The History of the Cocktail Party

GREAT COCKTAILS GO HAND IN hand with great stories. There are legends about the creation of the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz, even the Manhattan. But where’s the celebrated origin story of that iconic American pre-dinner drinking hour, the cocktail party? Sources disagree.

Alec Waugh (brother of the novelist Evelyn) insisted in a 1970 Esquire essay that he invented the idea of drinks-before-dinner in the 1920s. Others point to a Tacoma Times article from April 1917 crediting a St. Louis socialite, Mrs. Clara Bell Walsh, as the first to hold a party devoted exclusively to mixed drinks.

By this math, the venerable institution of the cocktail party is exactly a century old this year. But where are the parties celebrating the mixed-drinks centennial? Who was this mysterious cocktail maven anyway? And did she really invent the iconic party style, which Waugh defined as “start[ing] at half-past-five…lasts ninety minutes, at which alcohol is served but not much food”?

Walsh certainly couldn’t claim the invention of cocktails, which had been around for centuries by 1917. Early recipes for alcoholic punches date to the 1600s, but it was the publication of Jerry Thomas’ The Bartender’s Guide in 1862 that marked the birth of the modern cocktail craze. Although Thomas’ guide shows the diversity of cocktails available by the mid-19th century, he doesn’t provide any clues about how to throw a party with them.

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