How to Throw a Cocktail Party Like You’ve Been Doing It for Years

Dim the lights, start the music, and most importantly: Don’t forget to hydrate.
A platter of crudits with a season salt for dipping alongside martini coupes and party prep.
Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Prop Styling by Beatrice Chastka, Food Styling by Olivia Mack Anderson

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When you want to host a get-together for more people than can fit around your table, forget about a dinner party—hosting a cocktail party is the way to go. Traditionally, a cocktail party would take place an hour or two before dinner (a.k.a. the cocktail hour), but you needn’t be so steadfast. An after-dinner cocktail party can be just as fun, sharing light snacks and drinks late into the night. Or maybe you want your cocktail party to start early in the afternoon? No matter the season or time of day, a cocktail party is the ideal social gathering when you have more guests than you do chairs. It’s a chance for friends and loved ones from different sectors of your life to meet and mingle, without the pressure of feeding them all a big meal.

In my book For the Table, I write about how to host a memorable dinner party, both from the host’s perspective as well as the guests’. But I’ve hosted my fair share of cocktail parties, too, and I’ve got some advice to make your cocktail parties a lot easier—and a lot more fun for you as the host.

cover image of Anna Stockwell's FOR THE TABLE book, showing as salad on yellow table.

For the Table, by Anna Stockwell

Easy, Adaptable, Crowd-Pleasing Recipes

Cocktail parties can be very fancy and very large or as cozy and intimate as you please. For the purposes of this story, I’ll be outlining how to host a cocktail party in your own home, by yourself (or with a helpful partner), with a crowd you can easily accommodate in your space. (For parties of more than 20 guests, consider hiring a caterer or event planner to assist—you may even want to book an event space.) No matter the size, or vibe you’re hoping to accomplish, an at-home cocktail party is a great way to build and sustain your local community (and couldn’t we all use a little more bonding these days?).

How many guests make a cocktail party?

How many people you invite to your cocktail party depends foremost on where you want to host it. Pick your space (inside or outside, multiple rooms or one room), then think about how many people can fit standing in that space, then invite 10 more people than that number. If space is not an issue, just invite the number of guests you want to invite, bearing in mind that about 20% of them probably won’t be able to make it.

Mix up the guest list.

Take your cocktail party as an opportunity to introduce people from different corners of your life. Invite old friends, but also people you’ve just met. Invite the neighbors, even if you don’t know them—what better way to get to know them? Everyone loves getting invited to a party, even if they can’t attend. Send invitations at least four weeks in advance, then send reminders the week of the party. Ask guests to RSVP (I love using Paperless Post to manage invites and guest lists) so you have an idea of how many people you’ll be providing drinks and nibbles for, but always be prepared for those numbers to change at the last minute.

Let people know what to expect.

Cocktail attire used to be a strict code. These days if you want your guests to follow a certain dress code, it’s best to make it clear in the invite. You may also consider having a theme: retro ’50s, Roaring ’20s, black-tie, Christmas, cozy fireside, summer garden, or Halloween, are just a few possible party ideas.

Made with a homemade lime cordial, gin, and little else, this gimlet makes a fantastic signature drink.

Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Tiffany Schleigh

Prep the party space.

Depending on how many guests you're expecting, you may need to move some furniture. I highly suggest getting this squared away a day or two before your party, along with whatever cleaning and decorating you want to get done. Push the dining table to the side to act as a buffet table, tuck the dining chairs away in the basement or scatter them around the living room as extra seating. You want your guests to be able to have lots of room to stand and mingle and move between the bar and food tables easily.

If you’re hosting in a smaller room, set up one (round, if possible!) food table in the middle of the room for easier access. If you’re hosting in a larger room, outside, or in multiple rooms, set up multiple smaller food tables to encourage guests to move around the space. Set up the bar in a separate area from the food. If you have a bar at your house, now is the time for it to shine. For the rest of us, dedicate a table or counter to be the bar, making sure it’s easily accessible.

Add some ambiance.

Almost as important as creating space for mingling is setting the mood. About an hour before your party starts, get set to control the music, the lighting, and the temperature in your space to be conducive for mingling. Pick out a good playlist to match the mood you want and adjust as needed, or assign a friend or cohost to be your DJ for the night—I personally like to delegate this task to someone who pays more attention to music than I do, and who will be in the thick of the party taking the temperature of the mood more often than I will as I run back and forth from the kitchen.

Turn the lights down, but not too low that you can’t see faces. Set candles or lamps on the bar and food tables so those areas are brighter for easier serving. Leave a light on in the bathroom. The temperature of your house should be cool, but comfortable. This may seem obvious, but if it’s too hot or too cold no one’s going to want to stay and mingle. Remember that crowds of people make rooms warmer. In the summer, crank your AC in advance of guests arriving. In the winter, turn down the heat. If you’re hosting outside, set up outdoor fans or umbrellas in the heat and light heat lamps or firepits in the cold.

Serve (but don’t cook) lots of appetizers.

The food you serve at a cocktail party definitely does not need to count as dinner. But there should always be snacks, and all those snacks should be bite-size and easy to eat without utensils. The nice thing about serving finger food is that a lot of it can be store-bought, no-cook, or made in advance and served at room temperature.

To make your life as the host easier, choose just one or two recipes that require cooking, and only one (if any!) that needs to be served hot. Look for recipes you can make in advance. Marinated cheese or spiced olives are great because you can make them a few days ahead; serve with fresh sliced bread from a local bakery for dunking in the flavorful oil. For one of the recipes you plan to cook, go for puff pastry—it’s decadent and fun and feels kind of retro, just like cocktail parties. Make a batch of cheese straws or pinwheels. Both can be assembled the day before and baked right before your guests arrive. (Check out more of our best puff pastry hors d’oeuvres.)

Next, add one or two dishes that are assembly only, such as a custom snack mix. One of my go-to cocktail party apps is a tried-and-true platter of crudités, primarily because it will satisfy basically every single possible dietary restriction: Just slice up a few of your favorite raw vegetables—or mix it up with a pile of blanched, shocked green beans or roasted asparagus spears next to a pile of crunchy cucumbers and jicama. You don’t need the whole produce section, just a small selection (even better if you pick a few things that are in season). Prepare all your vegetables before your guests arrive (it’s a good idea to have a stash of prepped veggies in the fridge as backup; if they don’t get eaten, you can turn them into a salad the next day). Don’t bother making a dip—just squeeze some lemon or lime juice over the veg and sprinkle a flavored salt mix (homemade or store-bought) over the top. That’s my favorite way to serve crudités, and much less messy. Here’s a recipe, but you can riff as you please.

The rest of the snacks should be entirely store-bought, but do me a favor and skip the cheese board. It may be cute starting out, but they get messy fast. If you must, put out one nice cheese—sliced in advance if it’s hard, alongside a spreader if it’s soft—and arrange it with some crackers. Or, assemble a platter of charcuterie and pickles. Don’t be afraid to think simple: a bowl of potato chips, or a dish of nuts will never disappoint. Consider adding a sweet treat somewhere in your spread, too, like chocolate-covered nuts, sliced fresh fruit, or a platter of bite-size cookies.

You don’t need a full bar.

A cocktail party needs some cocktails, but you don’t need to be prepared to serve every drink under the sun. Setting up a full bar costs a fortune, and you’d need a very well-versed (and well-paid) bartender to run it. Instead, pick two easy cocktail recipes and stock up on everything you need to make a lot of those.

How to choose a signature drink:

To appeal to as many tastes as possible, I like to feature one cocktail with a dark spirit like whiskey or aged rum, and one with a light spirit like blanco tequila or gin. Consider making a big-batch cocktail in advance, preferably one that doesn’t involve too many ingredients and is make-ahead friendly (like an old-fashioned). A negroni is always a safe bet, as is a margarita, but if you think your guest might like something different, you can try a riff on a negroni or a seasonal take on a margarita—or choose a drink that may be totally unfamiliar to your guests.

Of course, you can never go wrong with a classic cocktail like a manhattan or a martini; my personal favorite for parties is a 50-50 martini, which is lower in alcohol than the traditional kind (but, mind you, still plenty boozy).

Once you pick your signature cocktails, do your math and plan accordingly: You want to have enough booze to serve at least three drinks per guest. In addition, stock your bar with one bottle of wine per every six guests, just in case. You should also have some beer on hand as well as seltzer and some nonalcoholic drinks. Put out a nonalcoholic mixer, like Ghia, that can be mixed with ice and seltzer, so guests abstaining from alcohol can mix up a spirit-free drink that still feels festive—or go ahead and make one of your signature drinks this alcohol-free punch.

Prep the drinks in advance.

Before the cocktail party, premix big batches of your chosen drinks and pour them into pitchers. Have a backup container of each hiding in the fridge. Set the pitchers on the bar next to an ice bucket and alongside bowls of cocktail garnishes so guests can help themselves. For larger parties where you won’t be standing nearby, make sure to label your drink pitchers.

You’re going to need a lot of ice for your cocktail party. Delegate a friend to get to your house a little early with three bags of ice. Put one in the freezer or a cooler for later and another to fill up an ice bucket for your self-serve bar. About an hour before your guests are set to arrive, fill a large beverage tub with the third bag of ice and a bit of water and tuck in with chilled bottles of wine, seltzer, and beer. Don’t forget to replenish these throughout the party and to refill your cocktail pitchers and garnish bowls as needed.

Stock up on supplies.

The thing about serving finger food is that fingers need cocktail napkins. I personally hate disposable napkins, but if there’s a time and a place to use them, it’s for cocktail party appetizers. You’re going to want to put out at least three napkins per guest for your party; try to get ones made out of recycled fibers. And make sure you have a trash bin (or two) easily accessible for guests to toss them into, so you don’t end up with used napkins strewn all about your home. Some guests will want little plates, so put a stack (disposable or not, up to you) by the napkins at every food table.

Gingham Linen Cocktail Napkins

You’re also going to need a lot of glassware. At least two glasses per guest, ideally more. Real glassware really does elevate your party—if you don’t own enough, you can borrow some from a friend, but it’s very easy to rent glasses from a local party rental company. In fact, I highly recommend renting glasses. It’s cheaper than you think, and you won’t mind as much if one or two get broken. Plus, you don’t have to wash rented dishes—just pop them back into the rack they came in and return. Don’t worry about getting every “correct” glass type: Just get a big batch of all-purpose wine glasses and tumblers.

Place your clean glasses on the bar well in advance of the party. About halfway through the party, do a sweep of your space to collect discarded dirty dishes, and restock the bar with clean glasses if needed.

Don’t forget to hydrate.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to serve water. Have a big pitcher of water on the bar so guests can help themselves—hydration is important, especially when drinking cocktails. My favorite party hosting move is to keep a stack of seltzer cans by the door. As I bid adieu to each of my cocktail party companions, I hand off a hydrating beverage for the road.