The cocktail hour

The cocktail hour has long held its sway over me. I am always tickled to receive a dinner invitation with the words “six for seven” attached. It acknowledges the desideratum of tipping the highball or martini glass before putting on the nose bag. Nor is the attraction simply for the liquid scheme although that alone is indisputably at the fore. The cocktail hour is a union of intoxicants, crystal, conversation, music, furniture, fireplace and hors d’oeuvres. And at one time it was a chance to light up (and here I am not speaking of nefarious combustibles).

The unchallenged preliminary is the booze. Though I latterly succumbed to the persuasion of the chilled martini, for years my personal poison was blended Scotch whiskey. I found the single malts – with the exception of Lagavulin – too tame. My introduction to the ceremony of the cocktail hour included a subordinate feature; namely, the difference between summer and winter firewater. The summer poison was the Gin Fizz which incorporated not only liquor, ice and soda but also sugar and lemon juice, all of which lent itself to exotic display on the sideboard, employing stunning beakers for the blending, sterling silver pitchers and serving spoon for the lemon juice and sugar. The Gin Fizz doesn’t qualify as a circus drink though I suspect in commercial environments it is regularly served with those silly little umbrellas on sticks.

Henry C. Ramos invented the Ramos gin fizz in 1888 at his bar, the Imperial Cabinet Saloon on Gravier Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. It was originally called a “New Orleans fizz”, and is one of the city’s most famous cocktails. Before Prohibition, the drink’s popularity and exceptionally long 12-minute mixing time had over 20 bartenders working at the Imperial at once making nothing but the Ramos gin fizz – and still struggling to keep up with demand. During the carnival of 1915, 32 staff members were on at once, just to shake the drink.

The one further distinction might be the more infrequent provision of Dry Sack sherry (that much mocked but largely underestimated drink mistakenly attributed to older women or pusillanimous men) or Champagne for the more dexterous and seasoned among us. To the latter my erstwhile acquaintance Mara Palmer (sadly no long whinnying among us) added the affectation of a wooden swizzle stick putatively for the purpose of removing those annoying little bubbles. She unabashedly harboured the sticks throughout her apartment including the water closets.

Before leaving the fluid element it is notable in what it is delivered.  In the days when I drank whiskey neat it formed a gripping detail of my ceremony to have a heavy cut crystal tumbler. Uncharacteristically for other glasses, the tumblers were frequently sold individually. I don’t think we owned more than a half-dozen tumblers, each of which was singular. As for the highballs they were far less artistic, the lower class of crystal, usually just something one unhesitatingly added to the dishwasher. This condemnation was my way of snapping my fingers at anyone who had the cheek to add soda to whiskey.

As for music during the cocktail convention, I both approve and disapprove.  In the privacy of my drawing room, music was imperative.  In a congregation, I find music is distracting. It may inhibit hearing in which case it is unforegiveablty disruptive. On occasion I have enjoyed the privilege to play the grand piano for those in attendance. Because of its volume, the performance was normally restricted to a brief segment only, just enough to remind others of the value of tuning their piano from time to time (something I personally had done precisely every three months to accommodate changes of humidity with the seasons).

Apart from a good book and a faithful dog, a superlative addition to the cocktail hour is the fireplace.  This too evolved.  Initially the fireplace was its traditional and unambiguous format, distinguished by blazing flames and crackling timber. In country homes it was not uncommon to encounter fireplaces large enough to accommodate huge logs. The roar of those fireplaces was a symphony. We graduated from the regular fireplace to the smaller, quieter and more sustainable “fireplace insert” such as the celebrated Vermont Casting. What it muffled of sound it shone of views. The glass door was a peephole of delight into magic!

I’ll skip over the furniture ingredient except to say a comfortable armchair is preferred.

The final realm is the hors d’oeuvres. There is no argument with spooning for caviar; or drooling over canapés. But consistent with my conviction that hors d’oeuvres are the fastest way to paralyze an otherwise respectable meal, I find a small bowl of peanuts with several olives is sufficient. The savoury essence is captured without destroying one’s appetite.


Post Scriptum:

Your comment on the joys of fireplaces stirs fond memories of visiting my Godmother who lived in the Lake District in England and who used one of her fireplaces as a dining nook and I’m not exaggerating!  The actual dining room itself held a massive oak table that could comfortable seat 30 guests and the room’s vaulted ceiling was hung with glittery Venetian chandeliers, as well as a row of ancestral banners and escutcheons while suits of armour stood sentry in the corners of the room.  At the opposite end of this impressive chamber was the fireplace which was large enough to roast a whole, spitted ox, and through the ages, probably did.  However, in modern times, it was an impractical, not to mention messy and labour-intensive manner of heating this vast room, so my Aunt Anne cleverly converted it into an intimate dining annex.

The round table that sat six was placed so that a third of it where Uncle Mervyn always sat, protruded outwards from the inside the  fireplace, and a cozy ambiance was created by cleverly placed beautiful, silk Chinese screens.  At the back of the fireplace was a recessed chamber from which a carefully crafted brazier cast out heat and dancing shadows from the flickering flames.  And as is fitting in such a setting, this was a house where even up to as recently as 10 years ago, one still dressed for dinner, and while no dinner jackets were required, certainly jacket and tie for the men were expected and dresses or skirts but never trousers for the ladies.  As my godmother always said: “Trousers are for riding or gardening”; not that she partook of the latter as there was a positive platoon of gardeners to oversee the vast estate.

From a very young age I always loved my summer holidays there.  It was such fun playing hide and seek with her children and just rattling around in this 60 room house that her husband’s family had lived in for nearly 400 years.  In fact, first-time visitors were always given a map so that they didn’t get lost for there were staircases that if taken in error, could leave you in a part of the house that was strictly the servants’ domain, or even more excitingly to my child’s mind, to parts that were supposedly haunted!

As much as I enjoyed my childhood stays there, I really got much more out of the house as an adult because I was no longer confined to the strict constraints placed on the household’s children; to be seen and not heard, or even better, not to be seen either!  Dressed for dinner in what my Godmother would quaintly call an appropriate ‘frock’, I’d find my way to the library where a good dry sherry, a G & T, a decent whiskey or that seasonal British favourite, a Pimms was on offer as well as a bowl of nuts (hors d’oeuvres where considered vulgar).  After a pleasant half hour or so of chat and for me, of admiring the library’s exquisite pair of Canelettos, the gong would be struck and we descended to the dining room and our awaiting alcove for fresh trout from the tarn above the house or pheasant or venison and once a wild boar, all shot on the estate. And don’t get me started on the wine cellar’s treasures.  The butler, who oversaw the meal, hovered near a sizeable, though, discreet dumbwaiter from which a minimum of six tasty courses would appear from the kitchen that was the domain of a very, to my mind, fierce Scottish cook who ruled over the bowels of the house, both literally and figuratively, you could say!!  The butler was able to stand at his full height when serving Uncle Mervyn at his seat inside the fireplace which gives an idea of just how damn big it was!

All sounds a bit Downtown Abbey-ish, doesn’t it.  Well, it was, but without the incipient drama.  These were just people going about their lives as they had for generations and while in the scheme of things in today’s modern world, this life-style is beyond anachronistic, it still exists, though the difference now is there’s no empire to go with it!