A Timeline for Pulling off the Perfect Cocktail Party
December 7, 2016
EntertainingCocktail PartyParty
Never let the stress and overflowing to-do list of throwing a cocktail party deter you again. With a simple timeline straight from the mouth of an entertaining genius; you can hone in on effortless entertaining. Darcy Miller is sharing tips and tricks for pulling off your best ever cocktail party. Really it all boils down to preparation and fun details. Read up on her partying to-do's and for more entertaining secrets check out her new and beautifully adorned book, Celebrate Everything.
From Darcy Miller... Throwing a cocktail party is a great way to mingle with friends much more naturally than at a sit-down dinner party. You can invite more guests because of this reason, too, and don’t need to worry so much about exact numbers. I always like to pick a theme to carry through the elements of the party and to personalize to the guest of honor or occasion, whether it’s New Year’s Eve or a class reunion. With that in mind, these are very general guidelines and of course, every tip and piece of advice below can be adapted to your priorities.

What to Do Ahead of Time

Brainstorm and Get Inspired

I start every party plan brainstorming about whatever or whomever I’m celebrating. I have a master inspiration list that asks every question from favorite color, food, book, signature style icon, the works. I use the answers to all these questions as jumping off points to inspire the party. These details are always helpful in deciding a theme, a color palette, the cake—everything! Its what makes each party different and memorable. For me, the best part of any party are the personal little details that feel really true to the person or people I am celebrating. For the friend who loves art, you can throw a Jackson Pollack party where everything is splattered paint from the cake to the invitations (you could even splatter canvas sneakers as an activity or favor, which is featured in my book!). Whether it’s having everyone show up wearing your sister’s signature red lipstick or having everyone bring their favorite pie—savory or sweet—for the baker amongst you, these are the things that really set your celebration apart.

Set Your Party Style & Location

Are you thinking Taco Tuesday in jeans at home or a jacket and tie soiree at a restaurant? As you begin to expand on your theme, think about a style, theme and color palette—one of the easiest ways to make your décor really stand out and feel cohesive is to focus on one or two colors (again, you can work in personal details here—what’s the guest of honor’s favorite color or what colors represent the event or season you’re celebrating?).

Get Organized Before You Start

Once you set your date, your timeline will start to fall into place. Keep it organized and make a checklist of everything you plan to do or people you need to hire (bartender, entertainment, etc.). Writing down everything you even might need is half the battle. Whether you’re someone who likes an excel spreadsheet, an online downloadable form or plain old pen and paper, your checklist will be your lifeline. And who doesn’t love crossing things off?

Set a Budget

Before you start making any financial decisions, figure out roughly how much you want to spend and set your budget 20% lower than that number so you avoid any last minute surprises. There are tons and tons of ways to make your party fun and special without looking like you’re skimping. Even timing can help—setting your cocktail party from 3:00 – 5:00 instead of later in the evening means that you don’t have to serve a full meal, for example, and a Tuesday evening cocktail party tends to be more low-key than one on Saturday night.

Make a Guest List

Figure out who and how many you want included—and anticipate your guests’ questions about plus ones or children being welcome before they are even asked. Make sure you have all the contact information you’ll need. Will you be sending out a paper invitation or going digital? Make sure you have those email addresses or mailing addresses.

A Few Weeks Before

Invite and Confirm Attendees

It’s important to get at least vague numbers as early as possible so you know approximately the size you’re planning for. Numbers matter for things like ordering the right amount of wine or making enough favors ahead of time if you’re going to have those. And no matter what, always order a few extra! You never know and there are always those guests who are able to show up last minute (although there are also people cancel last minute).

Make Sure Everything is Ordered & Arrange Additional Help

Anything that you know you need to order in advance (whether it’s calling a bakery ahead of time or renting extra chairs), it’s best to get those orders in place so you avoid rush delivery. Get price quotes for things that you’ll order closer to the date and make sure to make a schedule of pick-ups for after the party. It’s easier and easier these days to get things custom designed, from chocolates to coasters, but those shipments also take longer since everything is specially printed or designed for you. If you want have a special cocktail napkin with initials or a photo printed on it, that’s something that should be decided upon early.

Figure Out What You Will Be DIYing

You don’t have to be an expert crafter to DIY a few things. From making cookies and putting them in the freezer to filling bags with candy and tying them up, there are so many things that can be bought and put together in advance of the party. You can even make this a little get together of its own, inviting friends or family to help you DIT (Do-It-Together), which leads me into my next point.

Delegate and collaborate

Whether you’re having a baby shower with friends or celebrating your parents’ anniversary with family, it’s important to figure out who is helping and how. There are so many ways people can help (and DIT!), from putting together favors to baking a cake. Collaborating will not only get the job done faster and easier, but it makes the process fun, too. Though the party itself is the focus, the memories made putting it together can be just as enjoyable.

Plan Your Menu

For cocktail party, figure out if you’re planning on serving passed hors d’oeuvres, a full buffet, just a few strategically placed snacks or some combination. With that, decide if you are cooking, catering, buying prepared foods or maybe doing a little of each. Will you want elevated sophisticated bites, or something more familiar? No matter how elegant my cocktail parties are I always like to serve mini hot dogs!

Pick a signature cocktail

You can personalize the drink to the season, occasion or even color palette. Naming the cocktail adds even more personality; you can come up with something special from the ingredients, but even just giving it a name (Winter Whiskey Punch or Henry’s Hot Toddies…hint: alliteration always works!) will add a little detail to your menu. This makes it more thoughtful and you will save you the money of having a full bar.

Figure Out Favors

Favors are definitely optional when it comes to cocktail parties, but I always like to have a little something to make my guests feel special. You don’t have to go all out—personalizing chocolate bars or mini champagne bottles are great options. You can also use décor as double duty—have bud vases on the table all night that your guests can take home, or put small bags by the jars of candy to have your guests fill before leaving.

Make a Playlist

Music plays a big part in setting the tone for any party. Are you going to hire anyone like a band or a DJ? If so, you’ll need to book them. If not, it’s easy to make or find a playlist. With enough time a week before the event, maybe you send out an email to all of your guests taking requests!

Figure out How You’re Documenting Your Party

Whether you’re hiring a photographer or doing it yourself, documenting your party is important! If you’re going to hire a professional, set that up now. If you’re planning to use your own camera, make sure it’s working and charged. Make sure photos are taken the day of!

One Week Before

Follow Up with Guests

Check in with everyone on your guest list from whom you haven’t heard—and send reminders to everyone who has RSVP’d yes. This way you can finalize your guest lists.

Plan Smaller Ways to Personalize Your Party

Think about the little ways to add something special to the evening and to get your guests comfortable. If your guests don’t know each other—or even if they do, creating fun name tags or ice breaker games can get the party moving right from the start. This isn’t a must, but it’s a great way to add another element of personal detail to the event as well.

Think About Your Neighbors

If you’re in apartment building, knock on the next door and invite them. If you live in a neighborhood, give them a heads up that there will be cars parked in the street.

Check your Supplies

Everything from glasses to napkins to hand towels, make sure you have enough. If you are entertaining on a bigger scale than you usually do, make sure you’re extra prepared.

The Day Before

Think about what you’re wearing

With all the prep that comes with planning one’s own party, it’s easy to forget about how YOU will be enjoying the night! So you don’t have to worry about it last minute, take out what you’re going to wear the day before. If anything needs to be ironed or washed, you’ll have enough time to get all of that done. Twenty minutes before your guests arrive you might be lighting candles and putting out ice, so with your outfit already planned, you can get dressed at the last second and not worry about getting anything on your party outfit.

Check in with Guests

Another quick, “Can’t wait to see you tomorrow night!” email never hurt anyone and it will also get your guests in the mood to party!

Get your Last Minute Groceries

Go out for the last time and get everything you need, so you don’t have to go out again! Anything you plan to make beforehand or cleaning products or storage containers

Tidy Up

If you are having your party at home, clean up the area and make sure everything is in its place. Put out candles and make the space ready to party. No need to be doing that day of. I love having cocktail parties because it makes my apartment so nice!

Lay out your Table

Pull out serving platters, serving utensils and map out your table the day before. You can put post-its on your bowls and plates where the food will be, put out your cocktail napkins and glasses.

Arrange Flowers and Decor

Arrange your florals or have your flowers delivered – it’s always good to have a little time to see your room all set up in case you need to fill in anywhere. Just don’t forget to add more water the day of! I always like the way flowers look the day after I buy them!

Make Sure All Food and Beverages are All Set

Prepare any food, put wine or any beverages that need to be cool in the refrigerator. Grab some extra ice! If you need more space, you could have a tub with ice for any additional beverages.

Secure Payments

If you have outside helpers, make sure your set on how you’re paying them and make sure you have cash for tips.

The Day of

Be Ready

Trying to get as organized as possible at the beginning of the day, so that you’re ready when guests walk in. Take some pictures! Take some pictures so that you have a record of the space and you’ll remember it next time you’re having a party. It’s always fun to have your parties documented before guests arrived when everything looks perfect. Don’t forget to take pictures during as well!

Set the Mood

Crank up the music, light the candles, fluff the pillows—you know how to do this one! Relax! Have a glass of wine (or your cocktail of choice) before guests arrive—the more relaxed you are, the more comfortable your guests will feel.

You Might Also Love...

How to Throw a Killer Cocktail Party
The Ultimate Wine Tasting Guide
Entertaining 101: How to Set a Table


Photography: From Celebrate Everything by Darcy Miller. Copyright (c) 2016 by Darcy Miller. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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