How to Throw a Stress-Free and Stylish Cocktail Party
Maximize success, minimize stress with our time-tested tips.
by Erin Henderson
Not only do we throw a bunch of parties for our nearest and dearest all year long, our jobs are to do the same for clients. As people who literally drink and throw parties for a living, we have learned to host like a boss.
Needless to say, we've picked up a thing or two along the way, so here's our top tips for busy party mavens.
This is a busy time of year, so give guests at least a month’s notice. That means do it now, kids.
Expect that about 25% of invitees won't be able to make it, so don't be afraid to invite a few more than you might think is a good number.
Also, be open to the idea that friends may really want to make it but already have one or two other engagements, so they may ask if they can drop in for a bit of holiday cheer, but then hit the road again.
TWS Tip: If your party has specific end time in mind, make sure you state that in your invitation.
Plan the menu
We've said it before, and we're saying it again: this is not the time to experiment with a new recipe. If you're itching to try something new, make a plan to test it out once or twice before party time.
If you plan on assuming the role of Head Chef for this event, we recommend serving dishes that are meant to be cold or room temperature so you’re not locked in the kitchen for the whole party. Easy items like shrimp cocktail, roast nuts, steak tartar and flatbreads are all popular, easy-to-throw together (or purchased pre-made) and don’t need to be served hot.
Set up food stations for cheese boards and crudités platters. This will allow guests to graze at their own pace and ensure they're not hungrily waiting by the kitchen door for the next round of appetizers to be passed.
TWS Tip: For parties taking place before or after meal times, prepare about five different items, and estimate two per person of each. For parties happening over a meal period, increase the selection to 10-12 hors d’oeuvres, with up to three pieces per person.
Consider a Caterer
We know you are a Martha Stewart doppelgänger can cook the pants off any chef. But this party may not be the time to prove it as, again, you want to be out and mingling with your friends – not in culinary lockdown in the kitchen sweating it out over sausage rolls.
Unless you've opted for a buffet-style soiree, than having a professional cook on hand may be the most stress-free option for your stylish cocktail party.
TWS Tip: When considering a caterer, be clear with your vision and budget. Good caterers will help you get something fabulous, for a fair price. Also, ask what the caterer will bring and what you need to supply.
In all our years of hosting cocktail parties, without a doubt, the Number 1 mistake our clients make when planning parties is skimping on service professionals.
If you are having less than 10 guests at your fête, then you can get away with DIY. However, if this is a large, or more formal, holiday affair, we strongly recommend hiring a bartender and a few servers. Professional hospitality staff will do everything from taking guests' coats to keeping the room tidy, plus clean up afterwards. That means all you have to concentrate on is being your flawlessly fabulous (stress-free and stylish!) self.
TWS Tip: For cocktail parties with passed hors d'oeuvres, hire one server per 20 guests. If this cocktail party is buffet style, one server per 30 is sufficient.
Renting is so much more cost- and time-efficient than digging out the crystal stemware you never use, or taking a run to IKEA to stock up on cheap glasses only to store them in the basement for the rest of the year.
Best part of renting? No dishes. The rental company takes dirty glasses and flatware back for cleaning.
TWS Tip: Estimate one glass per person per hour, and depending on how food is being served, 1-3 plates per person total. And don't forget serving trays, utensils, and extra coat racks and hangers if you don't have enough closet space.
This is a cocktail party, not a bar, so keep your selection plentiful, but streamlined. Offer one red and one white wine, a sparkling wine, a lighter and darker beer, and one or two spirits, like gin and whiskey with a few mixes. If you’re expecting a lot of abstainers, a virgin cocktail that has a bit of thought put into it is always a nice touch.
TWS Tip: Guests typically have two drinks in the first hour and one per hour after that. So for a party that runs from 8pm until midnight, a guest will enjoy about five cocktails.
Stock the bar
If you've decided against a bartender, and will have guests serving themselves, set up a six-foot table for maneuverability, with the following:
- A large bucket with an ice bath for white wine & beer (or one for each)
- A large container of ice with tongs
- Cut lemons and limes, olives, cherries and citrus twists for garnish (optional: whole citrus with a zester or vegetable peeler so guests can help themselves)
- Cocktail shaker (a few, if you have them)
- A couple of wine openers (one always goes missing)
- A couple of bottle openers
- Extra paper napkins for drips and spills
- A receptacle for corks, tin foil, used cocktail napkins etc.
- Jiggers or shot glasses for measuring
- A few bar spoons (chopsticks work too!)
- Still and sparkling bottled water
- Juices, pop, and booze needed for the evening
TWS Tip: Estimate six pours from a bottle of sparkling wine, four from a bottle of wine, and about 22 one-ounce pours from a 750ml bottle of spirits.
- Make sure to check in on the bar to clear away debris, wash shakers, and restock items as necessary.
- Once an hour check the washrooms for cleanliness.
- For an outside smoking area, provide large buckets filled with sand to keep guests from just dropping their butts on the ground.
- Be gracious and have fun! It's a party!