It’s the season for entertaining friends and some of us will be contemplating hosting
drinks parties over the Christmas period. For many of us, who refrained from large
gatherings over two Covid-dominated Christmases, this year offers a chance to re-boot
our social lives and revel in some seasonal conviviality. But we may also be feeling a bit
rusty when it comes to organising social events, and in need of quick refresher.
Our etiquette experts have put together a simple guide to hosting a drinks party:
Drinks parties or cocktail parties are traditionally held before dinner, often from
6.30–8.30pm. Increasingly, drinks parties last for a whole evening from 7pm until
around 9–10pm. Slightly more substantial food is served and then guests may take
themselves on to dinner or go home.
A large, formal party is indicated by a printed invitation arriving weeks or even months
ahead of time. A formal invitation would specify cocktails or drinks and canapés and
indicate a dress code. A more contemporary printed card or email invitation would
indicate a less formal event. A text or telephone call asking friends to come round for a
drink would imply that you are organising a very casual get-together, so avoid using this
method if you’re planning a more formal event.
Unlike most dinner parties, drinks parties may be held at a venue other than the host’s
house, for example clubs, pubs, hotels, other people’s large houses or hired rooms in
museums or galleries.
Drinks parties are where waiting staff, or at least help of some sort, is most worthwhile.
Having a bar person and one or two waiters makes a real difference, as does having
someone to greet guests and take coats. A club or venue’s own staff, or possibly those
from an agency or the caterer, may be used. At home, if professionals are not wanted,
then the host’s (or their friends’) teenage children, plus a friend or two, may be a good
option. If there is no help, a host needs to be very organised, with drinks set out ready
poured and a few friends enlisted to circulate with refills.
If you’re hosting a party at home then a single room that is big enough is preferable –
while parties that overflow into more than one room can allow for different ambiences,
they can be tricky. If multiple rooms must be used, then set up a bar in one and provide
some, but not too much, seating in another. Most people will stand and circulate, but
some seats are considerate for older guests.
Pay careful attention to the ambience of the room. Flowers or seasonal decorations will
create a celebratory atmosphere; lighting should be low and subtle. Music is not
essential and should be kept low – the din of conversation can soon reach deafening
pitch in a crowded room.
Pay careful attention to coats, especially for a winter party. Ensure that there is a designated place where they can be left, preferably in a separate
Drinks can range from champagne or sparkling wine to cocktails (though you will need a
dedicated and experienced bar person to cope with demand). Always serve a good
selection of soft drinks and perhaps a non-alcoholic cocktail. Have a bottle of whisky to
hand for the guest who only drinks Scotch. Get too much of everything, including extra
glasses, as demand can never be anticipated, and drinks often get mislaid or spilt.
Some food needs to be served at a drinks party, even though it is not central to the
event. Canapés are customary and may be provided by a caterer, shop-bought or
homemade. It is smartest to serve just one type of canapé per tray and, most
importantly, they should be easy to eat in one bite, without cutlery. Avoid any canapé
that is overloaded or crumbly.
Serve canapés in stages, introducing new kinds progressively throughout the evening.
For a party of a hundred people then six different canapés per head, three hot and three
cold, would be about right, but this may be impractical or require too much cooking if
professional caterers are not being used. It is not always necessary to provide little
napkins. If food is served on sticks or skewers, then thought should be given as to their
disposal. Receptacles should be provided on the canapé tray or be offered separately.
Hosts must be ready to greet their guests on arrival and make sure they have drinks.
Ideally, someone else should open the door and take coats. Guests should be
introduced as much as possible, especially in the early stages of the party. Once most
people have arrived, the host can move to the middle of the room where they can keep
a close eye on proceedings. If there is no help, it is sensible for the host to take a bottle
with them as they circulate. This will keep glasses topped up and signal to guests that
the host cannot linger for a long chat.
The host’s job is to ensure that everyone is circulating and conversing and to check that
there are no lonely wallflowers. But don’t take the compulsion to introduce people to
each other too far. An over-assiduous host who is continually breaking up interesting
conversations to make new introductions can cause irritation.
Now is not the time to get absorbed in long conversations with people you haven’t seen
for years – you may be able to catch up with them after most of the guests have left. A
good host will keep on the move, exchanging friendly greetings, chatting briefly and
moving on. If you feel you’re getting too drawn into a conversation, just say: ‘I’m so
sorry here are so many old friends I need to catch up with so I am going to circulate…’
It is perfectly in order to stop serving drinks to signal the end of a party. If the party is in
a venue and the host is aiming to go on to a restaurant, then it is easiest to apologise to
any stragglers and let them know that everyone has to vacate the premises by a certain
time. If the party is at home, hosts may well have to accept that they’re in for the long
haul – dwindling drink supplies and subtle tidying up should convey the message
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