How to Host a Virtual Happy Hour

Stay connected with friends, drink in hand, from the comfort of your own home

How to Host a Virtual Happy Hour
Clink your glasses from far away. (Marcel Kriegl/Shutterstock)

Bonnie Tandy Leblang, a New York City restaurant reporter and theatergoer, may be sheltering at home alone in her one-bedroom apartment, but her social life is busier than ever.

She enjoys daily bridge games and five o’clock happy hours with different groups of friends. She is attending her book club gatherings and recently celebrated her granddaughter’s third birthday party—all by home computer.

Like many others, Leblang is staying virtually connected to family and friends through Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform.

“Making plans to connect with different groups of friends and having some structure to the day while staying homebound has changed my life,” she said. “Right now, any human contact that makes you smile is beyond uplifting.”

With restaurants and bars temporarily closed, virtual happy hours conveniently connect friends over food and drinks from the comfort of their homes. They can act a social lifeline for many people seeking a sense of community and camaraderie.

Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant sommelier turned virtual luxury event organizer, has been organizing virtual Sunday cocktail brunches to help friends in the bartending world who have lost their jobs.

For a recent event, she said, “I delivered cocktail kits from my favorite bars to friends’ homes. We brought a bartender on-screen to help everyone mix cocktails. Everyone tipped through Venmo [a mobile payment app], so we were able to put a little income into the pockets of laid-off workers. We all felt comforted being connected and knowing we did some good helping someone in need.”

Try hosting your own virtual happy hour with these simple steps.

Set Up Your Space

Download a meeting app, such as Zoom. First-time users should take an online tutorial and practice to become familiar with the platform, including settings like “mute,” to manage conversation, and the “grid or gallery view,” to show everyone’s faces.

Place your laptop on a stand or a stack of books at eye level or slightly higher, at a distance that highlights your full face on-screen, without being too small or big. Make sure the room is well lit but avoid backlighting, which creates shadows. Use a desk or table lamp to create a soft glow. Make sure the space around you has minimal distractions.

Have a simple backdrop, without distracting mirrors or clutter. For themed events, consider festive décor such as fabric or posters. Zoom also allows users to choose different virtual backdrops.

Set the Mood

“We are all doing this because we can’t get together right now in a restaurant or bar or at a dinner party at home, so why not make it as close to the real thing as possible?” said Chang.

Consider a theme. “We all need more reasons to smile and laugh. A dress code and a theme always make me excited for a party. Let people know in advance what you will be eating and drinking and encourage them to ‘bring’ something,” she suggested.

Create a festive digital invitation with meeting details to send to friends, including a link and code to RSVP. Keep it intimate: Smaller groups make it easier to manage the conversation.

During the call, be a helpful host and moderator. Introduce and welcome everyone to set the tone. Consider preparing a list of opening questions and topics to get the conversation rolling, and remember to remind guests to “mute” and “unmute” to avoid people talking over each other. Keep the conversation upbeat, and end on a positive note.

What to Drink

Since everyone is dialing in from home, most virtual happy hours keep it casual and encourage attendees to “bring” their libation of choice, with or without alcohol. The focus is more on the spirit of camaraderie and connection, rather than what’s in your glass.
However, if you need some help, several bars, distilleries, and restaurants are offering make-your-own cocktail party kits for pick-up or delivery. Examples include The Violet Hour in Chicago and J. Rieger in Kansas City.
Other establishments like The Jeffrey in New York City offer local delivery of batched cocktails to-go (with an order of food), while Long Island’s RGNY winery offers to-go quarantine survival kits containing a bottle of wine with assorted snacks.
Check the websites or social media of your local restaurants and bars to see if they’re offering takeout and delivery. It’s a nice way to support these small businesses.

Basic Becky 

The Basic Becky. (Courtesy of Bidwell)
The Basic Becky. (Courtesy of Bidwell)
This twist on the classic gin gimlet is from bartender Cassie Womack of Bidwell in Washington D.C. Womack is hosting virtual happy hours every Wednesday from 4–7 p.m. EST via Zoom.
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup (see Note)
  • Club soda
  • 1 ounce float of light green chartreuse (optional)
  • Lime wedge, for garnish
Pour gin, lime juice, and simple syrup in a highball glass with crushed or cubed ice. Fill with club soda. Garnish with lime wedge.
Note: To make simple syrup, dissolve one part sugar with one part hot water in a saucepan. Cool before using.
Recipe courtesy of Cassie Womack, Bidwell
Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. She co-hosts the weekly national radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” and hosts “Fearless Fabulous You!” both on Twitter@connectedtable
Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. She hosts the weekly shows “The Connected Table LIVE!” and “Fearless Fabulous You!” (on iHeart and other podcast platforms) and is food editor for Santé Magazine. Instagram@theconnectedtable Twitter@connectedtable