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How to plan the perfect cocktail hour

Cocktail hour is by far one of our favourite parts of any wedding. Between the food, the drinks, and the atmosphere, it’s a great opportunity to elevate your guest experience – but only if you do it properly! Nothing kills the vibe like a poorly planned cocktail hour, which is why we’re here to help make sure it’s one of the best parts of your day instead of the worst.


Give your guests enough time to enjoy it

After you and your partner tie the knot, your guests will fall into two categories:

  1. Those who run right to the bar

  2. Those who will linger and take their cue from the couple

Since cocktail hour is all about getting your guests a drink and giving them time to enjoy, you want to make sure your cocktail hour is long enough for both types of guests to participate. That’s why we always recommend that cocktail hour be at least 90 minutes (an hour and a half) long. With this type of timeline, you give those who get caught up in conversations after your ceremony or sneak a peek of your photo session enough time to settle in without feeling rushed.

Rule of thumb for cocktail hour – no matter what type of ceremony you have – is to give your guests enough time to finish a beverage(or two or three!) before sitting down for dinner. This is especially important because the bar typically closes while dinner is served. So let them enjoy the late afternoon sun and finish their conversations. Hellos shouldn’t have to happen after dinner!

Offer your guests a signature cocktail or champagne toast

Since all of your guests are looking to get a drink immediately after your ceremony, the beginning of cocktail hour can be a little chaotic if you’re not prepared. So be prepared by having a welcome cocktail or a champagne toast ready! By giving your guests the option of serving themselves with pre-made beverages, you’re able to jumpstart cocktail hour as soon as it starts.

Photos by Sandra Monaco Photography

This is something we love to do at one of our venues, Cellar52. Using our “love wall” to display them, couples have come up with some pretty creative cocktails that highlight who they are and what they love. The best part? These cocktails keep guests from having to wait in line and get the party started fast, which is something your guests won’t forget in a hurry.

Make sure your guests have enough to eat

There is absolutely nothing worse than your guests drinking with nothing to nosh on. Obviously they’re eager to celebrate with you, but they also need to eat! Keeping your guests unfed for too long will result in lots of hangry people, which is the biggest buzzkill at any cocktail hour.

Photos by The Eastcore Photo Journalists

That’s why investing in an excellent caterer can make all the difference. Nothing says “come and eat’ like a giant charcuterie table or a make-your-own-guacamole station. Or why not serve some delicious canapes that guests can nibble where they stand? Whatever your style, the outcome remains the same – your guests are happy and ready to keep the party going.

Give your guests somewhere to sit

As much as your guests love to eat and drink, they also want to be comfortable while they do it. Let’s be real – juggling a glass of wine and a canape while trying to pick up a napkin is a true artform that not many people can master. Having some cocktail tables for where guests can put their drinks down and chairs where they can take a load off is a great way to make your cocktail hour more inviting and accessible to everyone there.

(LEFT) Photo by Tom Guest Weddings

(RIGHT) Photo by Ashlee Ellison Photography & Films

This is especially important if you have any number of elderly guests. Don’t make Grandma stand for an hour and a half! Instead, give her a seat so that she can stay with you and your guests during cocktail hour without having to go in search of a chair.

Don’t put your seating chart out too early

Similar to our previous point, do not put your seating chart out too early! Making that information available to your guests too soon after cocktail hour starts is guaranteed to result in a ew guests heading to the dining room early to find their seat.

Not only is this vibe incredibly lame, but it also encourages people to sit at your tables which could mess up your table scapes before your photographers get a chance to capture it. You don’t want Aunt Linda’s bright red sequinned shawl in any of your photos, so do yourself a favour and keep the seating chart out of the way until it’s more appropriate to be seated for dinner.

Give your guests something to do

Cocktail hour is a key part of your wedding reception that can make or break how much fun your guests have with you on your wedding day. In order to avoid guests getting bored or antsy, give them something interactive to do! Some of our favourite ways to do this is by having a Polaroid guest book, photo booth, or patio games available for guests to enjoy. Whether it’s snapping a silly selfie or winning a game of Jenga, activities are always at the heart of the best cocktail hours.

Photos by Liam Good Visuals

These activities don’t need to be limited to games, either. Food and beverage can play an incredible role here! How fun is it to decorate a few oysters before eating a few, or creating your own perfect sangria blend? It’s these types of elements that will make the biggest impact and keep your guests entertained for as long as the bar is open.

Liven up the party with live music

One of the best things about going to a concert is the energy created by both the crowd and the musicians on stage, which is why having live music is a must when planning the best cocktail hour possible.

A guitarist playing during cocktail hour

Photo by Liam Good Visuals

The best part is that it doesn’t need to be extravagant! Sure, we would never say no to a four piece jazz band or an elegant trio, but an acoustic guitarist is also a fantastic way to set the mood and add some life to your cocktail hour. All we’d recommend is choosing musicians who don’t rely on singing. When you’re in the swing of a good party, they most likely won’t be heard!

Keep your guests hydrated with a water bar

A spa water bar at a cocktail hour

Even though the vast majority of your guests will enjoy a beer, wine, or mixed drink during cocktail hour, some guests will choose not to partake. That’s why having a water bar is so crucial for making your cocktail hour the best it can be. By providing easy-to-access options for your non-drinking guests, you deliver an even more enjoyable guest experience by demonstrating that you care about everyone’s needs.

Not to mention that on those hot summer days, your guests are going to start clogging the bar line when they need a glass of water to refresh. With a water bar, they can serve themselves and get it anytime! This experience is even better when you upgrade to a spa water bar. It’s amazing what some fresh fruit infused water can do to make staying hydrated a prettier, fun experience.

Get involved!

Now that you’ve planned the best cocktail hour, you deserve to enjoy it with the rest of your guests! Make sure you have a specific shot list prepared for your photographer to ensure your photos are finished quick enough for you to get back, grab a drink, and start enjoying your cocktail hour.

Photo by JD Photography

Remember: your guests are here for you and want to spend time with you and your partner, so give them chances to do so. Don’t spend your whole time away – we guarantee you’ll regret it!


Not sure you'll remember everything? We've got you! Download our handy cocktail hour cheat sheet and get ready to throw the best party ever.

The Stella Collective's best cocktail hour cheat sheet
The Stella Co's cocktail hour cheat sheet

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