What Is a Cocktail Party

What Is a Cocktail Party?

When you ask yourself the question, “What is a cocktail party?” does the image in your head involve a stuffy room full of people in dressy business attire, most of them a little awkward and out of their comfort zone, sipping from martini glasses and making small talk while nibbling from little trays of hors d’oeuvres?

This is one version, but not all cocktail parties are the same, and they have evolved in many ways over the years – with casual cocktail gatherings becoming more popular than in decades past. 

Today, the term cocktail party is used to describe a social gathering where cocktails and other drinks are served. There may be a special occasion, but there doesn’t need to be. These parties typically last about two to three hours, and the host may choose to also serve appetizers, which need not be fancy depending on the type of party. 

The main point of these cocktail-infused parties is to socialize and bring friends, family, or business associates together through conversation while enjoying delicious cocktails and maybe partaking in a few pre-dinner or after-dinner snacks. 

History of the Cocktail Party

There’s some back and forth about where the first cocktail party took place and who “invented” it. What we do know is that prior to the 1920s, drinking was mostly done in bars and saloons and that it was often unseemly for a lady to be seen in such a setting downing the stiff drinks that were served.

There really weren’t any bartenders serving up cosmopolitan martinis at that time. Getting together over cocktails in one’s home or other more personal venues changed all of that. 

If we’re to go with the most popular tale of the origin, the credit belongs to a St Louis socialite named Clara Bell Walsh. She was reportedly huge on the social scene in the 1920s and decided to open her home to guests at high noon (as opposed to the early evening cocktail gathering more popular today) for a little drinking and socializing.

Even the ladies got in on the action with drinks that were a little more potent than what they’d otherwise consume, and soon the trend became huge in St Louis social circles and then quickly spread. 

Cocktail Party Etiquette 

In the early days of cocktail gatherings, the expected etiquette was different than it is today. In modern times, we have a bit more relaxed approach. 

Traditional Etiquette

  • Dress accordingly
  • Keep track of how many drinks you consume, and don’t overindulge 
  • Avoid elaborate greetings – both upon arrival and when leaving 
  • Keep the conversation limited to neutral topics 

Modern Etiquette 

You still want to dress accordingly, don’t make a showy entrance or departure, and you don’t want to be the drunk person that everyone remembers, but there are also some new etiquette points to consider. 

  • In the realm of keeping the conversation neutral, stay away from politics and known hot topics
  • Put your phone away
  • Enjoy the food and drink, but keep one hand free to greet others 
  • Bring a host/hostess gift if the party is in their home, but it’s not required when at another venue
  • Always RSVP
  • Send a follow-up email or note thanking the person who hosted the party

For The Host/Hostess 

  • Offer non-alcoholic drinks in addition to spirited libations 
  • Consider having a couple of designated drivers on standby 
  • Keep your guest list limited to a comfortable number for your home or venue
  • Even if you have one theme cocktail, offer a few generic selections like beer, wine, and standard cocktails 
  • It’s customary to serve hors d’oeuvres or finger foods
  • Although mingling is encouraged, do have some seating for your guests

Are Cocktail Parties and Hors D’oeuvres Parties The Same?

Technically, they’re not the same, although we tend to use the terms interchangeably. In fact, the term hors d’oeuvres party has kinda fallen to the wayside. The main difference between the two is the food that’s served. Hors d’oeuvres parties typically have more elaborate food offerings, whereas a cocktail party might just have a platter with cheese and crackers and some fruit set out. 

Cocktails & Food 

The cocktail menu typically goes one of two ways. It’s either themed or offers a selection of classic cocktails for guests to enjoy. Even when a themed cocktail is offered, it’s nice to have a fully stocked bar with a variety of juices, standard mixers, and carbonated mixers for guests who prefer a different drink. It’s also customary to have at least a few selections of beer and wine. It’s always a nice touch to serve cocktails in nice cocktail glasses, but disposable glassware is acceptable for less formal occasions. 

If a formal meal or sit-down meal is served, it doesn’t qualify as a cocktail or hors d’oeuvres party. That would instead be a dinner party. The type of food served includes finger foods or foods that can be enjoyed from a small plate while standing. This is to allow guests the freedom to move around and mingle while enjoying the food before sitting down for dinner. 

Formal Vs. Casual Cocktail Parties 

Formal parties are often centered around some type of event. Cocktail party weddings, which forgo the traditional multi-course sit-down meal for a cocktail party reception with champagne, other cocktails, and catered finger foods in the mix, are one example. These events typically have a full bar with professional bartenders to mix and serve drinks. 

A casual party might be a get-together of friends, where the person hosting the gathering offers guests cocktails and a small table of snack options. Open houses for graduation are an example of a cocktail reception that sort of falls in between, being more formal than an intimate get-together with friends but nowhere near the level of a wedding or other formal events. 


What happens at a cocktail party?

Drinking (either alcoholic beverages or non-alcoholic selections), socializing or mingling, and usually noshing on appetizers. Occasionally there may be a party game or two, but typically these occasions are for socializing only.

What is the proper attire for a cocktail party?

It depends on the host and the venue. For a casual get-together among family or close friends, casual but nice-looking attire is fine. For a more formal party, business casual, dressy business, or cocktail attire is expected. If the cocktail party is black tie or formal, it should be mentioned on the invitation. 

Key Takeaways

  • Cocktail parties can be casual or formal events 
  • Most parties are limited to 50 guests or less due to the space – the exception being formal gatherings
  • A good selection of cocktails is one of the key components of a successful cocktail party
  • However, don’t always expect a full bar – there may only be a limited selection of cocktails offered
  • Never expect a full meal – always eat ahead of time if you think you might be hungry
  • Mingling, socializing, and common etiquette are usually expected

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *