Planning a perfect cocktail party doesn’t have to be complicated.
The essential components to a great cocktail party are: good people, good drinks, and good eats. As long as you have those fundamentals, you’re golden. There are just a few other small details you need to iron out to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Read the full checklist below, and save this infographic as a visual guide for planning your next cocktail party.
1. Who’s invited?
Intimate affair, medium-sized crowd, or epic mob?
While it may be temtping to throw a cocktail party and invite everyone in the “contacts” section of your phone, that’s not always best for your guests. Beyond the obvious consideration of how many people your space can fit, think about the compostion of guests and how they might interact. There’s no right answer here. Sometimes the best parties are ones where you mash together 3 or 4 completely different social circles. But depending on the people, you may find yourself needing to play matchmaker or referee to make sure things run smoothly.
Creative theme or keep it simple?
Themes can make a cocktail party interesting, but don’t get carried away. Remember, whether your guests are wearing togas, tuxes or overalls, what are the key ingredients to success? Yes, that’s right: Good people, good drinks, and good food. (Great! You were paying attention earlier). If you think having a theme beyond “let’s get together and drink good booze” is necessary to get your friends excited, have at it. Just don’t skimp on the fundamentals.
3. Dress code
Theme-based, fancypants or slumming it?
Even if you don’t opt for a theme, you need a dress code. Inevitablly somone will ask about it. Some people’s worst fear is showing up to an event where their outfit makes them stick out like a sore thumb (other people like my friend Jeremy do it on purpose!). Unless your friends are all stockbrokers and accountants who wear suits every day, I’m in favor of raising the bar and asking guests to suit- and dress-up. It helps get everyone in the mindset of “classy cocktail party.” You might be worried it’s a hardship for people who never dress up. But pretty much everyone has that one funeral/interview suit they can grab from the back of their closet. And trust me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how well people clean up.
Your place or another space?
If your pad can accommodate, why not do it at your place? Another option is to “co-host” with someone who has a bigger place. You’re not being a mooch if you help share the planning and logistics—there’s no shame in it, and it can work out very well. Or, worst case you can rent a space, like a private room at a restaurant or a banquet hall. Note that for those options, you’ll likely need to coordinate your food and booze planning through them, and the overall cost goes up pretty quickly.
5. Drink strategy
Free-for all, recipes, pre-mixed signature cocktails, punch…Or all of the above?
Ok, listen up. This part is really important. You can’t just have drinks, you need a drink strategy. This is a cocktail party, after all—the cocktails can’t be an afterthought.
Stock well—and don’t forget the ice!
Minimally, start by stocking the heck out of your bar with all types of booze, mixers and garnishes—and have everyone make their own drinks. Check out this article on how to stock a basic home bar if you don’t already have one set up. If you can afford to hire a bartender, good for you Daddy Warbucks. If not, resist the urge to play bartender all night (or you won’t get to mingle). In Everyday Drinking (affiliate link), famous spirits writer Kingsley Amish recommends offering to make guests’ first drink, but after that they’re on their own.
Build on a well stocked bar in a few different ways
- Have some cocktail recipe cards handy with suggestions so guests aren’t overwhelmed.
- Do one or two pre-prepared “signature” cocktails in pitchers to make things easy (don’t add ice until poured). One year my wife and I made a batch of whiskey sours and pomegranate martinis (our his and hers cocktails). Guests just added ice and poured, plus a splash of soda for the whiskey sours…
- Or, one of my favorite options: do a big cooler of punch. Party punches can be a great option to keep things flowing smoothly. And most have basic recipes you can tweak and build on to suit your tastes. I made a great rum punch for our holiday party from from this simple recipe in DIY Cocktails: 3 parts rum, 2 parts simple syrup, 1 part fresh lime juice, 4 parts water (I just added some Angostura bitters and a hint of fresh nutmeg for Christmas flair). It’s essentially a classic daiquiri with some water added.
Oh, and on the day of the party, buy more ice than you think you need!
DIY, purchased, or catered?
Whether you pay for some fancy morsels to be brought in or source them on your own, make sure you have plenty of food. It’s a shame when you see a good cocktail party wind down before it needs to just because guests’ tummies are rumbling (or their words are slurring). As far as selection, finger foods are best—avoid bowls and utensils if you can. Most food is going to be consumed with one hand while standing up. That lasagna you made is fabulous, but do your guests need 3 hands to eat it while grasping their drink? A mix of hearty baked appetizers (like phyllo bites) and “raw” snacks like nuts; chips and dips; and cheese and charcuterie, are usually best.
Classy glassware or Solo cups?
If you’re having your party catered, you may want to opt for real glassware. You’re paying a premium for those taragon scallop appetizers and rissotto balls. Why not throw down a bit more for real martini glasses? If you’re going the DIY route and you have enough glassware, that’s great. Otherwise, guests will understand if your need to use plasticwear for ease of cleanup. Or do what I often do: have plastic cups, but make a few fancy glassees like cocktail/martini glasses available for those who are making a fancier drink. Even if you’re doing everything yourself, you can always rent some extra glassware from a catering supply company for not much extra money. Best part about the rental? You return the dirty glasses and no cleanup for you.
Consider a shared activity to add structure to the evening
While it should never be mandatory for your guests, consider creating something interactive for the party-goers. Like a chalkboard that everyone can wrie on. Or having a drawing or a pinanta. Or a trivia game focused on little known facts about the guests. It’s not necessary, but like a theme, it can sometimes help unify the guests and encourage various social circles mix that wouldn’t otherwise. It can also be a way to create a lasting memento of the event.
Spread the word and let guests know what to expect
You’re planning an amazing cocktail party, make sure to let the guests know! An Evite or a Facebook invite are probably ideal in this day and age. If you are feeling lazy, you can opt for an email. But usually this just makes it harder for you and guests to keep track of communication around the event. If you want to be fancy and the guest list is small enough, opt for written or printed invitations from a site like Zazzle.com.
In the invite, let your guests know what to expect:
- Dress code
- What they should bring (A bottle of anything? An appetizer or dessert?)
- Be clear about whether you’re serving a full meal or just apps so guests can plan accordingly
- Is there a structured schedule or any special events?
- Start and end time, address, phone number, directions, nearby mass transit, parking situation
Consider inviting your neighbors. If they’re cool and you want them there, great. If not, at the very least you’ve given them a headsup.
10. Tidy Up
Try to see your place through guests’ eyes
Clean your house. Hopefully you thought of this already. It’s always good to try and look at your house through your guests’ eyes. While you may be ok with that bag of cat litter that’s been sitting in the kitchen for the last 2 months, your guests may not enjoy looking at it while mixing their manhattan. Also, try to eliminate other clutter that you may be blind to on a daily basis: some of the big offenders are stacks of mail, paperwork or magazines that may be laying around.
11. Logistical Flow
Position food, drinks and seating for maximum flow
My father has always remarked that, without fail, party-goers will congregate in the smallest possible space. Be ready for this: look for the “pinch points” in your house. Have multiple stations for snacks so everyone’s not hunching over one table. Try to spread out the drink station(s) if possible. That way the lady who’s topping off her gin and tonic isn’t waiting for the guy cutting a lemon twist for his martini. Try to have two places where you can get ice and cups. If you’re doing beer and wine, it’s fairly easy to have those in a different place than the cocktails. Also try to break up seating areas and integrate them with the larger space so that guests are encouraged to mingle.
Build a playlist to set the mood.
Will you go more loungy and classic, or put together a playlist with a more contemporary mix? It’s a good idea to do a full playlist ahead of time so you don’t have any “dead air” when you’re trying to put on that new favorite record of yours. Inevitably, if your guests are close friends, someone might break out their iPod/iPhone and take over the music at some point anyway. But at least you’ve gotten the party going for a few hours. As far as volume, I personally like to be able to, I don’t know, HEAR people when I’m talking to them over a cocktail. So, I prefer to keep the music at a reasonable level. But if you want a more high-energy vibe or dancing, you can always create some separate loud and quiet spaces in your house if it’s big enough.
Make sure your guests get home safely
If you’ve thrown a good cocktail party, your guests are going to be pretty well liquored up by the end. Make sure they get home safe. While you can’t personally drive everyone home, you can do a few things to help increase their chances of getting home safely:
- Print out schedules for nearby mass transit like buses or subways
- Post the names and numbers of a few local cab companies
- Arrange for sober drivers who might be willing to play DD or carpool
- An hour or so before the party ends, start pushing water on guests
- Make some coffee and offer to hang out with guests as long as it takes if they need to sober up
- Offer up extra beds, couch(es) and floor for those who may need to sleep it off
What other tips have you found helpful for planning a great cocktail party? Please share in the comments below!
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