Of course we don’t need a reason to celebrate spring—nature does a brilliant job of kicking up its own heels for us. And who doesn’t want to spend time outdoors in a vibrant, blooming backyard this time of year? So relish that beauty by honing your celebratory skills. Shrug off that last bit of winter by throwing a classic springtime cocktail party.
We did some of the legwork for you by asking party professionals for their best tips on how to ensure a successful evening to be enjoyed by you and your guests. Their number one tip? Plan ahead. Should the party have a theme? How many guests can your home reasonably accommodate? How can the drinks you serve make a splash? What will differentiate the food you serve from the hors d’oeuvres passed at every other cocktail party in town?
While you should do your best to give your cocktail party a unique ambiance and make sure your guests feel at ease, remember that some structure is important. Unlike a dinner party, which starts at a given hour but can go on as long as the host likes, a cocktail party should begin and end at a specific time, so everyone understands what’s expected. Cocktail parties are meant to be informal and cheerful, where everyone should have a drink or two, but not too many, so keeping the party within two to three hours is strongly advised.
That shorter duration also means it’s important to pack your party with fun, commencing with the cocktail itself.
“Have an interesting signature drink available to your guests,” says Linda DeFranco of Tables of Content, a Boston-based caterer. “If you’re having people in for a few hours, limit the array of beverages to be served. Remember that the purpose of the cocktail party is a quick get together. If you serve hard liquor, it’s a different kind of party.”
DeFranco says Bellinis with a fresh sliver of peach, or vodka-based drinks are good springtime choices, or she recommends flights of white wines and champagnes. The drink options are virtually endless. Consider the Blue Ginger Gimlet or Gosling Pear Passion that Ming Tsai has shared with us.
Holly James of Off the Vine Catering in Boston suggests that the addition of non-alcoholic beverages (along with what you will need for cocktails), a supply of the right glassware, and plenty of ice will help to keep things running smoothly while you tend to your guests.
“You’ll often want twice as many glasses as you have guests, and while cocktail parties frequently fill a two-hour time frame, plan on one bottle of champagne or wine per two guests. If your party’s held when heading into late spring, plan for one pound of ice per person,” says James.
Whether your party takes place from 4:00 until 6:00 p.m. or from 6:00 until 8:00 p.m., nearly all of your guests will treat your celebration as dinner, so what you choose to serve for food is important.
Take advantage of spring’s fresh flavors and its naturally tender morsels that make it easy to be creative: try pencil-thin asparagus paired with a sliver of red pepper and wrapped in a shaving of Parmesan cheese; or rice-paper spring rolls filled with crisp vegetables. Other creations might include thin noodles and bits of shrimp or meat, wrapped in tender spring lettuce with a touch of mint; or put a twist on vegetable crudités by offering lightly grilled baby vegetables.
“I think it’s important to include a certain amount of fun in the food,” says chef Stephen Barck of Tables of Content. “Think about using some different vehicles to get spring out there. We make a wonderful ginger-carrot soup and serve it in sake cups or little aperitif glasses. Or we’ll make party hats origami style, and stuff them with tempura vegetables, and we’ll pass those on a tray. It’s fun, and it’s not your typical stuffed mushroom.”
Barck also recommends creating a dinner, only bite-sized. For example, prepare blue cheese mashed potatoes and beef tenderloin, but twist the presentation by serving it in a bouillon spoon. Remember the season, he says, and think asparagus, fava beans, morel mushrooms and baby vegetables.
Plan on serving six to eight hors d’oeuvres per person, mixing the presentation between food that will stay in one place, and food that will be passed around to guests. Passing appetizers allows guests to stay where they are while engaged in conversation. Food that remains stationary allows guests to take bites and mingle. Cheese platters and bowls of nuts are good to have out on tables where guests can help themselves. And remember that napkins alone are often not enough. Be sure to have plenty of small plates and silverware on hand.
If the first six hors d’oeuvres are savory, consider making the last two sweet. Serve something that falls into the dessert category, such as dipped strawberries or bite-size cupcakes. Introducing a different flavor, particularly if it’s sweet, will indicate an end to the party in a positive way, without having to tell guests it’s over.
Making your party a memorable one isn’t always as daunting as it first may seem. That sought-after “Wow!” factor can be created through organized and thoughtful presentation.
“Garnishes can be spectacular—wrapped bundles of herbs, or hollowed out oranges, tomatoes or cucumbers filled with fresh veggies or flowers are all terrific ways to display things creatively,” says Holly James.
There’s plenty of room for innovation with your cocktail garnishes too. Hard sugar sticks can be used for mixing drinks or used as straws. Try colored sugar and salt to rim glasses, and experiment with stem wrappers on your glassware in the hours before the party begins. These are just a few of the ways to add a festive touch.
Marbo Hansen, owner of Vivant—Events of Distinction in Wellesley Hills, says that a host should seriously consider hiring a bartender to work a party. If you have more than two dozen guests, she recommends two bar locations or a tray of pre-poured wines that can be easily passed to guests.
“It’s unwieldy to put all of the liquor in the center of the table and to have people serve themselves. The presentation of the drinks is one of the most important things at a cocktail party. Having a bartender makes that much easier,” says Hansen.
While drinks and food are major components to a good cocktail party, small details can make all the difference between a great party and a dud. Lighting, music and flowers should be carefully considered. Your guests will notice and remember them.
Candles are undoubtedly one of the very best ways to set a warm tone. “There’s something very exciting about walking into a room full of candlelight that makes you wonder, ‘What’s going to happen next?’” says DeFranco. “It’s special when people light candles, and it’s not done enough.”
Other ways to soften harsh lighting includes the use of dimmers, draping scarves over the tops of lampshades, or forgoing table lamps altogether, and instead use small floor lights that shine up towards the ceiling—a technique that’s known as “uplighting.”
Digital music, including the use of an iPod, makes it easy to tailor music to your needs, and will help to increase the energy level in the room. Once set up, you won’t have to fiddle with it when your party’s underway, and it can be easily transported to the patio or garden. DeFranco recommends a mix of jazz and soft rock.
Once you have the lighting and music figured out, flowers are another way to up the wow-factor of your party. Depending on when you have your party in the months of spring, consider bouquets of fresh grape hyacinth, tulips and daffodils, or peonies, lilac, and bright poppies.
Beverly Fowler, manager of Winston Flowers in Wellesley says spring is a perfect time to consider flowering branches, like quince, cherry, or even pussy willow.
“Clumps of mood moss are fabulous too, with floating candles and small square clear glass.” says Fowler.
Since a cocktail party is more of an intimate setting, Fowler says keeping things simple is the best plan. Small bundles of flowers grouped in low vases, and color schemes of whites and greens do a great job on emphasizing the season.
After all the careful preparation though, in the end, a spring cocktail party is about gathering close friends and celebrating the return of warm weather and life outdoors. The secret is simply to not get overwhelmed.
“No matter what element of the party—food, drinks or what have you, make it special,” says Hansen. “The whole idea is to have fun. These are obviously people you want to socialize with. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated—it’s just being a bit thoughtful.”