A cocktail party does not need more purpose than to get together for fun; but, it’s important to recognize your reason(s) for having this party as you move through the planning process. Conventional reasons people throw parties include:
To be more popular
Just for fun
To celebrate a holiday
To meet new people
To commemorate or watch an event
To payback those that have invited you to their parties
Something to do for entertainment
To honor a friend, relative, coworker, or colleague
Since you want to have a party, it is a great opportunity to honor a friend or relative with little additional cost or effort. You can be the gracious and giving host, and your invitees will surely notice…especially your guest of honor.
Party ideas featuring a guest of honor:
Throwing a party for yourself is not recommended...it just makes you look vain and unpopular. If you want to celebrate on your birthday, choose another theme. For example, if your birthday is July 14th, have a Bastille Day party and let them eat cake...what a coincidence!
Don’t confuse purpose with a theme, although your purpose may inspire a theme, such as Mardi gras, Christmas or the Kentucky Derby.
Virtually any theme party can also be a fete for someone special with additional surprises and festivities for the birthday boy, anniversary couple, graduate, divorcee, bachelorette, or honoree.
A cocktail party is a perfect excuse for people to dress-up. And, ladies wearing cocktail dresses and men dressed somewhere between casual and spiff, will add style to your event. If your cocktail party is on a weekday, many will be coming directly from work and appropriately dressed.
The style and tone of the invitation will go a long way in defining how everyone will dress for your party. But to make it a little easier, offer some guidance. For a more elegant affair indicate on the invitation “Cocktail Attire”, alternatively use “Casual Attire” for a more relaxed atmosphere.
Otherwise, if you would like your guests to dress in accordance with a theme, you should signify this on the invitation, for example “Beach Attire Invited”, “Costumes Welcome”, or “Dress Western”.
If you have been invited to a cocktail party and are unsure how to dress, it is safest to choose an outfit on the dressier end of the scale.
Establish the general parameters of your budget starting out to manage costs, but also prioritize expenses to minimize the impact on your event. With experience you will get a feel for what each type of party will
cost for a given number of guests.
Establish Budget Parameters
Alcohol, food and decorations will consume most of your budget, assuming you already have basic supplies, such as, bar tending tools, glasses, ice bucket, and serving trays for hors d'oeuvres. The best method starting out is to choose one of 3 directions for your budget:
Spare no expense
In all cases, there is no reason to be wasteful and spend unnecessarily. Costs can be controlled by the food and drinks you serve without sacrificing elegance and your guests will be none the wiser.
Manage Costs Food
Because cocktail party food is more about thepresentation and elegance of intricately assembled hors d'oeuvres than volume, your budget is easily managed. Cocktail parties are not dinner parties and your bite-sized delicacies should be circulated among guests on serving trays.
For example, curried tuna on cucumber or cream cheese & olive
canapés can be just as elegant as melon wrapped in prosciutto or shrimp,
and significantly less expensive.
In addition to the entertainment value, the coordinated style, as each detailed hors d'oeuvre tray is passed, adds a sophisticated touch that will make another shining impression on your guests.
For a 2 hour cocktail party, plan to serve at least 3 different types of hors d'oeuvres. Each guest will have one or two bites of each kind served.
You should plan to serve at least one meat or fish hors d'oeuvre, more if your budget allows. Choose your proteins based upon the direction of your budget:
While tasty and interesting bites will add to the success of your event, alcohol or lack thereof can ruin a party. Naturally, cocktails will account for your largest outlay for the party; however you can easily control your expenditure by what you serve.
Wine at a dinner party or martinis at a cocktail party can escalate costs quickly. Even offering your guests a full open bar can be pricey to adequately stock.
An excellent and effective way to keep your budget in check is to create a special or signature cocktail for the evening. Not only does this insert an interesting twist or “surprise”, your signature drinks will soon become famous as one of your party highlights.
A signature drink is appropriate for any type of party and budget level and a great way to limit costs. In addition, you can pre-mix your drinks for optimum taste, quick refills, and easy bartending.
Although alcohol consumption varies widely depending upon the crowd, time, day, and even the location, plan on serving at least 3 drinks per person for a 2 hour cocktail party.
A general rule is to assume 2 drinks per person for the first hour, and 1 drink per person per hour for the remainder of the party.
The following table indicates the number of cocktails per bottle. While a standard pour is 1.5 oz, a 2 to 2.5 oz pour is more realistic for a private party.
1.0 oz pour
1.5 oz pour
2.0 oz pour
2.5 oz pour
It is perfectly acceptable to use mid-grade liquors for mixed drinks. Few people can honestly tell the difference when using Svedka® Vodka, Jim Beam® Bourbon, Seagram’s® Blended Whisky, Cruzan® Rum, Gilbey’s® Gin, or Sauza® Tequila instead of premium brand liquors, when mixed with juices or sodas.
However, you should always use premium brands for cocktails served without juices or soda such as martinis, Manhattans, scotch on the rocks, bourbon & water, etc.
What your guests see you pouring is a different story and many claim they can tell the difference. With a “specialty” pre-mixed cocktail, taste is all that is important, and they never see the brand of liquor you use.
Obviously, never serve something you would not drink yourself. Choose your liquors and drink offerings based upon what is important to you and your budget direction.
In addition to your signature drink, you should offer some alternatives at the bar, again depending upon your budget:
Vodka & Bourbon [Minimal]
Well-stocked bar, several liquor choices [Moderate]
Martinis and Manhattans, premium liquors [Expensive]
Food and alcohol can be unique and extraordinary, but what will make your party memorable, are the surprises you can create with subtle decorations that tickle the minds of your guests. For this reason, prioritize your expenses in the following order:
Decorations – add festivity and make an event unforgettable
Alcohol – pre-mixed cocktails are memorable and allow you to control costs
Food – cream cheese and olive canapés can be just as elegant as shrimp
This is not the order of total costs, but the order of their relevance toward making your cocktail parties legendary. Remembering these priorities will ensure that decorations do not suffer when budget constraints force alcohol and/or food compromises.
In other words, a full bar at a Luau without tikis and leis is nothing special.
Additional Budget Considerations
If you don’t already own essential cocktail party supplies, you will need to budget for these items, as well. Fortunately, once purchased, these supplies will serve you for many more fabulous parties to come. Minimum requirements:
Old-fashioned bar glasses, 2 per person
Martini glasses, 4-8 or 1 per person for a Martini party
Highball glasses are optional
Ice bucket with tongs
2 “silver” serving trays
Basic barware: shaker, strainer, long spoon, corkscrew
Note: If you cannot afford to buy glasses for your party, be sure to budget the cost to rent them.
Cocktail parties are meant to be intimate and should be confined, if possible, to one room. For the party to take life there should be a minimum of 12 people, anything less is just a gathering and may be awkward if the guests don’t know each other.
At 12 or more guests there is enough activity and conversation that individuals feel comfortable and safe. If you have a room large enough, you may invite up to 30 people. Beyond 30, it becomes difficult to adequately connect with all of your guests, and you should consider a longer full-scale party.
A room filled at or beyond capacity is the perfect setting to encourage mingling and conversation. Consider arranging the space to accommodate a smaller group at first with the ability to expand the area as more guests arrive. For example, start out with the bar or furniture further into the room and pull back if needed.
Sitting is counterproductive to mingling; therefore, it is critical that you arrange the room and furniture to discourage anyone from even thinking about sitting down.
Cocktail parties deliver the biggest bang for your investment of time, but you still want to plan for that last minute crunch. In choosing a date and time, consider how much preparation time you will have the day before and day of your cocktail party.
Much of the preparation for the party can be done in the time leading up to the day before your party, including:
Shopping for non-perishables
Compiling your music playlist
Light cleaning of the house
Thorough cleaning of the bathrooms
Setting up the bar
The day before the party you will need to:
Shop for perishables
Prep all food as much as possible
Mix your “signature” drink
Arrange flowers, if applicable
The day of the party, you will need to allow time to:
Weekdays, especially Fridays, are fine for cocktail parties and most of your invitees will be able to attend, but consider how much time you will have for the last-minute preparation. If you work, it may be less stressful to take the day or afternoon off.
If you have the whole day to prepare, some of the day before tasks above can be done on the day of the party. With practice, you will soon get a feel for how much time you need to host any kind of party; this is great experience for being able to throw an impromptu gathering for any number of guests.
Cocktail parties are traditionally held for two hours during the early evening before dinner. From 6 until 8 is the ideal time, giving your guests time to arrive and ending at the dinner hour.
If you start the party any later, your guests may expect dinner. Alternatively, you may call your party from 5:30 PM until 7:30 PM, if necessary.
In choosing the date for your cocktail party, consider:
Lead time to send invitations
Day of the week
Guest of honor (if any)
For the best turnout, invitations should be sent 2 weeks in advance for a cocktail party. When sent too early, your invitees are less likely to commit so far in advance and may forget the date. On the other hand, not providing enough notice increases the likelihood of conflicts.
If you don’t have contact information, allow at least 1 week before the 2-week mark to gather most addresses and put together your invitation. Of course, you can continue to send out any remaining or last-minute invites up to the day before the party (with email).
Choose a day of the week for the party considering the preparation time you have available the day of the party. Weekdays work well, the later in the week the better, because your guests typically bring a nervous energy from the work day on which cocktail parties thrive.
Saturdays are great because you have the whole day to prepare, however, at this point, people are much more relaxed and guests tend to arrive later and don’t want to leave.
Grab a calendar and start looking 3 weeks out. Pick a primary and alternate date and check for any major holiday conflicts.
Depending upon the friends you want to invite, you may also want to check for other possible conflicts, such as major sporting events, school vacations, gay events, out-of-town work conferences, or other parties.
If you have a guest of honor, make sure the primary and alternate dates work for them. Finally, you will want to make sure some of your key invitees are available on that day, such as close friends and/or strategic guests that add life to a party.