The Ultimate Cocktail Hour

10 Steps to Create a Memorable Cocktail Hour

By: Kelsey Casselbury

The bride and groom are now husband and wife, and their guests are ready to celebrate —it’s time for the cocktail hour! Traditionally, sipping wine, nibbling appetizers, and enjoying jazzy tunes set the mood at the start of a wedding reception, but modern brides are finding ways to kick up the “wow” factor during the cocktail hour. No longer is it simply a way to keep guests busy during picture time – in just 10 steps, you can create a cocktail hour that will wow your guests right from the start.

Holly Ireland Photography

Step One: Find the Right Location.

There’s something magical about keeping the main reception area a secret until it’s time for the grand entrance. If you can swing it, find a venue that has a separate area for the cocktail hour, whether it’s an outdoor patio with a beautiful view or an elegant lobby. This cements the cocktail hour as its own event, as well as makes the entrance into the dinner reception more special.

Step Two: Keep a Schedule.

There’s a reason it’s called a cocktail hour. Any less, and guests will feel rushed (and so will you, if you’re taking photos during this time). Any longer, and guests will start to feel impatient. Some couples feel the need to extend this timeline to 90 minutes (or more!) but all that means for you is a higher bar tab and hungry (and perhaps slightly tipsy) guests when it comes time for dinner. Stick to one hour, and you won’t be sorry.



Step Three: Look at the Layout.

A cocktail area with a clumsy layout can have guests bottlenecking at the bar and jostling each other (and therefore spilling drinks). Create a space layout that makes sense by keeping the bar away from the entrance to avoid a line out the door, as well as setting up two bar areas, if possible. Hire two servers to pass flutes of Champagne and a signature cocktail so guests can quickly grab a drink and get on with their celebrating.

Step Four: Provide Seating.

It’s a time for guests to mix and mingle, but a few people will want to get off their feet, particularly your elderly guests. At an outdoor location, cluster rocking chairs in groups for people to relax. Inside, arrange a lounge-like area with swanky chairs and even a loveseat. Don’t forget to add a few tables, as some guests might want to set their drinks down.

Step Five: Get a Groove Going.

The music really sets the atmosphere, so choose how you want it to sound. While the reception typically offers tunes the guests can dance to, you’ll want something lighter and softer for the cocktail hour. (plus, there’s nothing worse than being a guest and hearing that song you love to dance to during the cocktail hour and knowing it won’t be play again all night.) You can use your DJ to play traditional jazz or seat a classic guitarist on a stool with a microphone. No matter what you choose, keep the music low so people can chat.

Step Six: Try Something Fun.

Guests just love when you give them something to do during cocktail hour. The photo booth has hit its peak in popularity, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. (plus, it can double as either a photo guest book or as a favor for the guests.) The big trend this year is outdoor cocktail hours with lawn games – a huge hit, particularly if you have kids at the wedding who won’t be entertained by mingling, nibbles, and cocktails.

Step Seven: Offer a Nosh (or three).

Here’s where we get serious because cocktail hour appetizers are no laughing matter! It’s vital to offer a sufficient amount of food, particularly for evening weddings when guests probably haven’t eaten since lunch. An open bar plus lack of food equals tipsy guests in no time flat. Plan for three to four varieties of hors d’oeuvres, serving approximately three to five pieces per person. Try to make it all fork-free – there’s nothing worse than trying to juggle a wine glass, plastic plate, and serving utensil with only two hands and no table nearby.

Step Eight: Staff it Appropriately.

You only have an hour to serve everyone efficiently, and you don’t want guests having to chase down that miniature crabcake or wonder what to do with their empty wine glass. Aim for one server per 25 guests.
Bob Hoffman Photography & Video

Step Nine: Don’t Forget the Cocktails.

After all, this is the cocktail hour. Expect each guest to down about two cocktails during this hour, most of which will be vodka. Signature cocktails are still popular but we want to take it one step farther: a specialty bar. While you should still have one regular bar with the standards behind it, hire an expert or mixologist for your tipple of choice (such as Cognac, tequila, or microbrews) and station him behind a signature bar offering both drinks and information about the beverage.
But don’t forget about the sober guests, as not everyone will be indulging. Instead of making them stick to standards such as soda and iced tea, create a specialty “mocktail” so they can have a little fun too. Additionally, try setting up a station of nonalcoholic beverages so they don’t have to stand in line at the bar to get a refreshment.

Step Ten: Attend It!

We really love the burgeoning trend of brides and grooms bypassing tradition and attending at least a portion of the cocktail hour. This works best if you do a “first look” before the ceremony and knock out the majority of photo ops before you say “I do.” You can dedicate the first 30 minutes of the cocktail hour to finishing up the pictures, but then take the opportunity to spend more time with your guests – you’re newly married, and it’s time to celebrate!


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