How to host a contemporary cocktail wedding reception

Receptions // by Emily Russ

Nothing says summer like a chilled cocktail (with a gorgeous garnish, thank you very much). So, naturally, a cocktail wedding reception is a match made in summer (and spring!) wedding heaven. Confused what makes a reception a cocktail reception? Not exactly sure how to make this relaxed style a winner for all your guests? Mix yourself a little something, get comfy and let us break down how to host a contemporary cocktail wedding reception.

What actually is a cocktail reception?
Is a cocktail reception just a party where cocktails are served?, you might wonder. Well, yes and no. Traditionally, this style of reception is more relaxed than sit-down celebrations – it’s a less formal event that allows you to enjoy canapés, drinks and mingling with guests. But, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to high tables and bar stools for your décor.

Modern cocktail receptions we’re loving right now often feature scattered ‘clusters’ of seating, like mismatched sofas, and armchairs. Love the boho look? Low tables on textured rugs with oversized cushions as seating look amazing, and even pretty picnic blankets (styled to the max, of course) can make for a fun way to seat your guests. However you choose to style it, from boho to black tie, the key to a great cocktail reception is to make it chilled, free-flowing and conversational.

Is a cocktail event right for your wedding?
There’s one seriously tempting reason to consider a cocktail reception: you can throw out the seating chart. The whole point of this style of celebration is to keep guests roaming and interacting, so you don’t have to assign everyone a specific seat – but it does pay to be conscious of how much seating you’ll need as not all guests will be comfortable standing for prolonged periods.

Venue permitting, cocktail receptions also offer room for a larger guest list. Swapping big dining tables for smaller alternatives is a great space-saver and will allow you to fit in more people… or a more impressive dance floor! Priorities, right?

Perhaps the most obvious but crucial reason couples choose cocktail receptions is for the atmosphere. Ideal for outdoor events, these celebrations can be as formal or as chilled as you like and work especially well with festival-inspired weddings with a ‘backyard drinks in the sun’ feel. And after the all-eyes-on-you ceremony, a cruisy reception can be the perfect way to hang out with your guests without feeling like you’re on show the whole time.

What to keep in mind
As soon as you say ‘cocktail reception’, some people instantly interpret it to mean ‘limited food’. You might have to win over some of your sceptical guests, but don’t worry, your venue or caterer will help. Your menu will come down to budget, but as long as you offer a few substantial canapés and keep them coming regularly throughout the festivities, your guests will be too busy munching on tasty goodies to make their ‘constructive comments’. Think favourites like sliders loaded with slow-cooked meats, gourmet battered fish and hand-cut chips in cones, zingy tacos and golden arancini balls to get in your guests’ good books. The number one way to keep everyone happy is to make it clear what they should expect – include an indication on your invites like, ‘Please join us for a cocktail reception’ to avoid any confusion or disappointment on the big day.

Possibly one of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to cocktail receptions is seating. Not everyone will want to stand around and mingle the whole time, and low-level seating creates a few challenges for less mobile or restrictively dressed guests. The beauty of cocktail receptions is that you can embrace the mismatched look (while keeping the styling cohesive) and set up different styles of seating. Be sure to provide normal-height seating (like armchairs) for your more elderly guests and maybe even leave a sweet ‘reserved for…’ sign for your VIG (very important grandparents).

One last thing to remember? Cocktail receptions can often be a more cost-effective option than a sit-down meal, but double-check figures with your venue or caterer. Read the fine print and ask if you have to pay an additional fee for serving staff and mixologists to avoid any nasty surprises.

How to make it a next-level reception
If you really want to impress your guests consider exactly how you’ll be serving food. Wait staff offering around platters of finicky canapés and napkins is a cocktail reception go-to but this is an opportunity to play with more unique serving styles. A grazing station filled with charcuterie, cheeses or summer-friendly salads (hello, grilled watermelon and halloumi) will win over your guests, while lavish serving stations are a brilliant way to go all-out. Sashimi, oyster shucking, freshly made sushi and even mini wood-fired pizza stations are crowd-pleasers.

Just sticking to canapés? Make a lasting impression with the way the serving staff plate them and consider theme-appropriate styling. For rustic garden-themed weddings, swap the silver platter for retro wooden crates (preferably with weather-worn labels), or serve Asian salads in Chinese teacups with beautiful patterns for more classic celebrations. For an instant touch of nostalgia, distribute sliders and cones of hot chips in wooden trays hung from servers’ necks, like the sort you’d see at a baseball game back in the day. So charming!

It’s a good idea to consider how the drinks will be served, too. If you’re having an actual bar, show it off as one of the main attractions with greenery, fresh flowers, signage and ice buckets filled with bottles of Champagne or prosecco – for extra prettiness, freeze flowers or herbs in the ice cubes. You don’t need to fuss too much with styling if your serving staff will be offering drinks around. But if you’re all about going the extra mile, organise a mixologist to roam around the reception with an old-school bar cart and create their delicious concoctions on the spot. Just try to not be impressed by that!

Like any reception, entertainment also makes a huge difference. Consider a live band to get people on their feet and grooving or an acoustic singer-and-guitarist duo for Sunday Session vibes. If your reception will be held outdoors, a campfire is an easy but effective way to make your wedding unforgettable (just check local fire restrictions before lighting), as is a personalised film screening at the end of the night. Confused? This can be as easy as hanging a white sheet and using a laptop-connected projector to show a DIY film made up of your favourite moments together captured on your phone. Important advice – don’t skimp on the popcorn!

If you’re inviting children and you’re wary of them running around (and running into people), set up a kids-only area with a cute tipi, hopscotch, ring toss or a colouring-in table. Bye bye, tantrums.

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The rise of the signature cocktail
Every cocktail party deserves a signature drink, and this cute trend doubles as a delicious way to personalise your wedding. Ask a professional mixologist to create a bespoke cocktail that reflects both your personalities, favourite flavours or wedding theme. Nailing this can be as simple as adding a twist to a classic tipple, like mixing grapefruit juice into a Tom Collins to complement your pale pink colour scheme. Ask your venue, caterer or mixologist for their expert advice and enjoy the sampling process! Hey, you’ve got to get it just right…

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