You made it! Congratulations.

Here you are on the brink of kissing good-bye to 2011 and about to enter 2012. But only yesterday, didn’t we just party like it was 1999? Wasn’t the turn of the century about 20 minutes ago? Evidently not so, in either case.

We’ve all earned the right to a kick-ass party because the clock is moving right along and we are about to turn the calendar. Beginning right now, it’s going to be a long bout with a whole trainload of parties rolling at us in short order. New Year’s, Sugar Bowl, beginning of Carnival, Saints first playoff game, BCS and then, hopefully, more Saints playoff games. Did I mention the seasonal balls with parade season right around the corner?

Do you realize that in most communities they roll up the sidewalks for weeks after watching the TV from the couch as the ball drops at Times Square in New York? For us, the descent of our “ball” from atop Jax Brewery and the accompanying fireworks on the river are a starting gun for celebrations, not signals to commence a long winter’s nap. 

So the big challenge is always this: How do we appropriately celebrate New Year’s Eve? Lots of pressure riding on this important decision. You don’t want the first party of the year to be a dud. Not a good omen. And, frankly, I don’t think anyone feels particularly bad that 2011 is out of here. I have a feeling most of us will look back on this year and say with conviction, “Holy crap, did that suck!”

Here’s my thought for celebrating the beginning of 2012 and setting the proper tone: Do it up big. You can’t have grand expectations for the coming 12 months if you don’t start out right. A year from now, at the end of 2012, if things have not fully gone your way, at least you will know that you gave it your best. All the way. No hold-backs. No cheap outs. Only your A-game will do for December 31, 2011 into January 1, 2012.  

Still, we don’t want to abandon all reason and forget the lessons learned from previous New Year celebrations, or whenever else you have seen fit to let the fur fly. Don’t start the year off stupid, or hungover, or both.

Now what would work to really set the tone for 2012 and not leave you badly wounded from New Year’s Day until about January 6? Yes, you are right, champagne and sparkling wine. Perfect. Drinks that are absolutely festive, fun, fit right into everything we are doing, and are low in alcohol.

Certainly champagnes and sparkling wines are great out of the bottle. No question. Yet, earlier in the evening, you may want some different taste sensations. And that’s why cocktails made with bubbly wines are so appealing. They are versatile and easy to do. The added benefit here also is that if you begin the New Year’s Eve celebrations with champagne cocktails, then head into champagne, you have not switched horses. And you know the rule to minimize next day's head and tummy issues: Stay with one thing throughout the evening.

Incidentally, when making a cocktail with champagne or sparkling wine as the base sprit, you don’t have to use the really, really good stuff. Don’t go so far down the quality ladder that there is no chance a good drink will result. However, you don’t have to use $50 bottles of champagne, unless 2011 was a better year for you than it was for me. If so, swing for the fences, slugger.

But if the evening needs to stay real and in budget, instead of champagne, you can substitute a good quality prosecco from Italy, or a cava from Spain; even a sparkling wine from California is good. If you do substitute bubbly wine other than champagnes, don’t purchase the least expensive in those categories. Upgrade here to assure excellent results.

Let’s start our New Year’s Eve celebration with something tried and true, a perfect send-off to the old year.

The Classic Champagne Cocktail

Lemon twist
1 sugar cube
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
5 oz. Champagne or sparkling wine

Rim a stemmed flute with the lemon. Drop lemon and sugar into glass. Add bitters. Slowly add sparkling wine.

Easy to make and goes down quite simply too. Here’s one that’s a bit bolder than a Kir Royale.

French Champagne Cocktail

1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
½ oz. crème de cassis
5 oz. champagne or sparkling wine

Drop the sugar cube into the stemmed flute glass. Soak the cube with the bitters. Add cassis. Slowly add sparkling wine.

We simply have to give equal time to the Irish since we are already featuring French products.

Irish Champagne Cocktail

Lemon twist
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz. Irish whiskey
5 oz. champagne or sparkling wine

Rim a stemmed flute glass with the lemon twist. Drop the twist and the sugar cube into the glass. Add bitters, then whiskey. Slowly top with sparkling wine.

Continuing our fair treatment of northern European nations, here’s an English favorite that should work very well in New Orleans, the American home of the Pimm’s Cup.

Thames Champagne Cocktail

Lemon twist
1 sugar cube
½ oz Pimm’s No. 1
5 oz champagne

Rim a stemmed flute glass with the lemon twist. Drop the twist and the sugar cube into the glass. Add Pimm’s. Slowly top with sparkling wine.

Did you notice how easy all of these drinks are to make? Just a few ingredients and you are ready to enjoy. No fuss and not even any stirring involved. Okay, it’s not as easy as opening a bottle of bubbly and just drinking down the contents. But next to that, these are really simple and delicious. Nice change of pace. 

My thanks to a good friend, James Waller, who authored the book, drink-ol-o-gy: The Art and Science of the Cocktail, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 2003. The recipes I have used here are all from this volume. It’s a great resource for quality cocktail recipes.

Hope you have a safe and a happy New Year. Be very smart. Do not drink and drive. And don’t let any of your friends do it. See you next year.