Why Cocktail Hour is back with a twist
Renewed interest abounds with more time and less alcohol
Photo by Proriat Hospitality on Unsplash
There is some debate as to who invented ‘cocktail hour,’ the British or Americans? A 1958 New York Times article concluded that cocktail hour became an institutionalised part of American life on 5th December, 1933, when the 21st Amendment made alcohol legal again. It’s unlikely, given the country which invented gin and tonic was of course the British. Our leisurely aristocracy came up with the smart idea for socially acceptable early ‘refreshments’ before supper in the 1920s.
Alec Waugh, (Evelyn’s not quite so famous brother) defined it well in his 1974 Esquire Magazine article. “What one needs is some kind of party that starts at half- past five, that lasts ninety minutes, at which alcohol is served, but not too much food.”
For much of the 20th century, we were less bothered about clock watching. Cocktail hour only started to disappear with our growing obsession for achievement and productivity, aided by a technological revolution.
Before Covid, who chose to go home at 5 o’clock?
Bars came up with their alternative ‘happy hour’ to try and stop us working. It was modelled on the cocktail hour but the reality was different. It was a commercial decision to reduce prices in order to snag office workers on their way home and started with holiday makers in Spain who were after a drink anyway.
Time in lockdown
The pandemic and repeated lockdowns has afforded us all more time. Effectively locked up for long periods in our homes, the reintroduction of a cocktail hour acts as a punctuation point, the delineation between work and play. The reality might only mean swopping one room for another, but it’s still something to look forward to and enjoy. A new ritual where the emphasis is no longer about getting a shot of white wine in, as you scour the fridge for something to eat. It’s a pause button, where time and effort is given to make something a little more rewarding. A time to reflect in company or alone.
With the resurgence of gin and small scale craft and artisan producers, your favourite tipple might be a very original gin and tonic. Or with a bit more time and effort, a Negroni or a Tom Collins. Stanley Tucci (Hunger Games, Devil Wears Prada) makes fine cocktails with a charming smile to encourage you on Instagram. Bacardi joined forces with Deliveroo to support their partner bars across London, your favourite cocktails pre-mixed and delivered. If you don’t know how to make a Patron Margarita, fear not, they’ll deliver one (although you might have to buy a litre - such a chore).
Sobriety in a post-drinking world
A growing fashion is too forego alcohol altogether. The case for a sober cocktail hour is the same as any other one. As more of us re-evaluate our relationship with booze, there are lots of new ‘pretenders’ out there designed to deliver flavour and texture without any of the aftereffects.
In this nascent market, Seedlip, one of the original alternatives, whose recipes are based on the ‘Art of Distillation,’ has been joined by a plethora of others. This must be a marketing department’s dream job, to invent a plausible story, using words like ‘botanicals,’ to switch non-drinkers from an alternative to fizzy water or club soda where the kick is now delivered in the price.
Will we have alcohol free bars in the future?
Cocktail menus regularly have a hat tip to the non-drinker with sweet and sugary ‘mocktails’ although this is changing with more of those dandylion botanicals. But what about bars which don’t sell alcohol? A space with no pressure too conform because alcohol’s not an option. Brewdog made the headlines last year when they opened the Brewdog AF Bar in Shoreditch, the world’s first alcohol free bar. Perhaps that was only for their January opening because their web site now refers to, “28 taps pouring our favourite craft beer along with an extensive alcohol-free selection.” It’s been a difficult 12 months and perhaps just serving ‘softies’ doesn’t pay the rent in Shoreditch?
Hangovers - you won’t believe this
The origin of the word ‘hangover’ came up while researching this article. One possible theory is so unbelievable, I thought you might enjoy it as well.
The explanation dates back to Victorian times and is called a ’Twopenny Hangover.’ This wasn’t a cheap night out or the cost to get drunk. It’s a place to sleep if you were one of the thousands of homeless, poverty stricken people living in one of England’s big cities. Depending on how much money you’d made on the street that day effected where you ended up.
The ‘Penny Sit-up’ at Blackfriars was the cheapest lodgings in London. Safer than being on the street and a way to avoid England’s freezing cold and often wet winters, you paid a penny to ‘sit up’ on a bench in a hall. Some were heated but many weren’t. Occasionally food was included. There are conflicting reports as to whether the occupants were allowed to sleep. They were certainly not allowed to lie down. The Salvation Army opened its first ‘Penny Sit-up’ in the 1890’s.
At the ‘Twopenny Hangover,’ the extra penny provided a similar bench, but you were able to sleep hanging over a rope strung-up in front of you. It was designed to stop you falling onto the floor or head butting the bench in front of you. Included in these densely packed rows of benches were drunken sailors who had spent all of their money bar tuppence presumably. Hangovers and inebriation became linked.
The rope was unceremoniously cut the next morning between 5 and 6am, by a man called the ‘valet,’ which seems slightly ironic.
Equally odd were the ‘Fourpenny Coffins’. Again in an attempt to cram in as many as possible, small wooden crates, which looked remarkably like coffins were arranged in rows in similar sized halls. The occupants were offered an infested oil-cloth or leather blanket to keep warm. The price also included a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of bread the next morning. You also got to lie down rather than having to hang around.
Have we changed for good?
Lockdowns have forced businesses and their employees to question the need to continue commuting to work. The surprising ease in which most have adapted to video conference calls replacing face to face meetings has many hoping that this can continue, at least part of the time. The extra hours have been gratefully received, technology giving back, creating a small moment of luxury which has helped revitalise a cocktail hour in the home, whatever your poison might be.