The Ultimate Wedding Cocktail Hour Guide

Here's how to wow your guests before the reception.
Cocktails on colorful background
Credit: Getty | Design by Tiana Crispino
chapelle johnson the knot associate editor
Chapelle Johnson
chapelle johnson the knot associate editor
Chapelle Johnson
Associate Editor
  • Chapelle writes articles for The Knot Worldwide. She covers all things wedding-related and has a personal interest in covering celebrity engagements and fashion.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Chapelle was an editorial intern for Subvrt Magazine.
  • Chapelle has a degree in English writing from Loyola University New Orleans.
Updated Jun 28, 2023

Don't let the name fool you. A cocktail hour isn't just about drinking, even though that's part of the festivities. A wedding cocktail hour is a mixer and involves your favorite drinks, food and music. But if you're not familiar with what a cocktail hour is, it might be hard to plan one. To get you on the right footing, we've answered the most frequently asked cocktail hour-related questions and provided an in-depth guide to planning your own wedding mingle session. And we didn't do it alone; we found two of the best wedding industry experts to help with the task. Read below to see what you need to pull off a fabulous wedding cocktail hour everyone will remember.

In this article:

What Is a Cocktail Hour?

"A cocktail hour is a time for guests to mingle and catch up. Typically, it's when drinks start flowing, and light bites are served," explains Alyssa Pettinato, long-time professional event planner and owner of Alinato Events. Alisha Reicks-Sturgill, a wedding planning expert and marketing manager of The Indigo Bride, adds, "[A wedding cocktail hour is] when guests can revel in the captivating ambiance, connect with fellow wedding attendees, soak up all the love and joy that's been poured into every moment of the ceremony."

When Is Cocktail Hour at a Wedding?

"The cocktail hour is typically after the ceremony as a breather before the reception. Some cultures and couples have the cocktail hour upon arrival before the ceremony starts as a way for guests to catch up before the ceremony and get some food and drinks before sitting for the wedding. But the first rule in wedding planning is...there are no rules, do as you want," Pettinato says.

How Long Is Cocktail Hour at a Wedding?

"Just like it sounds, [a cocktail hour is] one hour. However, this can be extended up to one hour and 15 minutes or one hour and a half. Increasing the cocktail hour is often recommended if the couple decides not to do a first look and there's a need for more photography time after the ceremony," Reicks-Sturgill says. So while your guests are socializing, use your cocktail hour to take photos that didn't happen before the ceremony with your wedding party, family and other loved ones.

How to Plan a Wedding Cocktail Hour

It's not often (or ever) you have to plan a cocktail hour, especially for such a big event like a wedding. That's why we created a seven-step guide to throwing a successful mini-party that everyone will love below.

Consider what's on your wedding invitations.

A wedding invitation etiquette question couples often ask is, "Do you put the cocktail hour on wedding invitations?" In short, no. You don't need to include the start or end time of the cocktail hour since it's most likely happening on the same day and at the same location as the event.

Think about the decor.

Sure, you've spent ages ticking things off your wedding decor checklist, but don't let the cocktail hour go by the wayside, especially if it's in a separate space. Reicks-Sturgill suggests creating a "relaxed and inviting atmosphere" with your cocktail hour wedding decorations. "Adorn the tables with elegant linens, captivating centerpieces, candles and other decorative elements to add a touch of sophistication and ambiance," Reicks-Sturgill adds.

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For example, if your cocktail hour's outside, but your reception will be inside a ballroom, don't be afraid to vary the decor. Take advantage of the natural foliage by stringing ribbons and colorful banners with twinkling lights from the tree branches, or set up floral installations near the entrance.

Be smart about the seating arrangements.

This is a nice gesture that promotes future efficiency, which we love. "Set up the seating chart in the cocktail hour area, allowing guests to preview their seating assignments. This thoughtful arrangement saves time and minimizes congestion when entering the dining space," Reicks-Sturgill advises. But remember, you don't need to make a seating chart for the cocktail hour since its purpose is for people to mingle freely. "This is the time for relaxation with friends and family you haven't seen because when dinner starts, people are usually relegated to their tables for a few hours. The wedding cocktail hour gives everyone a chance to catch up before the formalities of the reception," Pettinato says.

Speaking of seating, you want to give guests room to mingle easily, so don't crowd the room with chairs. Instead, provide enough seating so your older guests (and anyone wearing high heels) can take a break. 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. For a cozier vibe, create an outdoor living room with armchairs, rugs and vintage end tables.

Create a tasty wedding cocktail hour food and drink menu.

We know it's your menu, but ensure it's diverse so all your guests can taste one or two cocktail hour wedding appetizers. Reicks-Sturgill believes to-be-weds should cater some of their wedding cocktail hour food stations to guests with special diets or allergies to ensure everyone has something to enjoy. An easy way to do this is by "incorporating a stationary appetizer display featuring an enticing array of cheeses, charcuterie, bread, fruits and other visually appealing and delicious options," Reicks-Sturgill says. (Psst. Grazing tables are all the rage right now.) You can also forgo typical utensils by offering small bites on edible spoons or mini crispy cones.

For cocktail hour drinks, we highly suggest having an open bar over a cash bar at your wedding. But if you're worried about high liquor costs, feature one or two signature cocktails that reflect your personality or wedding theme instead of having a full bar. And to decrease the chance of long drink lines, Reicks-Sturgill says to-be-weds should "determine the number of bars based on guest count and convenience and opt for tray-passed drinks to provide a delightful and convenient experience for your guests. This approach helps alleviate congestion at the bar and keeps the libations flowing smoothly."

Let your wedding cocktail hour music determine the mood.

Couples typically like to keep the volume low for a mellow vibe so people can chat with ease. This doesn't mean you have to play cheesy elevator music, but matching your music to the setting is a good idea. Hire live musicians like a jazz trio, string quartet or acoustic guitarist to set an elevated and social ambiance. Alternatively, you can book a lively DJ so you have a diverse music playlist and keep the energy high for the reception.

Have special entertainment for your wedding cocktail hour.

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. Set up cocktail hour wedding games like lawn croquet, Connect Four or UNO. You could also rent a photo booth and provide fun props for guests to pose with.

One of Pettinato's favorite cocktail hour entertainment ideas is a live wedding painter. "I loved the live painter during cocktail hour. It gave people a talking point and something to sit and watch as they sipped cocktails."

Add personal touches.

Little extras, like monogrammed napkins or barware, can go a long way in making your wedding personalized. Plus, stemless wine glasses with your wedding date or initials make an instant keepsake for guests. And by the way, you don't have to 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 can serve during cocktail hour. Let guests sample it and then offer them a bottle to take home, complete with a customized label.

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