Why A Cocktail Wedding Reception Rocks?

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Why not turn the "mingling hour" into the main event?

A cocktail party reception is a type of reception where no formal meal is served, and instead, guests indulge in a variety of hors d'oeuvres.
You can create a party that includes only the meaningful-to-you traditions and host a celebration that still feels like a wedding—minus the hefty price tag. Hors d'oeuvres are usually guests' favourite part of the evening, anyway.

If you're in tune with the same sentiments, we've put together a few essential tips for hosting the most glamorous cocktail party reception. Read on for insight into the six key components of putting together a cocktail fête of wedding proportions.

A cocktail hour gives guests a chance to mingle and grab a snack before dinner.

In a nutshell, a cocktail reception is way more relaxed, and your guests will fill up on hors d'oeuvres and small bites throughout the reception. On the other hand, a seated reception is more formal, and your guests will eat plated meals or help themselves to a buffet.

Usually, cocktail receptions occur before or after dinner, and a large meal is not served. Cocktails include an alcoholic ingredient combined with another liquid, like liqueur, juice or soda. However, a cocktail party might also offer its guests beer, wine, or other libations.

The cocktail hour is an opportunity to personalise further the decor, drinks, food, and other elements of your wedding celebration. In addition, during the cocktail hour, you can showcase your family history, personality as a couple, or culture or ethnicity.

Although there is no set limit on how long your drinks reception should be, they typically last between 90 minutes and two hours as a general rule of thumb. This will give your guests enough time to enjoy their favourite tipple, mingle and enjoy a variety of nibbles.


Venue And Décor


Host a cocktail party anywhere—an art gallery, your favourite neighbourhood restaurant, or a historic house. Restaurants and hotels are particularly amenable because their in-house staff knows the drill, and you can eliminate the extra expense of an outside catering company—not to mention rentals. Flowers are an important touch, so consider hiring a florist or having a friend create arrangements. And even though you're throwing a roving reception, it's a good idea to provide seating. Cater to older folks with traditional table-and-chair groupings, and create pockets of intrigue for the youngsters with high-tops and tufted banquettes. Last, keep the lighting dim—it flatters everyone and keeps the mood festive.

Dress Code

It's your wedding—feel free to go full-on traditional or mix it up in something short and flirty. Specify what guests should wear on your invitation ("cocktail attire" is foolproof), and if you're having a bridal party, consider putting your festive spin on the bridesmaids' dresses. Instead of going for similar looks, scan the fashion glossies for a colour you love, broadcast your choice, and let your bridesmaids choose their styles in the selected shade. It will look terrific in photos while allowing their personalities to shine. (And they'll love you forever for letting them pick dresses they like.)

Food And Drink

Make it clear on the invitation that a full meal will not be served. "Please join us for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres following the ceremony" does the job—and is a necessary nudge to heavy drinkers who would hang from chandeliers on otherwise empty stomachs. Plan to have eight to 12 different amuse-bouches in rotation (count on each guest eating six per hour), and be mindful of diverse tastes and dietary restrictions when selecting appetisers. Bolster passed bites with a few stations—from a display of great cheeses to a raw bar of oysters, shrimp, and clams. As for the spirits, you can opt to provide either a full bar or have champagne, wine, and a signature cocktail.


If you want a dance party, and piping in your music from an iPod is out of the question (though there's nothing wrong with that), then book a DJ, as an eight to 12 piece band would likely overwhelm the venue. Instead, carve out a front-and-centre spot for the dance floor, and open it up an hour into the festivities. If your party is more about conversation and write-home-about-it food, that's right, but don't forgo music altogether. Instead, hire a small ensemble to play live tunes in the background; whether it's a jazz trio with a frontman jamming on phonographs or costumed gals crooning French chansons from the '30s, music is key.

Cake And Dessert

Choose the traditions that feel right for you. After all those passed hors d'oeuvres, a traditional tiered cake might be the perfect counterpoint. Give the cake the limelight, just as you would at a seated reception. After the well-documented cutting (slice, feed, kiss, snap), servers carry out pieces of cake and flutes of bubbly. Consider passing additional desserts—mini crème brûlées, panna cotta parfaits, or brandied sugar candy. For the last call, serve boozy milkshake shots to energise the crowd for the after-party—whether planned or just an impromptu migration to the nearest bar.


Since this kind of party runs at a faster clip than the average reception (three hours, say, compared to five), you'll want to schedule a few key wedding moments throughout the night. The best strategy: Pass hors d'oeuvres for an hour before segueing into the first dance. Then open the food stations to keep guests on their gustatory toes. About two-and-a-half hours into the party, cut the cake. Last, wind down the evening with a few time-honoured rituals, like the bouquet toss and toasts from your nearest and dearest. Be mindful that toast-givers may be loose-lipped this late evening, so prepare to cringe a little—and laugh a lot.

More Relaxed Atmosphere

After having a destination ceremony with a more intimate group, we knew we wanted the reception in our home state to be a more laid back, a fun party where our wedding guests could enjoy themselves. We wanted them there to celebrate our big day with good food, an open bar, and dancing. (All the best parts, of course!) Our wedding planner, Lara Jacobs of Laki Events and Design, created a great atmosphere styling a variety of rentals, including a mix of high top cocktail tables, round tables, and cool lounge areas. We didn't have a seating chart, so people felt free to mix and mingle as they would at a traditional cocktail hour all night.

Budget-Friendly Food Options

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I'm a self-proclaimed picky eater, so weddings can be a little anxiety-inducing for me, even when you get to choose between options beforehand. My husband and I went to our caterer and expressed interest in a less traditional reception menu of hors d'oeuvres instead of a full meal with a first course, entree, and the like. I sent him pictures of cool buffet setups of more finger foods or mini appetisers: sliders, tacos, chicken strips, mini tomato soup and grilled cheese combos, etc. These were a huge hit with our guests because they're comfort foods that everyone likes, and they were some of our favourites, too. We had the buffet open for most of the night, and people felt like they could keep going back for more. It kept our cost for food lower because we did not pay per plate as we would for a sit-down dinner, but it was a standard buffet.

More Flexibility

We shared on the invite that our guests were invited to a reception that stated we wanted them to join us for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and dancing. Since most people haven't been to a cocktail-style reception, we got to make our own rules. We created a timeline with Lara and our vendors that fit our needs. We took pictures of our wedding party and each other before the party started, then mingled with our guests for a little bit before making our grand entrance leading into our first dance and parent dances. All the while, our guests could enjoy the cocktail party food and get drinks without feeling like they were starving. We took the traditional elements and arranged them to feel right to us. People didn't feel obligated to stay the whole night if they were ready to go home, but most did. We had the photo booth open all night; we did our wedding cake cutting, garter/bouquet tosses, and hit the dance floor.

The cocktail-style wedding reception is a great concept for those looking to save a little money and surprise their guests. We had a great response from it, and it turned out to be just the fun wedding-day party we dreamed of!

The Cocktail Vibe

It's a more laid-back, intimate- "take it easy" vibe. But, of course, you can still make it formal or casual; this is still all up to you.

Cocktail weddings (especially if you prefer a weekday (Friday) night wedding!) tend to be shorter in length, which is how you will most likely pocket some savings.

Pro Tip: Consider adding to your invitation that you have a cocktail reception and advise them of the preferred dress code.

Design your cocktail wedding AS IF it is a sit-down wedding. Incorporate your theme and creatively set up areas for your guests to enjoy the experience. Of course, you can always speak to a consultant/designer to help you develop great designs and creative options. The Space

It is necessary to figure out how to work the space, wedding venue, or even the restaurant you have decided on. Or, if you are yet to find a venue, get a feel of how you would like the reception flow. Then, we would usually suggest starting a very rough draft of the floor plan based on the space you will be working with. This way, you can plan and design accordingly.

If you add lounge furniture, it will most likely take more space than a regular table, same as delivering them (does your venue have a loading dock or access?); this matters as you will also have to consider the delivery and setup and pick-up fees involved.

If you plan to have a dancefloor, you would want to determine how much space you have – because you also don't want to make the space look empty.

The Setup

Of course, cocktail/high-top tables are essential. But since the whole wedding will be cocktail-style, providing your guest's options and great comfort is key! Give them a chance to walk around and choose where to sit and where to hang.

Mix cocktail/high-top tables with bar stools with cushions and comfortable lounge seating with tables. We would usually suggest adding a few regular tables if you expect some elderly guests or using it as a "grandparents" and "kids" table.

Don't forget to add accent decor for your seating areas. Decor and flowers do not have to be elaborate, but having them is great to set the wedding's vibe.

The Seating

Add an extra 10-20% of the seating area for your cocktail-style wedding reception. Remember, guests will be grouping themselves, which you have no control over since there will be no assigned seating. Having extra space/s area/s where they can hang will help with crowd control.

If you'd like to have specific seating areas for immediate family and your wedding party, you can label an "area" so that they can be reserved for specific guests.

The Bar

Consider setting up 2-3 bars (opt for a minimalist bar or even a DIY bar!). Since there is no assigned seating, some guests might hang around the bar half the time.

If you opt to have a custom signature cocktail, ensure that it is quick and easy to make. Choosing to do a minimalist bar (wine, beer, and a few liquor/custom cocktails) will shorten prep time and, as a result, avoid line-ups.

Another thing you can consider is beer/wine pack buckets around the lounge area. This way, they can reach for their drink easier, without standing or lining up.

The Food

Ideally, we would suggest treating your cocktail wedding as a sit-down wedding, only this time you're standing up and eating bite-size meals repeatedly.

Set the mood with light appetisers: bread bites, mini salad cups, mini soup cups, Caprese skewers, etc. (See how they are appetisers but in bite-size form?)

Then go into the mains: pulled pork sliders, mini burgers, falafel balls, chicken and waffles, meatball skewers, mini pizza, mashed potato balls, sushi/poke bites, and the like. (See how these are all heavy hitters? No hungry stomachs in your cocktail wedding for sure!)

In addition, setting up food stations, if it is within the budget, will work in a cocktail-style wedding reception!

You can even DIY this part for desserts and buy assorted desserts like brownie bites, cake bites, gourmet cookies, ice cream bars, doughnuts, mini cupcakes, etc. You can serve them as passed, or you can also set them up as stations.

The Staff

Ensuring that you have extra bussers to manage a cocktail wedding reception. A passed appetiser has a quick turnaround, meaning guests will often leave empty plates and glasses on tables. The last thing you want to see at your cocktail wedding is a pile of dishes on a table – that no one has picked up yet!

Hire extra bussers/staff to pick up the dishes and ensure that the beer/wine pack buckets are filled up.

There are staffing companies where you can hire help, servers, bartenders, bussers, etc., directly from them and not worry about other things needed to be executed on the day of the event.

The Timeline

The great thing about cocktail weddings is having food, drinks, and dancing simultaneously. So you can cut to a 4-5 hour reception, instead of a full night.

Including this timeline in your invitation or website will help your guests plan better. Also, mentioning that it is a cocktail wedding will set better expectations. i.e., they might want to have a light meal before your wedding or "pre-drink" somewhere before heading to your wedding.

Providing your guests with what they will be expecting will help them plan their day better and be more involved and present when they get to your wedding.

It will also be great to serve "very light" appetisers before the night's end. Or you can also send them home with "goody" bags with treats or "to go" appetisers.

The Entertainment / Activities

DJ and live entertainment are essential at a cocktail wedding reception. Expect a cocktail wedding to be more "chat heavy" than a sit-down wedding.

A sit-down wedding will be a little more controlled, where there will be a little less talking while people are eating, or at least it will not be loud.

A cocktail wedding can be different since there is no set "mealtime." Instead, it will be mingling, dancing, laughing, and all the simultaneous fun going on.

Even if cocktail weddings have a more laid-back vibe, they still provide guidelines for everyone to see, like when you will serve the appetisers/food and what types are there.


So, if you're looking for a unique wedding reception idea that will have your guests talking long after the big day is over, consider a cocktail party. It will be fun and different, but it'll also save you money on catering costs. Sounds like a win-win to us! Have you ever attended or thrown a cocktail wedding reception? What did you think?

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