The Guide to Wedding Cocktail Hour

It's time to get into party mode.

Cocktail Hour


The vows have been said, and the rings have been exchanged. Now, it’s time to celebrate! Cocktail hour is what transforms your wedding from a solemn ceremony to a full-scale soirée, so you’ll want to do it right. It's the period of time between the ceremony and dinner, and the beginning of the reception portion of the wedding.

“The cocktail hour is kind of like the acclimating period,” says Vicky Theodorou of Heirloom Catering & Event Design. “You’re gonna grab some drinks, you’re gonna grab some bites, and you’re gonna get into party mode.”

Meet the Expert

Vicky Theodorou is the founder and style director of Washington, D.C. catering company Heirloom Catering & Event Design.

What to Serve During Cocktail Hour

While the food and drink served at your reception dinner will need to please the masses, options during cocktail hour can be more daring and geared towards your individual tastes. “This is a time where you can be more globally inspired and think outside the box, even if your guests are more meat-and-potato types,” says Theodorou. She encourages couples to consider what they love, where they come from, favorite comfort foods, dishes with special meanings in their family or culture, and memorable bites from travels abroad, and builds their menu from there.

You’ll want at least five different kinds of passed hors d'oeuvres, with two bites of each budgeted per guest. There will likely be extras—and that’s okay. Leftovers can be included in your vendor meal or packed up and delivered to your hotel room for a fun late-night snack. Food stations (only one or two is necessary) should be used in addition to the passed hors d’oeuvres, not in place of them. There’s no need to replenish as the hour goes on. Think of them as one-hour-only specials: once the goods are gone, they’re gone.

Stationery displays (also known as food bars, food stations, or grazing tables) are another fun option for cocktail hour. These give guests the option to customize their appetizers or fill small cocktail-style plates with the exact mix of bites they want. Popular displays include raw bars and cheese and charcuterie boards, but Theodorou has also created options focused on crostini, dumplings, sushi, tacos, pizza, and pasta. 

When it comes to drinks, you’ll want multiple ways for guests to pick up a beverage when they walk into the cocktail hour space. In addition to having bartenders (plan for one bartender per 35 to 45 guests), waiters can pass pre-poured glasses of wine, direct guests to a beer cooler, or hand out juice and water. If you’re going to do a signature cocktail, know that cocktail hour is the time to serve it. “It’s a nice way to add an element of personalization, but, after one or two, people are going to revert to their drink of choice,” says Theodorou, who recommends stopping the service once dinner begins.

Don’t have a go-to beverage to set as your signature cocktail? Opt for something seasonal with a hint of whimsy. During the summer, Theodoru loves mini popsicles in a coupe of prosecco. Come fall, red wine harvest slushies are a big hit.

Tips for Hosting a Cocktail Hour

Go Al Fresco if You Can

If your reception venue has a unique annex or outdoor space, cocktail hour is the time to use it. Balconies, patios, rooftops, poolside…something outside on a nice evening will immediately set the party tone. Keep this space available throughout the event, so guests can step out for some fresh air or a quick phone call later on.

Be Smart About Seating 

Scatter a few high-top tables (one per 10 to 25 guests) throughout the space, and include a few low-seat tables as well for older attendees that might not be able to stand for long periods of time. (Lounge furniture also solves this issue and in an infinitely more Insta-worthy way). Overall, you’re not looking to seat more than 30 percent of your party during cocktail hour.

Have a Few Major Décor Moments

Save major florals for high-traffic areas like the bar or a food station. For extra visual flair, have your escort card display double as an eye-catching design element. You can also work with your caterer to come up with whimsical ways to serve your appetizers. Heirloom is known for placing bites on small chairs and in miniature baskets and skillets.

Music Should be Fun, But Not a Focal Point

Cocktail hour is a time to mingle and chat, and a band or DJ will only overpower that. Instead, opt for something more subtle, like a string quartet, strolling violinist, or even an acoustic act.

If you want to include more of a performance—like, say, a mariachi band—keep it limited to 15 minutes. It’s also perfectly fine to have any musical act play for only the first 30 minutes of cocktail hour.

Include an Interactive Element 

Whether it’s something high-energy like lawn games or a selfie station or a low-key option like signing the guest book, you’ll want to give your guests at least one activity beyond eating and drinking. 

Don’t be Tempted to Set an Area for Discards

While it’s a major party pet peeve to let toothpicks, crumpled napkins, and empty glasses build up on high-tops, having an assigned place to pile these things will only create an eyesore. Instead, your caterer will designate staffers to serve as “sweepers.” They will collect discarded items and pile them on a drop table located just out of sight.

Treat Yourselves Like the VIPS You Are

Theodorou assigns one staffer to the couple and one to their immediate family. That way, the most in-demand attendees at the wedding don’t have to spend valuable schmoozing time searching out food and drink.

Cocktail Hour Etiquette

Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about the wedding cocktail hour:

How Long Does Cocktail Hour Last?

Typically an hour, but it can go up to 90 minutes if extra time is needed for photos or to flip the reception space. If you’ll be going longer, it’s a good idea to include games or other activities to keep guests occupied.

Do You Need to Have a Cocktail Hour?

“It’s definitely advised,” says Theodorou. “Cocktail hour gives your team time to prepare dinner and get everything in motion, and it does lend to the overall experience at an event. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip it.”

Can You Have the Cocktail Hour Before the Ceremony?

You certainly can, but this does pose a few challenges. One challenge to having cocktail hour before your ceremony will be getting guests into their seats so you can walk down the aisle. Designate a specific time when the bar is closed, and ask the bartenders and venue staff to encourage guests to take their seats. Keep it shorter if you haven’t tied the knot yet—45 minutes to an hour is plenty of time.

Can Guests Skip the Cocktail Hour? 

In general, cocktail hour should be attended by guests. “It is part of the party and the couple has paid for you to be there,” says Theodorou.

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