The Ultimate Cocktail-Hour Guide

Your cocktail hour should be like a souped-up version of your favorite happy hour. Think about it: It's early in the evening, and you have all of your friends together with your favorite drinks, apps, great music and comfortable seating. Here's what you need to pull it off (plus a few extra-genius ways to wow your guests).
  1. Cocktail-Hour Must: Have a Killer Signature Cocktail

    Photo by Duke Khodaverdian

    Whether it's a classic or totally new, you can match your signature cocktail to your color scheme and let it reflect your personality as a couple. Maybe your fave drink is whiskey lemonade, while his is gin and tonic. Feature both cocktails on the menu and give them creative names to reflect your personalities.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Why stop at just one? You could also name drinks after your bridal party, or serve favorite cocktails from both sets of parents.

  2. Cocktail-Hour Must: Provide Comfortable Seating

    Photo by Jonathan Ivy LIfestyle Photography

    You'll want to give people room to mingle easily, so don't crowd the room with chairs. Just provide enough seating so that your older guests have a comfy place to rest.

    Top-Shelf Idea: A combination of low chairs, coffee tables and higher tables with bar stools will give your cocktail hour a different feel than your sit-down reception dinner. Want a cozier vibe? Build a virtual outdoor living room with overstuffed armchairs, rugs and vintage wooden end tables.

  3. Cocktail-Hour Must: Play Some Music

    Photo by Allyson Wiley Photography

    Since you're not at the dance party yet, keep the volume turned down so people can easily talk. This doesn't mean you have to play Michael Bolton, but matching your music to the mood is a good idea.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Maybe you've planned on having a rocking DJ to keep you dancing throughout the reception, but for the cocktail hour, slow it down. Hire a jazz trio, quartet or acoustic guitarist to set a distinct mood.

  4. Cocktail-Hour Must: Decorate to Suit the Space

    Photo by Jonathan Canlas Photography

    Sure, you've spent ages planning out your reception decor -- but don't let the cocktail hour go by the wayside, especially if it's in a separate space. Small centerpieces and extra votive candles can be a great way to finish off the room.

    Top-Shelf Idea: If your cocktail hour is outside, but your reception will be held inside a gorgeous ballroom, don't be afraid to vary the decor. Take advantage of the natural foliage and string wide ribbons and colorful banners with lights from the tree branches, or set up big floral installations near the entrance. Then tone things down inside your ballroom for an elegant, tasteful look.

  5. Cocktail-Hour Must: Have a Theme

    Photo by Ben Vigil

    Your centerpieces and table settings will set the theme for the reception, but if the cocktail hour is being held in a separate room or outside, do something different. You don't need to make your guests don leis and Hawaiian shirts, but you could serve tiki-inspired cocktails out of coconuts, and chips with fresh papaya and mango salsa.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Take your theme to the next level by expanding it to your music and decor. Hire a mariachi band and set up handmade guacamole and churro stations. Or hire a jazz pianist and singer to perform and decorate with Art Deco-style chandeliers and a bold black-and-white color palette.

  6. Cocktail-Hour Must: Have an Open Bar

    Photo by Scobey Photography

    We've said it before and we'll say it again: Having a cash bar at your wedding is a major faux pas. If you're on a tight budget, skip the liquor and just serve beer and wine. Or offer just one signature drink.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Set up a specialty bar. You could have a cognac bar, a microbrew bar, a bubbly bar (with sparkling wines) or even a tequila bar. Ask your caterer about keeping an expert on hand during the cocktail hour to give suggestions and tasting tips.

  7. Cocktail-Hour Must: Serve Delicious Appetizers

    Photo by Amy and Stuart Photography

    We know it's your menu, but make sure it's diverse enough so that all of your guests will have at least one appetizer to enjoy. Hit up all the major tastes -- serve something slightly salty, sweet, bitter and savory -- and provide several dishes that are complementary to your signature cocktails. Don't forget to ask about any special diets or allergies ahead of time to ensure everyone has something to enjoy.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Go ahead, give your guests something sweet before they sit down to dinner. You won't want to spoil their appetite for what's to come (so save the chocolate ganache for later), but offering a seasonally sweet treat -- like a fruit tart or lemon sorbet could be the perfect palate cleanser before dinner. You can also go entirely forkless for your dinner, offering all bites on edible spoons or in mini crispy cones.

  8. Cocktail-Hour Must: Add a Few Personalized Details

    Photo by Our Labor of Love

    Little extras -- like monogrammed napkins or barware -- can go a long way in making your wedding feel totally personalized. Plus, stemless wine glasses with your wedding date or initials make an instant keepsake for guests.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Don't wait until the end of the night to give out your favors. Instead, have a special wine or beer brewed ahead of time in honor of your wedding that you’ll serve during the cocktail hour. Let guests sample it then, and offer them each a bottle to take home at the end of the night, complete with a customized label.

  9. Cocktail-Hour Must: Offer Nonalcoholic Options

    Photo by Two Foot Creative

    Make sure you've got a few nonalcoholic options (especially if it's an outdoor summer wedding). For hotter months, try water infused with cucumber, melon, mint and loads of crushed ice. During the winter, serve hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks.

    Top-Shelf Idea: Give guests more than just water and soda by having at least one mocktail on the menu. Work with your caterer or mixologist to come up with something inventive -- like a mix of grapefruit and orange juices, a little coconut milk and a small scoop of orange sherbet on top.

  10. Cocktail-Hour Must: Make It More Than Drinks

    Photo by Sher Stoneman Photography

    Give your guests something extra to do during the cocktail hour, even if it's just breaking out the guest book a little early to give them plenty of time to sign it.

    Top-Shelf Idea: If your wedding is outdoors, set up bocce ball, lawn croquet or even a beanbag toss. It's a great option if there will be lots of kids at the reception. You could also rent a photo booth and provide fun props for guests to pose with. (Bonus: This easily doubles as a wedding favor!)

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