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Why Cocktail Hour Is Back

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“Is it too early to drink?”

A few weeks into our current disorientation, that line or some jokey variation of it began to appear with a certain frequency on Twitter, in texts I’d get, in Slack messages, in my head.

I would encounter it, too, during long calls with friends that now followed a distinct sequence — beginning with a tirade about the dishwasher that doesn’t unload itself, ramping up to a complaint about the distance-learning science project that somehow requires two pounds of spelt flour and six compost worms, and resolving, invariably, with a conversation about last night’s cocktail and the plan for this evening’s.

One friend recently posted a picture of David A. Embury’s classic primer, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,’’ published in 1948, on his Facebook page with the caption: “Homework.’’ Another friend, Jimmy, was making Palomas with a grapefruit soda created by a Los Angeles bartender, which was now sold out on Amazon and at Target.

If you told me at Thanksgiving that in six months we would all be confined to our homes and facing shortages of toilet paper and a cactus-infused organic citrus beverage, I would have hugged you and smiled, and quietly called your psychopharmacologist to suggest adjustments.

Early in the outbreak, in New York and many other states, liquor stores were deemed essential retail businesses on the premise that our anxiety was going to require release. But there was a growing need as well for new rituals to replace the ones that had vanished from our lives — for a style of drinking that was neither rushed nor indiscriminate, presuming we were of sound health and blessed with the structural comforts. Gulping down a glass of wine from a screw-top bottle as you frantically heated leftovers because you got home late from work, again, was a habit it no longer seemed necessary to honor.

Two weeks ago, I emailed my friend Nelson looking for some instruction in stocking a proper bar, which I had never had, and set about first looking for a cocktail shaker to avoid the continued use of an old spaghetti sauce jar. Expensive decorative shakers were easy to find; workable ones, simple to open and close, with built in strainers were harder. The Usagi Cobbler, favored by Wirecutter, was also sold out on Amazon with no indication of when it would return.

How broad is the revival of cocktail culture? Another ostensible data point revealed itself to me last week. The prospect of indefinitely working at home meant that I needed an actual desk. I fell in love with one at an auction house; I didn’t expect to get it, but when I bid for it online, no one bid against me. I scored my new desk way below its estimated value. And yet a rattan bar cart from the 1950s — charming if a little flimsy-looking — went for $1,500, five times the auctioneer’s predicted price.

My friend Nelson and his wife have suddenly found themselves in a nightly cocktail routine. He recalled the sanctity of his parents’ cocktail hour, growing up in Palo Alto in the 1970s, and tracked its waning dignity in the years that followed. How could any of us have imagined that a pandemic would revive it?

According to a 1958 New York Times article, the institutionalization of cocktail hour in American life can be dated precisely to Dec. 5, 1933, when the 21st Amendment made alcohol legal again. Cocktails “and the late-afternoon hour devoted to them,’’ the article explained, were a direct result of the Prohibition-era practice of disguising the flavor of bathtub gin and other spirits with fruit juices. It’s hard to say when it ended, but the tech boom was one assassin. Cocktail hour fell away as we became more relentlessly obsessed with achievement, productivity, parenthood and above all the understanding that 5 o’clock was really still the middle of the day.

Now, Nelson was on a Negroni kick. So, too, is the actor Stanley Tucci, whose recent Instagram video on the art of preparing the drink, as lounge music faintly plays in the background, has drawn close to six million viewers and betrays very strong opinions about sweet vermouth. (Martini & Rossi, according to Mr. Tucci, is never OK.)

In my own life, the need to punctuate the end of the day at a moment when time feels so static has left me looking for the exclamation points. On many days, I will make a drink that requires precise measurements, special equipment, effort, the boiling of water, the dissolving of sugar — order and the promise of a particular certainty.

Making a drink also takes time — a commodity suddenly in abundance. (Though I determined I might never have enough for a cocktail recipe that began: “The day before, macerate three grams of nori.”) After my drink is prepared, I linger with it as my husband, son and I watch an episode of something before dinner (right now it’s “The Good Place”). Or I will take whatever I have concocted into my study and read, after I have texted my beloved sisters-in-law, both of them far away, recommending that they make the same thing.

On the shelf in my study now is a recently purchased copy of “The Decameron,” Boccaccio’s interwoven stories of medieval Florence during the Black Death. People died alone. Husbands and wives, fearing infection, remained in separate quarters. The wealthy fled for estates in the country.

And they drank. Among the 10 young people at the center of the stories, settled into a villa in the hills of Fiesole, the most exquisite Tuscan wines are consumed every night both as a means of ceremony and as a mechanism of compelling witty conversation. There was the belief, too, that alcohol was medicinal. “To cure illness you had to restore the balance of the four humors,” Stephen Nichols, a renown medievalist at Johns Hopkins explained. “Wine was one remedy.”

Perhaps some during this period will develop bad habits that require their own cures. I hope that is not the case. Five o’clock is now a lot closer to bed time than it used to be. And a single cocktail can feel like the best inoculation against dread.


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