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Best Cocktail Hour Ideas and Planning Tips 2023

Here are the Best Cocktail Hour Ideas and Planning Tips 2023 to set your elegant event apart. Details are key to hosting an enjoyable evening of canapes and conversation unlike any other. We’ve created this guide to help incipient hosts such as yourself execute the classiest cocktail night in recent memory. If you follow our tips and recommendations, your guests will be toasting you at the next party!

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Master the Menu

Some hosts erroneously assume hosting a cocktail party is effortless compared to hosting a sit-down dinner. After all, there’s no meal to prepare, and you might not even have to hire tables or linens! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your cocktail party’s miniature menu is any less important. If anything, at an affair with less food, every bite you offer your guests matters more. Here’s how to ensure you get every bite right.

Pint-Sized Fine Dining

One of the best ways to ensure your menu is up to snuff is to include smaller versions of popular dining options. They should be finger foods that are easy to eat in a bite or two. Ideally, they won’t require utensils and can fit on a small plate or cocktail napkin. Aim to choose foods that match the season. This will ensure your produce is as fresh and flavorful as possible, which is essential when your guests only take a single bite. For larger gatherings with waiters, you might offer finger foods as “passed apps,” which guests can take from roving trays. In contrast, consider setting up a small buffet at smaller parties where guests can help themselves to the perfect small bites. Include clear, classy signage explaining everything, including any possible allergens.

Popular finger food options include:

  • Miniature tacos
  • Crackers and caviar
  • Fig bites
  • Cold prawns
  • Bacon and dates
  • Wonton cups
  • Kebabs
  • Wagu sliders
  • Salad bites
  • Finger sandwiches
  • Grilled meat skewers
  • Crostini bites
  • Individual dips
  • Vegetable tarts

When you aren’t serving a meal, it’s even more important to ensure no one goes hungry. Hungry guests tend to leave early, which is the last thing you want. Always be sure to include vegetarian options for guests with dietary restrictions.

Embrace Charcuterie

Everyone loves the latest charcuterie trend, which is perfect for a cocktail party. A charcuterie board is a selection of gourmet cheese, aged meats, flavorful crackers, scrumptious spreads, colourful fruit and veggies, and crunchy nuts. You arrange each element aesthetically on a board or platter so guests can feast with their eyes and stomachs. The best part of including a cheese spread is that you can incorporate drink pairings into your presentation. To accomplish this, consider setting up satellite stations around your venue. Set out pitcher-friendly cocktails, glasses, and a charcuterie board with the meats and cheeses that pair best with that drink. Guests can enjoy curated drinks and nibbles as they meander from station to station throughout the evening. Include a unique, bespoke combination at every station, and consider a theme—for example, a Mediterranean charcuterie with olive toasts, tapenades, feta cheese, and an Ouzu cocktail. If you’d prefer to keep your charcuterie in one place, consider a grazing table—a larger-than-life alternative to a small charcuterie board, where guests can graze the night away. Instead of delicate crackers, slice up an entire fresh loaf of bread. You can offer full-sized dips and a few more substantial offerings, too.

Craft a Creative Cocktail Menu

We’d be remiss if we didn’t bring up cocktails in our cocktail party guide! Your guests will likely arrive with preconceived expectations, and it’s your job to subvert them in clever and creative ways.

Display Your Menu

One of the great and terrible aspects of consuming alcohol is that you can only drink so much before it becomes dangerous. Thus, your attendees will likely need to prioritise what they drink. If guests come in and immediately get punchdrunk on the sangria, they might not be able to partake in your signature cocktail, dessert beverages, or other unique alcoholic offerings. To remedy this, displaying the evening’s cocktail menu upfront can be helpful. Every attendee will have a unique tolerance and know how much they can safely consume. Access to a full menu is classy and organised, and makes it simple to plan ahead.

Offer Some Mocktails

With the above in mind, a cocktail party can be awkward if you’re the only one without a drink in hand. There are plenty of reasons why a guest might not be able to imbibe, from recovery to pregnancy. Others may be designated drivers or need to stop drinking early to drive home at the end of the evening.

Instead of leaving those guests out, offer them their own exciting mocktail options. As a bonus, intoxicated guests can continue drinking safely without giving up on fun for the evening.

That doesn’t mean adding seltzer to the menu and calling it done. Your mocktails should be just as flavorful as the alcoholic cocktails, with fresh, seasonal ingredients and lovely garnishes. It should be possible for a mocktail-drinking guest to blend into the crowd without anyone clocking that they aren’t drinking liquor.


Create a Signature Drink

One of the best parts of planning a cocktail party is deciding on your signature drink (or drinks). Often, these are bespoke cocktails with top-shelf ingredients that may or may not fit into your event theme. Guests can order these original, creative cocktails by name, adding a pleasant touch of whimsy to your elegant party.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to develop a signature drink. Start with a mixed drink you know you like and switch out a few elements to create a new blend of flavours. Incorporate craft ingredients that guests are unlikely to find anywhere else, helping them expand their horizons and experience something wholly unique.

The basic formula for a great cocktail is spirit + sweet + sour + garnish. Look into infused spirits or syrups, aromatic garnishes, or colourful sour elements. The more photogenic the drink, the better!

Don’t Forget Dessert

It can be fun to add a few sweet dessert cocktails to your menu so guests can end the night with a tasty treat. Incorporate hard milkshakes, bubbly dessert wines, coffee liqueur cocktails, hot toddies, or fruity frozen drinks. You can also pair your dessert drinks with a sweet version of a charcuterie board featuring plump, sweet fruits, dark chocolate, and biscuits.

Embrace Ambiance

At a great cocktail party, the sound of conversation, laughter, and clinking glasses will fill the air. If that’s the only sound, things can quickly begin to feel awkward and stilted. What will your guests see and hear as they arrive, and how will you establish the perfect tone and ambience for a classy evening of drinks and chit-chat?

Hire a Live Musician

There’s nothing worse than being the first guest to arrive at a cocktail party. Walking into a silent room is awkward and uncomfortable. The best way to set up a celebratory atmosphere is to get the party started before anyone walks through the door.

A live musician or small ensemble can instantly add vitality to any event space, whether you’re hosting your party at a venue or your home parlour. Guests will feel more comfortable starting a conversation when they aren’t competing against silence. Plus, attendees who may not know anyone else on the guest list can enjoy a stunning, professional performance without feeling like a fish out of water.

Some of our favourite musical acts for cocktail parties include:

Unless your cocktail party is a large affair, we recommend a small ensemble, such as a duo or trio. Any larger and you run the risk of overpowering the conversation. Guests should feel free to mingle and converse, even during the performance. With that said, it can be fun to break up the evening with a more formal performance, especially if the energy is beginning to wane. You can invite guests to take a seat and enjoy a few higher-octane numbers. You can even incorporate dancing as the evening goes on!


Gather Guests for Games

Another way to break up the evening is to offer games during your cocktail party. Parlour games have been a staple of similar gatherings for centuries. When guests have a little alcohol in them, these activities become sillier and more memorable, yielding incredible photo opportunities. You can encourage a playful atmosphere by including a few easy, low-effort icebreakers for guests to try independently. Scatter a few conversation cards on the bar, or post a few guessing games on the walls.

Once everyone is feeling loose and congenial, consider one of the following group games:

  • Charades
  • Team Trivia
  • Werewolf
  • Spoons
  • Never Have I Ever

At an outdoor cocktail party, consider offering a few lawn games that guests can play at their leisure. For a sizeable indoor group, you might scatter a few decks of cards, popular board games, or even Madlibs for small groups to enjoy during lulls.

The Little Details

What sets your cocktail party apart from the event your guests attended a week ago? When you want to stand out, the little details matter. Here are a few ways to elevate your event even further.


Gorgeous Glassware

Beautiful and unique glassware is one way to add added class and elegance to a cocktail night. At a minimum, ensure you serve your signature cocktail in a special glass that helps it stand out as something unique. Fun details can also help individual drinks stand out. Don’t underestimate the appeal of a drink charm, miniature umbrella, tiny glowstick, or colourful rim.

Drink Markers

Since guests occasionally set their drinks down, you might want to start the evening by allowing everyone to choose a wine charm or glass marker. You can even have guests create their own as a crafty, open-ended activity. They can bring them home at the end of the night as an unexpected bespoke party favour.

Intuitive Layout

When your guests enter the event space, will they know what to do? While it’s the host’s job to greet everyone at the door, you should plan to spend more time catching up and less time explaining how to navigate the space. Create an intuitive layout by rearranging furniture, curating spaces to mingle, and providing plenty of signage. If there’s no coat check, designate an area for guests to keep coats, bags, and other personal belongings.

The Perfect Contemporary Cocktail Party Planning Guide

Hosting a memorable cocktail party is about more than putting some fancy cheese on a plate. A great host is thoughtful, innovative, and cognizant of every last luxurious detail. If you follow the tips above, you’ll be on track to throw the best party possible. Imagine the difference a small ensemble of live musicians will make to the ambience of your cocktail soiree. Bands For Hire can match you with a cocktail pianist, jazz singer, jazz trio, or other act for your cocktail hour. Enquire today to book a professional musician for your one-of-a-kind cocktail night.

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