Adam and I recently hosted our 4th Annual Holiday Spirit Party and it was our most successful yet. It’s a holiday soiree with a cocktail making competition mixed in. We started this annual tradition back in Jerusalem after being inspired by another Foreign Service couple who have hosted a holiday dessert competition for well over a decade. We thought it would be a nice way to bring together all our new friends in a new place and it really is. Also it’s my feeling that people enjoy an activity at a party, especially people who aren’t excited about attending a big bash and making conversation with strangers. (I actually enjoy this, but I’m an extrovert who likes small talk. And big talk. All the talks, really). Here’s how it works:
- Send out (electronic) invites explaining what a cocktail contest party is. Here’s what we sent for our most recent iteration.
- “We’d love for you to join us in reveling in holiday joy at our fourth annual holiday party/cocktail contest. It’ll be an evening of delicious appetizers and sweets, live music, and merry competition in the form of a cocktail contest. Party and food begin at 7pm, the cocktail contest will kick off 8pm, and the band will perform at 9pm. Here’s how the contest works: Up to six individuals/small teams will prepare a holiday cocktail with a local theme and give a short presentation on the contents of the drink and how it fits the theme. (Non-alcoholic entries are also welcome). After all teams have presented, guests will sample the beverages and submit a a vote through a handy dandy online system. Please let us know in the comments if you would like to compete. We’ll make sure competitors have all the info they need.” (Note: You definitely don’t need to hire a band! But you should include a little schedule so people know what they’re getting into.)
- Give some more instruction to the folks who volunteer to make a cocktail. We tell them that they’ll have to do a two minute presentation where they mix up one of their cocktails while talking about it. It should fit in a theme. We like to do “local” so everyone can learn about local ingredients – say in dates in Algeria or dates in Jerusalem – but the theme can also be seasonal. This would be a great idea for a party for Valentine’s Day where the theme is “love” or something racier. Or, the theme could be literature, art, sports, whatever. Or, maybe you have massive amounts of champagne or a speciality liquor left over from a wedding or other celebration and you decide that has to be an ingredient in the cocktail. Have some fun! Competitors will also need to mix up a pitcher of their cocktails (either once they arrive to your house but before the competition, or at home) because after the presentations, guests will sample a small portion of the cocktail and it’s easier to pour from a pitcher.
- At the party, set up a table or bar or counter that is totally cleared off for the competition. Give each competitor a tray on which they can arrange all their ingredients. Call in the other guests turn down the music, and explain the concept: It’s a fun little competition to get people in the party spirit. Each person or group presents their cocktail and explains how it fits the theme. Applause after each presentation.
- At the end of the competition, tell guests to circulate and try each cocktail (poured from a pitcher into little cups) and then each person casts their vote. Our ballot includes “Creativity,” “Taste,” and “Presentation.” Adam created a survey in Google (go to https://docs.google.com/forms/ and start there) and shared the voting link so folks could vote on their phones, and we also had our laptop open so people could vote there. This was much easier than counting paper options, but paper is a viable option if you want to go low-tech. Or, make is super simple and give everyone a poker chip and tell them to place it in front of their favorite drink, or in a box in front of their favorite drink.
- Once votes are tallied, announce a winner. Give a nice prize, probably something drinks related. I usually put together a basket with fixins for Old Fashioned – a bottle of bourbon, homemade simple syrup, possibly some booze soaked cherries. And a few nice glasses, crystal mixing vessel or a stainless steel cocktail shaker. A gift card to a local bar or restaurant would also be awesome.
The two parties we hosted in Jerusalem with a “local” theme lent themselves to Bible-inspired drinks, like one based on Herod the Great that involved the mixologist violently chopping an orange in half during his presentation. (Herod had a habit of executing his family members). Here was the winning drink that year, 2017.
Equal parts Lillet Blanc, gin, Aperol and lemon juice, half part mastiha.
Shake with ice and garnish with a spring of rosemary.
The Lazarus was crafted by our friend Derek Sandhaus, founder and part-owner of Ming River Sichuan Baiju and author of several books including “Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture.” He named his cocktail after Lazarus from the Bible who was raised from the dead and the drink is a a take on the Corpse Reviver (a category of drinks meant to cure a hangover). It uses mastiha, a Greek liquor made from pine or cedar resin that tastes a lot like a Christmas tree, a cheeky nod to the holiday we were celebrating.
In Morocco, I did a riff on how the Moroccans refer to their delicious mint tea as “Moroccan Whisky” It’s not. It’s just tea. My cocktail involved some actual whisky was quite good, but my presentation was a total shit show. I had forgotten half my ingredients in the kitchen and had to yell for someone to crowdsurf me my mint simple syrup. It’s very hard to host a party AND do a presentation. So don’t try it. Just leave the presentations to your guests.
The 2019 winning cocktail was called the Passion Bay, and made by our Dutch friend Daniel along with our Colombian friend Alejandro and it is meant to evoke “the balmy…winter nights” of Algeria, a city on a bay.
The Passion Bay
Champagne, Cointreau, Lemon Juice, Passion Fruit
Mix two parts of fresh squeezed lemon juice with one part of Cointreau and a scoop of half of a ripe passion fruit. Pour in tall glass over crushed ice. Top with two parts Champagne.
So that’s it. And I want to add that this idea doesn’t need to exclude non-drinkers. For instance, in Jerusalem, Morocco, and Algeria, we didn’t want any religious Muslim guests to feel like this wasn’t the party for them since it focused on booze, and we hope we made it clear that the party wasn’t about getting wasted and that there’d be lots of non-alcoholic revelry. (Still, if any potential guests are very opposed to alcohol, we’ve learned they probably won’t come). This year in Algiers, three of our six drinks were non-alcoholic and they were all very good! There’s plenty of interesting juices (dates, strawberry) and other ingredients (hello, shrubs!) that can make complex cocktails that satisfy sans alcool.
Ooh, and as I’m finishing up this post, I’m reminded of my favorite cocktail contest ever: My friends threw me a bachelorette party shortly before my wedding in 2012. My one request was that we all stay together in a house and not leave (haha, creepy!). I didn’t want everyone going out to a bar or something, I wanted the undivided attention of my girlfriends for a whole weekend. I also was quite fond of games and competitions back then, so there was an Olympic theme. And one of competitions was for everyone to make me a cocktail using ingredients from the lakehouse in which we were staying. Do you know the joy that is laying on a chaise lounge in the forest, overlooking a lake, while your best friends present you with handmade cocktail after handmade cocktail? I’m lucky enough to say I do.
To cocktail contests,