Creative Wedding Reception Cocktail Hours

Set the bar high with new drinks, trendy foods, and awe-inspiring decor.
by the knot

Who doesn't love a cocktail hour? After all, it's the kickoff to the celebration and a chance to sample a wide variety of food and drink while mingling with friends. Plus, this pre-reception event is an opportunity for you to show off your personal style and set the tone for the rest of the night. There's no limit to what you can do to set your cocktail hour apart. Infuse your event with some of these hot new trends, and watch your guests abuzz with delight -- and not just from the alcohol!

Dazzle With Decor

Chances are, guests will see the cocktail hour site well before the main wedding reception room, giving you the opportunity to really showcase your wedding day colors and motif. Consider these options when planning your hour:

Play with your palette. Switch up your color scheme by reversing the reception decor: If your wedding colors are blue with green accents, use green as the dominant hue for the cocktail area (working in hints of blue).

Incorporate the theme. Hosting a Victorian-themed wedding? Serve drinks in antique goblets and decorate the space with old-fashioned candelabras. For a beach wedding, feature drinks in coconut shells and light tiki torches to set the mood. Or, for a winter wedding, use holiday decorations and serve eggnog.

Build a bar. Incorporate your theme into the bar by using creative decor. Have a signature flower? Cover a specially-built bar in your bloom. (Hint: sturdier flowers work best, like hydrangeas or orchids.) Think bamboo for an Asian-inspired event, or palm fronds for a tropical wedding. A bar that represents your theme will be the showstopper of the hour.

Food For Thought

Guests imbibing on an empty stomach equals a recipe for disaster, so you'll not only want to have plenty of munchies on hand, but also make sure they work with your drink mix.

Choose your menu first. To avoid unusual combinations during the cocktail hour like crab cakes and cosmopolitans, choose a great wedding caterer and think about a few appropriate food and drink selections. For simplicity's sake, serve one type of cuisine during the cocktail hour, then ask your bartender which cocktails will match best. Some ideas: a Mexican menu with flavored margaritas, piña coladas and sangria; an Italian feast served with an array of wines from different regions; and Japanese cuisine paired with rice wine sake, which can be served warm or chilled (and comes in fruit-infused varieties like raspberry or tangerine).

Think tapas. If you're looking to save big on the wedding day menu without sacrificing great food, consider combining your cocktail hour and sit-down dinner into one tapas (basically a small plates) feast. Although tapas are traditionally Spanish foods, don't let that stop you from getting creative and choosing a different cuisine to feature -- Greek and Indian foods are also fun and tasty options.

Try this: Small bites, such as marinated olives, spiced nuts, edamame, and warm naan triangles can be placed on tables so guests can feast at their leisure, while heartier fare, like stuffed grape leaves, ceviche, garlicky octopus, and cured meats can be passed by servers.

Sweeten your finish. Here's an unconventional idea: end an evening wedding with a cocktail hour. You should serve drinks that are more appropriate for the late hour such as port, dessert wines, and other after-dinner drinks. Pair with sweets like truffles or even a European cheese course that's passed rather than plated.

Try this: Follow in the footsteps of Kim Haasarud, author of 101 Margaritas and 101 Martinis, who skipped the traditional cake completely and served a pyramid of mini dessert martinis instead. “On the top was a pineapple cake just big enough for my husband and I to share," says Haasarud.

Drink Up!

The recent renaissance of the mixologist (a fancy word for a creative, skillful bartender) has introduced a slew of creative cocktails to the market. Which one will be your signature?

Flavored vodka. With tastes ranging from pomegranate and blood orange to black truffle and kaffir lime, there's something to satisfy every guest. Create a tasting bar, showcasing some of you and your mate's favorite flavors. Bartenders can serve them as mini cocktails in shooters (thus everyone can try a few different types) or offer a few signature cocktails featuring a variety of flavored vodkas. We love pomegranate martinis, peach cosmopolitans, and nouveau sea breezes (using ruby red grapefruit vodka).

Try this: Having difficulty finding a particular flavor? Simply create your own and send your suggestion to the bartender! Start with a vodka that has been distilled at least three times (it will taste cleaner and less pronounced), then choose your flavor. Berries and peppers can be left whole, while fibrous fruits such as papaya and mango should be chopped, and strawberries or citrus fruits, sliced. Place your ingredient of choice in a large screw-top jar and top with one bottle (750 ml.) of vodka. Screw on the cap and place it in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark place for a few days or up to two weeks, depending on your desired flavor strength. Your best bet is to taste the infusion daily to see how the flavor is progressing.

Herbal infusions. Sweet cocktails just don't cut it for some people -- especially martini lovers. Herb-based cocktails are a unique option for these guests, and can be relatively inexpensive to make during the summer -- especially if you purchase the herbs in bulk at your local farmer's market. When choosing herbs, it's important to keep in mind your menu -- after all, you'll want the flavors to go well together. For a Latin-themed menu, try serving a zesty cilantro martini, while different varieties of mint (lemon, peppermint, and so on) are more versatile in flavor and complement a variety of foods.

Try this: While many herb cocktails tend to be on the dry side, this Strawberry Basil Martini, from Jamie Walker, Global Ambassador for Bombay Sapphire Gin, is perfect for those looking for something more on the sweet side:

1 oz. gin
1/4 oz. strawberry liqueur
1 oz. white cranberry juice
3 strawberries
lime juice
basil leaves

Pour the gin, liqueur and juice into a cocktail shaker. Add 3 halved strawberries, 3 basil leaves, and 3 squeezes of lime juice, and muddle. Add a lot of ice, shake, and double strain into a chilled martini glass.

-- Sarah Doyle Lacamoire

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