What Are Cocktail Napkins?

From a glass of beer at a friend’s backyard BBQ to a glass of champagne at a black-tie event, cocktail napkins are truly indispensable and have many uses. Whether you use it as a coaster on the bar, for keeping your hand dry while mingling with other guests, or making sure your lipstick stays perfect, cocktail napkins are a must for any event. 

For this reason, hosts might be giving the cocktail napkin some serious thought. After all, there are many options for the size, material, and design of a cocktail napkin. Plus, when you put napkin etiquette into the equation, things might start to get a little overwhelming.

To keep things as simple as possible for your next event, Sophistiplate has your back! Here is a guide on everything you need to know about the cocktail napkin. Read on for tips on choosing the best cocktail napkin for your best party yet. 

The History of Cocktail Napkins

According to historians, paper originated in China, with the first napkins being used in baskets to hold teacups. However, it was actually the Romans—who ate with their hands—that introduced the prevailing use of napkins: wiping the hands and mouth. These early napkins were made out of various cloth materials. 

However, after the increase in the use of the fork in Europe during the Middle Ages, the napkin became nearly obsolete. After all, it was completely possible to not get your hands and mouth stained while eating. Fortunately, for purely ceremonial reasons, the dining napkin began to make a comeback and developed a whole set of etiquette around it. 

Paper napkins made their debut around the middle 19th century. While they initially weren’t used during formal events, around the early 20th century, they began to make an appearance everywhere: from the breakfast table to the cocktail bar to the black-tie event. 

With new technology, paper cocktail napkins have come to replace cloth napkins for use during various occasions. 

What Do Cocktail Napkins Look Like?

Shape and Size

Cocktail napkins tend to be a lot smaller than regular dinner napkins. Dinner napkins are the most common type of napkin and usually measure 20” inches across and are meant to be placed on your lap to prevent food from falling on it. These are a must at any formal event and have many rules of etiquette for their use. 

Unlike dinner napkins, cocktail napkins are very small and typically measure 5” x 5” inches. Some have multiple layers and can even be unfolded, which increases their size.  

When it comes to their shape, cocktail napkins tend to either be square or rectangular, which gives them an added touch of elegance. 


Cocktail napkins come in two materials: linen and paper.

Linen is traditionally used as a material for large dinners, luncheons, and buffet napkins, and not so much for cocktail napkins. Linen napkins must be collected at the end of the event and washed, which makes them the less efficient option for cocktail hour. 

Paper is the most popular option for cocktail napkins. The thickness of the napkin (or ply) determines how sturdy and absorbent the napkin will be. There are three options for cocktail napkin thickness:

  • 1-Ply: These cocktail napkins feature one layer of material. They tend to be less soft and absorbent than the thicker ply options.
  • 2-Ply: These cocktail napkins feature two layers of material, which makes them a good compromise between value and quality. 
  • 3-Ply: These cocktail napkins have three layers of material. They are the softest and most absorbent choice. Because they can withstand being used for a long time, they may actually have the most value. 


The design that you choose for your cocktail napkins should ideally match your event. If you’re throwing an English garden party, then a floral design would make the most sense. If you’re throwing a casual backyard party, then checked prints are a great choice. 

While some etiquette scholars suggest that formal meals require white or ivory napkins, this advice is usually confined to dinner napkins. Instead, you can use this opportunity to show off your personality and good taste.

When it comes to cocktail napkin design, even for formal events, your options are endless. Try elegant prints such as polka dot, houndstooth, gingham, and paisley. If you’re not into prints, then unique colors are another sophisticated choice that won’t clash with your party’s theme. 

What Are Cocktail Napkins Used For?

Cocktail napkins have a variety of uses. 

Holding a Wet Glass

This is certainly an underappreciated use of cocktail napkins, but when your glass becomes wet with condensation, a cocktail napkin makes the best glass sleeve. It keeps your hand from getting wet and prevents condensation from dripping. Plus, if you’re served an overflowing glass, a cocktail napkin makes for quick and easy cleanup. 

(Fun tip: sprinkling a little salt on your cocktail napkin can keep it dry for longer when you wrap it around a wet glass.)

Substitute for a Coaster

White rings left on wood furniture by wet glasses are not easy to remove. To keep glasses from leaving marks on bars, tables, and other surfaces, investing in coasters for a party for an event is not the most economical idea. In their place, cocktail napkins can be used to keep surfaces spotless. 

Balancing Out Cocktail Plates 

A common sight during cocktail hour is a cocktail napkin being placed under the plate as guests mingle while eating appetizers. 

Holding Finger Food

In some cases, cocktail plates aren’t always available. This is especially true when hors d’oeuvres are being served. In case your guests want to grab several bites, cocktail napkins can make a great substitute for cocktail plates. 

Wiping Hands and Mouth

Needing to wipe your hands and mouth isn’t only confined to the main course. During cocktail hour, napkins are a must for guests to wipe off food (and even make-up!). 

Cocktail Napkin Etiquette

Even though cocktail napkin etiquette isn’t as elaborate as that of the dinner napkin, there are a few suggestions for how they should be used.

If you’re the host:

  • Make Sure That Every Drink Is Served With a Cocktail Napkin: This helps to ensure that your guests don’t wet their hands, drip their cocktail, or leave white rings on your wooden furniture. 

  • Keep a Stack by the Bar: Because cocktail napkins make it so easy to wipe the hands or mouth, or to even clean up small messes such as a spilled drink, cocktail napkins should be readily available around your party. 

If you’re a guest:

  • Don’t Desert Your Cocktail Napkin: If you’re served a drink at the bar with a cocktail napkin, you should absolutely take it with you. To be more eco-friendly, try to use your cocktail napkin for several rounds of drinks and appetizers. 

  • Keep Your Right Hand Free: To make sure that your right hand is free for shaking with other guests, try to use only your left hand for holding your drink. Even if it’s wrapped in a cocktail napkin, the moisture can seep through and make your hand wet, making it a little uncomfortable to shake.

Is It Ok To Use Paper Cocktail Napkins?

While paper napkins are a go-to for casual outings, you might be asking yourself if they are the most elegant option for more formal events. 

While there may be some dispute over which material to use for dinner napkins during a formal, sit-down occasion, when it comes to cocktail hour, the best choice is really clear.

One benefit of paper cocktail napkins is that they do not have to be collected at the end of the night and washed before their next use. Because they’re disposable, they can be happily thrown out at the end of the event. This is especially important when you consider that guests use more than one cocktail napkin. 

Plus, because guests mingle during cocktail hour instead of sitting in one spot, it’s hard to collect cocktail napkins at the end of the night. For this reason, they are the most hassle-free choice. 

There are definitely flimsy cocktail napkins that wouldn’t accentuate a formal event. Thankfully, sturdy, soft, and well-designed cocktail napkins would make an elegant addition to any party. 

Cocktail Napkins for Every Occasion

Cocktail napkins are a type of napkin used traditionally during cocktail hour. However, because their uses are so versatile, they make a great addition to any party with drinks, snacks, and appetizers. To show off your amazing taste as a host, there are endless options for elegant designs and high-quality cocktail napkins. If hosting an event, then Sophistiplate has your back with cocktail napkins fit for any occasion



A Brief History of Napkins, From Soft Dough to Paper | Gastro Obscura 

The Expert’s Guide to Napkin Use and Etiquette | Etiquette Scholar

5 Ways to Remove Water Stains from Wood | Architectural Digest 

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