How to host a cocktail party – 11 ways to entertain your guests in style

We share the must-have pieces and expert tips for hosting the perfect cocktail party

How to host a cocktail party
(Image credit: Future / Petersham Nurseries)

Are you wondering how to host a cocktail party? With staying in the new going out it's a question a lot of homeowners are asking and with the festive season fast approaching, now's the time to start making preparations.

When it comes to hosting the perfect cocktail party there are lots to consider, from your room layout, furnishings, home bar ideas, and lighting, right down to small details like the glassware and garnishes, not to mention food and drink. 

To help get you inspired we've served up an array of cocktail party ideas and must-have pieces, alongside some handy tips from interior experts on creating the perfect setting for entertaining. 

Cocktail station on a side table Homes & Gardens

(Image credit: Damian Russell)

How to host a cocktail party

When thinking about how to host a cocktail party it is easy to get overwhelmed as there are so many options and products available.

'The first thing to decide on is the formality of the event, as this will determine the preparation and essentials needed,' says Sue Jones, Oka. 'I quite like a more informal occasion, where guests can help themselves and join in with the fun of cocktail making. A small home bar is a must for this, whether it’s a drinks cabinet, bar cart or simply a side table loaded with different bottles; just make sure you’ve got ample space to house a selection of spirits and mixers,' says Sue Jones, creative director and co-founder of Oka.

Allison Babcock also likes to take a relaxed approach. 'My motto is to keep it simple,' says the interior designer. 'Don't be afraid to fit your cocktail party into the space you have! You do not always have to move furniture out or rent fancy linens, etc.. to create a beautiful scene. I find I am far more relaxed when I entertain with this mindset instead of stressing out about a million details.'

1. Fit a home bar in to your kitchen

Kitchen with fitted bar

(Image credit: Tom Howley)

For those that love to entertain fitting a home bar into your kitchen layout is the ultimate luxury.

'You don’t need a huge amount of space to create a home bar. Bespoke bar units can be built seamlessly into an awkward alcove, incorporated into kitchen cabinets or positioned in a dining area, creating the ultimate backdrop for social gatherings,’ says Tom Howley, design director at the eponymous kitchen company.

'Open shelving or glazed cabinets create an abundance of storage, plus they double up as a striking feature that can help set the mood, showing off elegant bottles and glassware that double as décor,' adds Howley.

'Quite often we set up a food and drink station in the kitchen as it feels the most practical space to do this. We will lay out beautiful server dishes laden with canapés and delicious sweet treats with buckets of fizz close by, says Suzy Humphreys, Founder of Layered Lounge. 'The key is preparation when it comes to a party, you want to make sure as much is done in advance so you’re not in the kitchen cooking the whole time your guests are here.'

2. Add a drinks cabinet

Drinks cabinet with mural inside

(Image credit: Kelling Designs)

If you don't have space for a fitted bar then a dedicated, well-stocked drinks cabinet in the dining room or living room is the next best thing. Featuring a muted exterior that opens up to reveal a bold, colorful interior mural, this design from Kelling Designs is guaranteed to create a talking point with guests and doubles as a piece of art. 

3. Create a self-serve drinks station

Console set up as a home bar in a living room

(Image credit: Future)

Hosting a cocktail party can be a stressful affair – to take the pressure off, and give you time to enjoy yourself and talk to guests consider setting up a self-service bar. 

'If you can, set up a bar area with all the necessities for various different drinks so guests can help themselves rather than you having to constantly keep an eye on everyone’s drink levels,' says Sarah Davies-Bennion, senior designer at Kate Guinness.


4. Choose a portable bar trolley

Bar cart ideas for the festive season

(Image credit: Jon Day)

Capturing the glamor of the jazz age, the bar cart has recently experienced a revival and is now a must-have for home entertaining. Available in an array of styles to suit your interior, from rattan designs to chic metallic designs, they are handy for keeping all your barware, drinks, glasses, and garnishes in one place and often come in casters which is useful if you want to move from the dining room into the lounge after dinner. 

‘In terms of design, a bar trolley is a product you can play with; taking influence from the cocktail days of the Roaring 1920s or the bachelor-style allure of the 1950s and 1960s. It is a piece whose purpose is to enable a party atmosphere so it should echo enjoyable excess, like a stylized piece of room jewelry rather than a practical go-to,' says Martin Waller, founder of Andrew Martin.

5. Make sure you have the right glassware

Drinks party with champagne glasses and tumblers on a tray

(Image credit: Oka)

When it comes to hosting a cocktail party having a range of glassware is a must says Sue Jones, founder of Oka.

'I’d probably pick about four cocktails, so people have a choice, and then tailor my glassware to suit the menu. For example, tumblers are usually used for iced drinks that have a higher ratio of alcohol to mixers, such as negronis or mai tais, whereas traditional cocktail glasses are better for cosmopolitans and martinis, which are traditionally made in shakers and served without ice.'

If you're a keen amateur bartender you may want to get specific glasses for each type of cocktail, but this can be costly. For a basic set up invest in a set of martini cocktail glasses, low-ball glasses – also known as rock glasses or old-fashioned glasses – and high-ball glasses for long drinks. Flutes or champagne saucers are a must for champagne or prosecco cocktails and it's also a good idea to have regular water glasses and tumblers set out for non-alcoholic drinks.

6. Create a dedicated entertaining space

Snug with a home bar by Hux London joinery

(Image credit: Hux London)

If you are embarking on a home redesign and love to entertain then consider factoring in social spaces into your layout. Caroline Milns, interior designer and founder of Zulufish, and Felix Milns, founder of bespoke joinery company Hux London, designed their extension (pictured above) with socializing in mind. 

'From relaxing with friends and family to hosting cocktail parties, the space is flexible and versatile,' says Caroline. 'With staying in being the new going out, we wanted to create a real wow moment with a freestanding home bar, designed and built bespoke by Hux, the bar fits beautifully into the end of a wide space, hidden from the kitchen and dining space it really comes to life at night when the built-in lighting and antiqued mirrors add real glamour to the space.'

In order to provide comfortable seating for guests, they chose a vintage Roche Bobois sofa, upholstered in a smart boucle tweed pattern. Caroline adds how it, 'works spectacularly well in the space, orientating both into the room but also facing the bar, creating a cozy corner feel that is still open to the room.'

A vintage disco ball, reclaimed from a Stockholm nightclub, resides over proceedings, bouncing light from the bar around the room.

7. Make sure you are well equipped

Gold barware on a sideboard including Habitat Japonica Cocktail Set

(Image credit: Habitat Japonica Cocktail Set)

When hosting a cocktail party no bartender should be without a good cocktail shaker and barware set, ideally including a jigger, muddler, bar spoon, strainer, and tongs for ice.  An ice bucket is essential as is a large cooler filled with ice for wine, prosecco, and champagne as is a drinks tray for serving.

'Remember, the host needs to have fun too, so save yourself precious time by preparing any garnishes in advance; think slices of fresh lemon and lime in bowls, as well as plenty of ice,’ adds Sue Jones.

8. Make space for serving canapés and nibbles

Nibbles on a console table

(Image credit: Future)

Having a sideboard or console table is a brilliant multifunctional piece of furniture for a dining room or a living room, especially when it comes to hosting a cocktail party. As well as providing a surface to serve platters of canapes and nibbles, this Runswick design from Rebecca Scott offers handy dining room storage beneath for linens, platters and candles, etc.

9. Set the mood

cocktails on a sideboard with candles Emma Lee

(Image credit: Emma Lee)

If you're wondering how to comes to how to style a console table for a cocktail party then you can't go wrong with candles suggests Sue Jones of Oka. 'For the tabletop, nothing beats candles; they cast a lovely warm glow, and they’re flattering too – everything, and everyone, looks better by candlelight.’ 

Adding a table lamp on consoles will also help create a warm, welcoming atmosphere in an entertaining space, and 'credenzas complemented with sconces for ambient lighting are a must for any cozy dining room!' adds Michael Sandsmark of Design West Interiors.

10. Choose statement glasses

console table with antique cocktail glasses from Petersham Nurseries

(Image credit: Petersham Nurseries)

Dazzle guests by trading in standard clear glassware for colorful and eye-catching designs such as these beautiful, hand-blown Murano glasses from Petersham Nurseries.

Alternatively, if you love decorating with vintage, 'do have a look at the vintage barware available from The Vintage Entertainer – she always has the very best in vintage barware, serve ware and glassware,' suggests Sarah Davies-Bennion, senior designer at Kate Guinness. 'You’ll never fail to find something appropriate for your next soiree, whether it’s at New Year or not!' 

11. Make your bar area memorable

Bar area with a gold de Gournay wall mural

(Image credit: Simon Brown)

Designed for entertaining, a home bar is a perfect place to decorate a little differently and make a statement. Hannah de Gournay, founder of bespoke wallpaper company de Gournay turned her bar into a glamorous talking point with a gold chinoiserie mural as a backdrop.

What do you need for a cocktail party?

Having a well-stocked fitted home bar in a kitchen or dining room is a desirable feature if you like to entertain at home and host cocktail parties. Alternatively, if cost and space are an issue, try a freestanding drinks cabinet or a portable bar cart.  A console or sideboard in a living room, dining room, or kitchen diner makes a great space to serve drinks and nibbles from, as does a kitchen island. 

'I always set up a small bar, so everyone can help themselves and central to this a great looking ice bucket and some beautiful glassware,' adds Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company.

In terms of equipment and barware a cocktail shaker and barware set featuring a jigger, bar spoon, strainer and tongs are a must and it's important to have an ice bucket, wine cooler and large champagne cooler filled with ice.

Having the right glassware is essential. For a basic set up invest in a set of martini cocktail glasses, low-ball glasses, and high-ball glasses for long drinks. Flutes or champagne saucers are a must for champagne or prosecco cocktails and it's also a good idea to have regular water glasses and tumblers set out for non-alcoholic drinks.

Pippa Blenkinsop

Pippa is a contributor to Homes & Gardens. A graduate of Art History and formerly Style Editor at Period Living, she is passionate about architecture, creating decorating content, interior styling and writing about craft and historic homes. She enjoys searching out beautiful images and the latest trends to share with the Homes & Gardens audience. A keen gardener, when she’s not writing you’ll find her growing flowers on her village allotment for styling projects.