How to Host a Cocktail Party

Essential Planning Tips for Cocktail Party Drinks, Food, and More

How to host the perfect cocktail party

The Spruce Eats / Bailey Mariner

In This Article

The cocktail party has been a popular social gathering since the early 1900s. They're great for entertaining friends or business associates, and a guest list of around 10 people creates an intimate affair that is manageable for the host. On a larger scale, cocktail parties are also excellent for open houses and receptions, both business and personal.

The average cocktail party lasts two to three hours, during which guests snack on a simple spread of food and imbibe on great cocktails while chatting with other guests. It's a fairly easy event to plan because there are so many options available.

Cocktail Party Planning

A cocktail party can be as simple or complex as you wish to make it. Ask yourself a few questions to begin planning your party:

  • How many people will you invite?
  • Is this a casual event for friends or a formal business networking event?
  • How much time and effort do you want to put into it?
  • How much money do you want to spend?
  • Will there be a full bar or a limited cocktail menu?
  • Will the party be inside or outdoors? Do you have a plan for inclement weather?
  • What type of food will you serve?

For small cocktail parties, you may be able to take care of everything on your own. That becomes more difficult and stressful as the guest list grows. You want to socialize and have fun too, so you might need some help.

Ask friends or family if they can assist with the food or bartend at the event. If that isn't possible, hire out the work. Many catering companies provide bartending services, some professional bartenders independently offer their services for parties, and an aspiring bartender may appreciate the experience. Discuss the bartender's rate in advance, and be sure to set up a tip jar.

Party Cocktails and Other Drinks

The drinks are the most important part of a cocktail party. Plan for two to three drinks per person, and have some wine, beer, and water on hand and ready to serve. Think about nonalcoholic drinks or mocktails for guests that don't drink, too.

Depending on how much effort you want to put into the cocktails, there are a few different approaches you can take:

  • Full Bar: This option allows guests to choose their favorite drinks. It works best if you already have a well-stocked bar or are willing to buy the essential spirits and can mix up various drinks (or have a good bartending guide). It's also a good approach for larger parties with a designated bartender.

  • Drink Menu: This encourages people to step out of their comfort zone and discover new drinks. It also saves money because you need fewer ingredients. Select two or three drinks: include at least one popular classic cocktail, then choose something intriguing that's slightly different.

    For bigger groups, make up a drink list with the ingredients. Set it on the bar for guests to peruse so you don't have to explain the options to everyone.

  • Pitcher Cocktails: Batching cocktails in advance is the most hands-free option because the drinks are ready to go, and guests can help themselves. For variety, choose a couple of drinks to mix up in pitchers ahead of time and keep them chilled (hold any carbonated mixers until it's time to serve). Set the pitchers on a table with glasses, garnishes, and an ice bucket, and you're free to mingle.

Cocktail Party Food

It's not intended to be dinner, so you don't need to plan a full course meal for a cocktail party. Simple foods, such as hors d'oeuvres and finger foods, allow guests to nibble throughout the event as they feel the need.

Some tried-and-true cocktail party foods such as crostini and crudités or cut veggies and crackers with a homemade dip like cauliflower hummus are perfect. Even something as simple as a platter of cheese, crackers, and cut fruit will be appreciated by guests. Try to add one showstopping bite that's simple to make. Fig crostini, for instance, is quick to prep and puts a unique twist on a party favorite.

8 Tips for a Great Party

Planning your first cocktail party can be overwhelming, but it gets easier and more enjoyable with each event. Keep in mind that striving for absolute perfection only leads to stress, and this is supposed to be a fun occasion. Have a checklist of the things you need to do and acquire, mark them off as you go, and everything will work out great!

  • Send invitations early, but not too early. Two to three weeks should be sufficient unless it's a busy time of year like November and December.
  • For big affairs, consider that about three-quarters of invited guests will attend. This can help you estimate the number of drinks and how many bottles you'll need.
  • Ensure you have the essential bar tools needed for your cocktail menu and stock up on quality ice.
  • Prep all of the garnishes, but not too far in advance so they stay fresh.
  • Have plenty of cocktail napkins, small plates, and glasses available. You may be able to borrow or rent glasses for the event. Don't stress too much about the "correct" glassware; martinis can be served in wine glasses or small tumblers, too.
  • Add a "WOW" factor. This could be a drink, garnish, food dish, or whatever fits your party.
  • Some sort of simple conversation-starting activity can keep everyone mingling. Not every party needs one, but it's good to have something in mind just in case.
  • Every good host is responsible for those drinking at their party. Be aware of guests who have had too much to drink, cut them off when necessary, and arrange for designated drivers.