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What is Cocktail Hour?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Hosts of informal dinner parties or receptions may want to schedule a time of pre-dinner socializing know as a cocktail hour. Guests are often treated to hors d'oeuvres or light snacks, along with an assortment of mixed alcoholic drinks, wines and beers. A professional mixologist may be hired to prepare the drinks during more elaborate events, but quite often the host will play the role of bartender or the guests may serve themselves.

If the cocktail hour is intended to be an occasion in itself without a dinner to follow, the guests may be served what is best described as "heavy hors d'oeuvres." Heavy hors d'oeuvres often include substantial foods as sandwiches, meat dishes and pastries. If a dinner is planned, guests may enjoy lighter fare such as chips and dip or vegetable platters. The cocktail hour may also be limited to a specific type of drink, such as Bloody Marys or Margaritas.

The purpose of a cocktail hour is to provide invitees with an atmosphere conducive to informal socializing and mingling, not to create a roomful of intoxicated guests. Hosts should provide music suitable for the occasion, along with plenty of opportunities for comfortable seating and casual eating. A good gathering should put all the guests in a receptive mood for the dinner event itself. An extended cocktail hour also allows early birds and the fashionably late to both be satisfied.

It is customary for hosts to include information about a cocktail hour on the invitations in order to avoid confusion. Guests may need to know if dinner is part of the event, for example. The presence of heavy hors d'oeuvres often implies that a formal dinner is not part of the festivities, so guests should either make their own plans or consider the hors d'oeuvres as a meal in itself. A cocktail hour held before a wedding reception may be more of an opportunity to entertain guests while the caterers put the finishing touches on the formal dinner service or buffet serving line.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon966747 — On Aug 21, 2014

I think a cocktail hour for weddings is mostly to entertain the guests while the photographer finishes the wedding shots at the ceremony site. I went to a wedding where we were seated for and waited an hour before the bride and groom showed up to be served our dinner. Not too funny!

By anon211735 — On Sep 03, 2011

I had a cocktail party for my last birthday. In the Evite, I told people not to feel "obligated" to bring a bottle of something -- I did this for two reasons. One, a cocktail party is mainly a party for cocktails. I don't drink beer, I didn't want a surplus of wine, and I didn't want 8 billion ugly bottles of cheap spirits littering the prep space. I had a wide assortment of spirits available, that I could use in a variety of cocktails, and I also offered some mocktails.

If you're doing a "throwback" cocktail party, and are not a seasoned home bartender, I'd suggest studying one cocktail -- two at the very most -- and making them in batches. Don't blend anything and don't use mixes. Just make sure you don't screw anything up. Get the proportions right, have plenty of ice on hand, and good humor to pair with the cocktails. -- Nikolas X.

By lightning88 — On Jul 24, 2010

@zenmaster -- Fun! You can really go a lot of different ways with that.

You can keep it simple, like just playing old music and serving old-fashioned cocktails, or you could go all out and have a retro-costumed cocktail hour.

It doesn't have to be terribly complicated though. A few well-placed items with some fun themed cocktails will definitely do the trick.

By zenmaster — On Jul 24, 2010

What are some good tips for a retro-themed cocktail hour?

I'm throwing a housewarming party and was thinking of throwing a 1950s/60s style cocktail party.

Any ideas?

By FirstViolin — On Jul 24, 2010

One thing that people sometimes forget when hosting a cocktail hour is to keep a variety of drinks on hand for people who don't drink, or who are being the designated driver that day.

Having some juices, sparkling water, sodas, etc., will keep your non-drinking guests from feeling excluded, and is just a sign of good hosting too.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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