Cocktails at Six

How to wine and dine your guests in a new way

Here's how to wine and dine your guests in a fabulous new way. A cocktail-party reception is for the bride who wants to celebrate in an unconventional way, yet keep some of the customs that define a wedding. She gets to have the best of both worlds—the social scene of a drinks-and-hors d'oeuvres gathering and the romantic rituals of a traditional wedding. Cheers!

On the Menu

The setup works this way: hors d'oeuvres (lots of them), wedding cake, and mini desserts. Offer 10 to 15 appetizers, figuring six pieces per person per hour. Mix it up with hot and chilled vegetarian, seafood, poultry, and meat selections. Tray-pass the majority of your nibbles, and have several "action stations," at which chefs cook dishes meant to be eaten immediately—anything from sushi to baby crepes. For guests, it's like ringside seats in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant.

Vary how you present the food, from spoons and skewers to demitasse cups and small plates. Unusual serving vessels, like tiny takeout boxes for Asian fare and aperitif glasses for cold soups, will make the food pop even more. Nothing should require the use of a knife.

Timing It Right

Like a seated reception, a cocktail-party fete usually runs four or five hours, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight. Pass hors d'oeuvres for about 60 to 90 minutes before beginning reception rituals like the first dance. Then fire up the action stations. About three hours into the party, cut the wedding cake, then segue to more rituals, like the father-daughter dance and toasts. Serve three or four sweets, tray-passed or from stations, about 45 minutes after the cake is cut.

Sensational Sips

It's a cocktail party, so have a full bar, but pass Champagne, red and white wine, and sparkling water to ease lines. A specialty cocktail station is a must. Martini and mojito bars are still red-hot (pick one or the other; you want happy guests, not inebriated ones). Custom cocktails can be tray-passed—they might match the decor or theme, or simply be presented with style. For example, serve limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) and blood-orange martinis on trays strewn with rose petals. Care to up the ante? Open a high-end single malt Scotch or liqueur bar (brandy, cognac) to follow the cake-cutting.

I'll Drink to That!

An instant way to personalize the reception and start conversations: the signature drink. Name it after something special to both of you, like the cocktail you sipped when you met (the Love at First Sight Singapore Sling), or combine your names to create a drink (Ellen McGuire and Todd Bailey could offer "the McBailey"). Other ideas: the place where you met or got engaged (the Danbury High Daiquiri); your beloved animal companion (the Linus Margarita); your favorite hobby (the Tennis Ball); your honeymoon destination (the Maui Sunset); the music you love (the Bluegrass Bellini).

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