The cocktail portion of your wedding may not be at the top of your planning agenda, but for many guests, those 60-plus minutes spent sipiping drinks and nibbling on gourmet hors d'oeuvres are one of the best times of the night. This hour sets the tone and warms your guests up for your reception. It's also often a laid-back setting, so you can get really creative, bring in different music or exotic cuisine, and let your personalities come through.
Walking out of a lovely ceremony only to find yourself stuck in a throng of guests pushing their way into the party room can be a quick mood killer. The layout of your cocktail reception will make or break a good time. To make the atmosphere more about mingling (and less about waiting for some wine), free the space of potential roadblocks, and make food and drink easily accessible.
As soon as guests enter the room, have servers stationed by the door with trays of Champagne, ice water, wine, and your signature cocktail so guests can grab a drink and move on. Otherwise, you may end up with a bothersome bottle-neck at the bar. For the same reason, never set up a drink station right by the entrance.
Stock plenty of vodka (which always goes quickly, because it's a popular pick) as well as good gin, Scotch, dark rum, and a blended whiskey. If you're thinking about buying your own booze to save some dough, crunch the numbers first. Your venue or caterer may charge a corkage fee for each bottle opened, and that can make any savings a wash.
When choosing wine for the cocktail hour, keep it simple. Stick to one or two whites and one red (sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, and merlot are always favorites). Or try something new, like an Alsatian white or an Argentinean malbec. Lesser-known labels can save you money and introduce your guests to wines that they may have never tried before. Sparkling wine is also a good idea, but if your budget is tight, consider some of the refreshing small-vineyard bubblies, such as proseccos or cavas, in lieu of more expensive Champagne.
Here's a surefire way to keep guests happy: Stock imported, light, and domestic beers (local microbrews are invariably pleasing, surprising, and a nice introduction to your wedding's locale for out-of-town guests). And instead of bartenders tapping pony kegs at your wedding, ask them to serve the beer in bottles or, as a festive alternative, have them pour it into frosted mugs at the bar.
Under no circumstances should you skimp on the number of servers you hire to pass hors d'oeuvres. Make sure you're heavily staffed—one waiter per 25 guests—so that no one is forced to chase down a stuffed mushroom. For every server bringing food to guests, there should be a server with an empty tray making his way back to the kitchen.
When it comes to a great cocktail, sometimes less is more. Opt for drinks that have no more than four elements and use fresh-squeezed juices, seasonal herbs, and homemade syrups. Also consider when it will be prepared. Some libations are best served just-made, which takes time, while others can be premade in batches. As for the liquor, try gin, vodka, or tequila. You don't want anything too strong, so tell the bartenders to err on the side of caution.
Elaborate pasta or carved-meat buffets may impress guests, but you don't want to stuff them before a delicious sit-down meal. Instead, offer a couple of passed meat dishes, one or two seafood choices, and a few cheese hors d'oeuvres and vegetarian samplings. Vary the color and textures—providing some hot, some cold, some crispy, some creamy. Now's also a good time to serve less familiar dishes, ilke Grandma's famous moussaka, which may be too bold a choice for the main course but is perfect in bite-size form.
It can be frustrating to stab at a plate of penne with a glass of wine precariously perched in the crook of your elbow. A good rule of thumb is: "No picks, no sticks, no tails, no trash." The price of food is generally based on the preparation and the ingredients used. Ask your caterer for a list of basic selections, then think of ways to add flavor and flair to them. For example, you can enliven a simple slider with blue cheese, or serve three different dipping sauces for shrimp cocktail.
Your reception will most likely be filled with crowd-pleasing songs that guests can dance to, but your cocktail music should be quieter and feel more lounge-y. That doesn't, however, mean you have to settle for Lite FM tunes. It's a chance for the couple to express their own musical tastes with a low-key vibe. Spanish guitar, jazz trios, and acoustic duos are good choices; they're as mellow as classical music but with more edge.