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Throw a glamorous, stress-free cocktail party

Cocktail parties are easy to plan and glamorous, yet relatively inexpensive. Epicurious' Linnea Johansson outlines everything you’ll need to host a fabulous fête, including setup, simple hors d'oeuvres and planning tips.
/ Source: Epicurious

As an event planner, cocktail parties are my favorite get-togethers to host. They're easy to plan and glamorous yet relatively inexpensive. You can serve high-priced items like caviar and still have some money left over because you'll only be serving small bites. Plus, since you'll be making several different types of hors d'oeuvres, there's plenty of room to experiment in the kitchen.

When planning your party, it helps to choose a theme. This doesn't mean all your guests have to show up dressed like pirates or their favorite movie stars, a theme can be discreet, such as a flavor or color that is present throughout the entire evening. A creative theme can make your party feel special without adding to your budget, and it will help you come up with ideas for food, drinks, and decorations.

The key to any great party is for the host to have as much fun as the guests. This guide will make the experience easy and stress-free: It covers all the planning, from selecting a menu and setting up the bar to decorating your space and renting extra glassware. Plus, be sure to check out the handy charts to help you figure out exactly .

The traditional cocktail party fare is hors d'oeuvres; small, savory finger foods that can be eaten in one or two bites. The recipes included here are all good examples. Typically, hors d'oeuvres are served before a meal and are not meant to be a substitute for a meal—the French "hors d'oeuvre" translates to "outside of meal." However, nowadays I find that it's common for hors d'oeuvres to wind up replacing meals, so if your party takes place during normal lunch or dinner hours, plan to serve enough food to constitute a meal.

Planning tips

  • Go seasonal: Before you plan a single hors d'oeuvre, think about what foods are in season. If it's summer and farmers' markets are filled with corn and tomatoes, chances are that's what your guests will be craving. Plus, seasonal ingredients are nearly always the freshest, best-tasting options, so the effort you put into cooking will pay off.
  • Experiment risk-free: Cocktail parties are a great opportunity to try new or unusual recipes. Try something new, then fill out the rest of your menu with recipes you've made in the past and no-cook items such as olives and nuts. That way, if one item isn't a huge success, there are lots of backups.
  • Mix it up: An exciting menu doesn't mean that each recipe has to be difficult or time-consuming. Your menu can consist of five simple hors d'oeuvres. As long as each recipe has a different flavor, temperature, or texture, your guests won't be bored. Search our recipe database for .  
  • Downsize old favorites: Almost any dish can be made into cocktail party fare. For example, serve your favorite soup in shot glasses or bake your famous mac-and-cheese in small ramekins.
  • Make it a meal: If your party takes place during lunch or dinner hours and will be a meal for your guests, consider constructing your menu as if it were a regular meal with multiple courses. Start with lighter, cold appetizers and follow with hot main dishes. You can even end with sweet treats such as
  • Remember vegetarians: Make sure that 20 to 30 percent of your menu is meatless. This is crucial for any vegetarians in the crowd but it also adds variety for the rest of the guests.
  • Buy backups: To ensure that you have enough food, stock up on "fillers" such as nuts, olives, breadsticks, and dips. These will save you if folks are really hungry, if unexpected guests pop in, or if one of your labored-over hors d'oeuvres doesn't come out as planned. You can also set up a cheese tray with honey, spiced jams, and crackers or bread. Or, serve popcorn topped with Parmesan cheese or drizzled with flavored oil such as truffle oil.
  • Prep in advance: Make sure that 75 percent of your menu can be prepared in advance. That means no heating, constructing, or garnishing, just serving. To cut down on last-minute scrambling, include several
  • Keep it manageable: If you're hosting a large party (more than 20 guests) and don't have a helping hand, reduce the number of hot items on your menu. One person can handle serving two or three steamy treats, but more than that is difficult. Swap in more cold or room temperature hors d'oeuvres or enlist help.
  • Recipe suggestions:

Planning the cocktails
The name says it all: Cocktails are a must at a cocktail party. While you can wait a bit to serve the food, you should have the drinks ready when the first guests walk through the door. This will give people something to do while forcing them to mingle.

There are three main approaches to serving drinks and each has merits. A full bar includes a wide variety of liquors and mixers. A themed bar focuses on one type of liquor and an assortment of mixers. A signature cocktail bar features one or two mixed drinks. Regardless of the way you choose to serve cocktails, be sure to include an appropriate amount of wine and beer; use our to determine how much to buy. And always have plenty of water (make it special by serving sparkling water with lemon or berries) and at least one other nonalcoholic option, such as or .

  • Full bar: A full bar is by far the most complicated and expensive approach. That said, with a little planning, it's completely doable, and a lot of fun for serious cocktail lovers. You'll have a wide assortment of liquors, mixers, and garnishes on hand so guests can enjoy their old favorites, or discover a new cocktail.
  • Themed bar: A themed bar features one or sometimes two types of alcohol and a variety of mixers, plus wine, beer, and nonalcoholic drinks. This option is more wallet-friendly than a full bar because you don't have to buy less popular or more obscure liquors and mixers, some of which might not be used. A themed bar works for any liquor, just serve the appropriate mixers and garnishes alongside. Use Epicurious’ to find the perfect cocktail recipes.

GarnishesFor serious cocktail drinkers a beverage isn't complete without its garnish. The basic garnishes are olives, pickled onions, cherries, lemon and lime wedges, salt, and superfine sugar. Consult our for information on how much to buy. In addition to offering the basics, use garnishes as an opportunity for creativity; add chili peppers to Margaritas or sugar cane sticks to Mojitos, for example. For a unique twist, try serving a classic cocktail like a gin and tonic with a fresh herb sprig; it will add a hint of flavor and look pretty. If you're serving specialty cocktails, be sure to include a fun garnish, such as the slice of fruit that finishes the . Ice cubes can double as garnish, adding a touch of flavor and a visual appeal. Simply place fresh herbs, edible flowers, or berries in ice cube trays, add water, and freeze.

Choosing wine Cocktails might be the main attraction, but you're guaranteed to have at least a few non-cocktail drinkers in your crowd. Use these guidelines to stock the right wine.

  • Food and wine from the same region tend to go together. If your menu focuses on food from a specific country, serve wines from the same place.
  • Red wine is traditionally served with heavier foods, such as steak and game, and white with lighter dishes, like poultry and fish. For a cocktail party where you're most likely serving both, choose a heavy white and/or a light red to go with most options.
  • Although red wine is becoming more popular in the United States, in most of the country white wine is preferred. Stock up on extra bottles of white, especially in warm weather, when folks are more likely to drink Pinot Grigio than Pinot Noir.
  • Nonalcoholic options: ,

Swedish-born, New York–based event planner Linnea Johansson runs , and she recently became a food columnist for Swedish ELLE.