Hosting a cocktail party

Tips and ideas for throwing a cocktail party, which requires more planning than just assembling a bunch of bottles on a bar. From sending the invitations to after the guests arrive, hosts must make an impression.

When a dinner party feels too formal, but just asking over a few friends would be too casual, what you need is a cocktail party.

Back with a bang after years in near-hibernation, the cocktail party provides a shot of sophistication swilled with a dash of daring, creating a party that can be fabulous fun - If it's done right.

INVITES

Written invitations are never a bad idea. Dropped on colleagues' desks, tossed to friends or mailed the old-fashioned way, an invite in hand helps guests remember the big day and look forward to it. But for smaller gatherings and less formal ones, telephone or email invitations can fit the bill. A save-the-date message two weeks in advance will help your guests work free time in their schedule, while a follow-up a week before will remind them to come.

Be sure to include the date and start and end times of the party (between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. is a popular window for such shindigs), plus the location, including an address or even directions. Plus, mention the nature of the gathering: Is it black tie or jeans? Should they expect enough food for a meal? Are you honoring a person or special occasion?

The guest list should be taken seriously It's crucial to invite a cross-section of personalities of a wide range of ages with broadly varied interests. Invite friends, of course, but try to introduce at least a couple of new people to your usual scene. All this will help spark memorable conversations.

FOOD AND DRINK

If the party will be large - and you can afford it - hire a caterer, servers and bartender. With more than 25 guests, your hosting duties could otherwise overwhelm you. A party should be fun for everyone, including the host, and it's hard to enjoy oneself slaving away in the kitchen or behind the bar.

But if you are fending for yourself, plan the menu and start shopping about a week before the big night. A common rule of thumb is to be prepared to serve each guest 10-12 snacks and 3-4 drinks. This should ensure you have plenty of supplies on hand, but when in doubt overestimate. You don't want to be slipping out for more chips halfway through your party.And be sure to offer a variety of food. Because the food will be sampled in small bites, not everyone has to like everything you offer, but you want to be sure to have something that each person will like. Assume some of the guests will be vegetarian.

If you will be offering a large amount of food, devise dishes you can make a day or two in advance to spread the work over time. Don't forget that store-bought goodies can often be as good - or better - than homemade. Well-stocked supermarkets and specialty stores can keep you from slaving over the stove while still thrilling taste buds.

Plan on having beer and wine and supplies for a few different mixed drinks. You don't need a fully stocked bar. If you know well the tastes of the crowd you're inviting, feel free to hold down the number of choices. Just make sure to have plenty of mixers on hand to offer variety: juice (orange and cranberry), soda, tonic, ginger ale and cola to start.

The basics are vodka, whiskey, wines and beers. To take it up a notch, you can add gin, tequila, rum, bourbon, vermouth, brandy and sherry. Make sure you have at least two glasses per guest, in a variety of styles matching the drinks on hand, and have plenty of ice - about a pound per person.

Don't forget the necessary tools, such as a blender, a corkscrew, a jigger, a shaker and strainer, a stirring rod or spoon and a paring knife for garnishes such as lemons, limes, olives and cherries.

Of course, include nonalcoholic choices, such as soda, tea, punch and coffee. And have the number of a reliable taxi company as well as a made-up guestroom, if it comes to that.

THE BIG NIGHT

Free the main areas of clutter and large furniture to keep the party from feeling crowded. Set up a table for drinks and one for food - preferably, far from each other. That promotes circulation. And place both far from the door to encourage guests to move deep into the party right away.

Scatter small tables and chairs around the room. Folding sets are fine and easy to rearrange.

Choose music to create the ambience you're looking for. Good background music will relax your guests and keep the conversation flowing - if it's too loud or fast everyone will be on edge. Load your CD player or iPod with an upbeat and mellow mix, and set it for random play.

Lower the lights -- using dimmers or lower-watt bulbs - and watch the fun begin.

TIPS FOR THE HOST

Greet guests at the door, take their coats and offer a drink. Make them feel welcome and comfortable the moment they arrive.

Limit your own drinking. If you're more than tipsy, you won't be able to tend as well to the needs of your guests.

Monitor the conversations. Is one corner too quiet? Is a lively discussion devolving into an argument? Guide the conversation away from dicey subjects such as sex, politics and religion to keep the party on an even keel.

Use your left hand to carry food and drinks. That way, your right hand will always be free handshakes and other greetings.

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