The French have ‘apéritif’, Italy owns ‘aperitivo’ and what do we bring to the civilised space between late afternoon and evening? Happy Hour? Time to revive the louche decadence of a cocktail party we say. It’s the perfect size and shape for people who don’t really ‘do’ parties, doesn’t take a whole lot of planning, works a budget like a bootlegger at a speakeasy and can’t help but whisper good old-fashioned glamour. So if it’s time to release your inner fabulous, here’s what you need to know.
Who to Invite and How
A cocktail party should feel intimate, but if numbers are important to you, over-invite a little, about 40% of guests usually can’t make it. Having some type of theme, no matter how loose, for everything from invitations to drinks to music makes it fun. Keep it low-key – a colour co-ordinated or relaxed-retro party is more manageable than full-on fancy dress. It’s a cute idea to post quirky invitations, but email’s easier. Design invites round your theme and if there’s a dress-code, make it clear. And consider doing something memorable like including the recipe for your signature cocktail, but with the ‘secret’ ingredient missing.
Set the Scene
Cocktails on the terrace are a classic tradition in spring and summer. If your kitchen or living room opens on to the garden with exterior bi-fold doors similar to these, set up the bar on the patio. Lace trees with pretty lights, go overboard on candles in glass jars and lanterns and create sociable spots to sit and well-lit places to stroll around. In colder weather, be a bit more festive indoors with soft lighting, clusters of tall candles and, if you have an open fire, get the logs in and light it. Position your bar and food table strategically so people have to circulate. And watch out for awkward guest-groups, host skills really come into play here.
Don’t Forget Music
Obviously, in the best of all worlds, your guests would be wearing vintage Dior and making effortless conversation. But since it’s not 1946 and you probably aren’t a direct descendant of the Mitford Sisters, think serious playlist instead. Create it to work with your theme and if you’re going classic cocktail retro, think more Dinah Washington than Northern Soul. People naturally gravitate towards music and drink, so plan both carefully, always have something playing and don’t forget it’s your job to make sure everyone has a glass in their hand.
What to Drink
Don’t do a full bar unless you have a resident mixologist and deep pockets. It’s easier, less expensive and more fun to have pitcher cocktails and stick with a few signatures like Mojito’s, Singapore Slings, Margaritas or Palomas (Margarita’s sharper, feistier little sister). Decorate a large table to go with your theme and use it as a bar. If you can persuade someone who knows what they’re doing to pour drinks all the better – at least to start with. One must, must, must is plenty of ice. You need excessive amounts for cocktails, heaps to fill buckets for chilled wine and beer and extra, because it’s ice and it melts. Three other essentials are pretty glasses or cups, cocktail napkins and swizzle sticks. Strict cocktail party rules say ‘no straws’, but rules are made to be broken and straws are fine if you don’t want to stretch to swizzle sticks.#
What To Eat
Back in the day, when waist-length ropes of pearls wouldn’t get you a second glass, ‘cocktail hour’ was neatly slotted in before dinner. So as far cocktail party is food concerned, hors d’oeuvres not hearty is the way to go. Think made in advance, bite-size, eaten with fingers and nothing too difficult. Bowls of olives and nuts are a plan when guests arrive and for the first few drinks. Then you’ve got two choices. You can either have food on trays and employ a few willing teens to act as wait staff for the night. Or you can keep it simple, set a pretty table and let guests help themselves. If you go with the service option, make sure your ‘staff’ know what’s on their trays and are handsomely paid to be gracious and charming for at least a few hours.
The final cocktail party rule is just enjoy yourself, but not too soon. Make sure everyone else is relaxed and having a good time first. Then check the food is organised and guests are mingling beautifully, loving your playlist and drinking cocktails like it’s cocktail hour. Then grab a glass and go bask in the glory.