass. Just as many recipes have a caveat of ‘to taste’ the same goes for all items above. Rather than worrying about incremental perfection, taste the final product and adjust until you smile. If your guests have something critical to say, don’t invite them back. Holiday season is getting easier already. Cheers!

Rory Brown '06 is a Lecturing Instructor of Hospitality and Service Management at The Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, New York

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