What is a Cocktail Party?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A cocktail party is a largely informal social gathering generally featuring mixed drinks, light refreshments, and an intimate guest list. Guests are encouraged to mingle while enjoying a variety of drinks served by the host or a professional bartender. An informal party may be an alternative to a formal reception or full dinner party, especially if the guests have already made other dinner plans or are planning to meet later in the evening.

A cocktail in a martini glass.
A cocktail in a martini glass.

When planning for a cocktail party, many experts on entertaining suggest hosts should assume at least three beverages per guest, unlike a dinner or reception where heavier foods are expected to be served and fewer mixed drinks are served. The party may include a variety of finger foods, light snacks or even heavy hors d'ouvres, but the primary focus is generally on cocktails, good conversation, and music, not on the food. An invitation should mention any special food arrangements, especially if the party is scheduled during regular dinner hours.

Many people enjoy a martini during a cocktail party.
Many people enjoy a martini during a cocktail party.

While a typical cocktail party often does live up to its expectation of flowing alcohol in an adult setting, it is not necessarily regarded as an exercise in public intoxication. Guests should demonstrate some restraint and drink responsibly out of respect for the party's host. Most mixed drinks are designed to be sipped over a period of time, as well as savored for their unique flavors. An informal private party may not have the same safety controls in place as a public bar or nightclub, so guests may have to monitor their own alcohol consumption and ability to drive home safely.

Cocktail attire for men.
Cocktail attire for men.

A well-planned party is often an exciting blend of social mixer and night on the town. Guests may share a common bond, such as work or school, or they may only know the host or a handful of other guests. Meeting new people can be much easier under the relaxed atmosphere, which is why some people prefer the term social mixer to the more direct term cocktail party. A good host should provide a selection of soft drinks and non-alcoholic versions of popular cocktails to designated drivers and those who choose not to drink alcohol for personal or religious reasons.

Tapenade served with a slice of bread, a popular hors d'ouvre that might be served at a cocktail party.
Tapenade served with a slice of bread, a popular hors d'ouvre that might be served at a cocktail party.
A professional bartender may serve drinks at a cocktail party.
A professional bartender may serve drinks at a cocktail party.
Bacon-wrapped scallops are a popular cocktail nibble.
Bacon-wrapped scallops are a popular cocktail nibble.
Fruit juices can be used to mix a variety of cocktails.
Fruit juices can be used to mix a variety of cocktails.
Buffets may be part of a cocktail party with a lot of guests.
Buffets may be part of a cocktail party with a lot of guests.
Guests at a cocktail party should monitor their alcohol consumption, particularly before driving.
Guests at a cocktail party should monitor their alcohol consumption, particularly before driving.
Cocktail parties usually include appetizers.
Cocktail parties usually include appetizers.
People might drink shots at a cocktail party.
People might drink shots at a cocktail party.
Cocktail parties are typically more relaxed than traditional dinner parties.
Cocktail parties are typically more relaxed than traditional dinner parties.
Cocktail parties might be intimate affairs with just a few close friends.
Cocktail parties might be intimate affairs with just a few close friends.
Attire for a cocktail party is usually more dressy without being too formal.
Attire for a cocktail party is usually more dressy without being too formal.
At any cocktail party, try to offer an assortment of hors d'oeuvres that are vegetarian.
At any cocktail party, try to offer an assortment of hors d'oeuvres that are vegetarian.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

jessiwan

Lox and bagel is a good idea.

Acracadabra

Whenever I go to something like this I always make a rule to drink as much or more water as I drink alcohol. Cocktails are great, but the combination of several types of spirit in one glass is going to give you a terrible headache if you're not careful.

CaithnessCC

@Bakersdozen - Congratulations on the upcoming birthday. My mother is a great fan of entertaining and every season seems to bring an excuse for a holiday cocktail party.

The food she serves is generally quite plain. Think of things that won't drip or fall apart. Most guests are reluctant to lose their drink, so you need things which can be eaten with one hand.

Think small bite size pieces of bread based snacks crackers with a soft topping or small shrimp on a little stick. One bite tartlets are always popular too.

Bakersdozen

Cheers for writing about this topic. I have a significant birthday coming up and would love to organize a cocktail party to celebrate. I have a better idea of how to structure the event now, but the food issue still seems vague. Can anyone give me some more definite ideas on a typical cocktail party menu?

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