The evening cocktail

For those of us who instinctively tend to the margins – whether at table or the trough – I suspect the evening cocktail hour presents the occasion for one of the more egregious violations of society’s daily conventions. This speaks to the exceptional attraction of the protocol. Admit it, it’s hard to get too much of a good thing! When the chimes of the grandfather clock ring on the hour at 6:00 pm the old dawgs in the drawing room will habitually expect the first of a series of libations. If the venture were ideal it included a blazing fireplace and robust conversation – but never the interfering annoyance of music no matter how classical or operatic. If were alone by the hearth I found Jane Austen an inspiring addition to the frozen martini.

My unwitting introduction to the ceremony preceded my inauguration to the tradition by years. It was I recall in 1968 during my undergraduate days upon a brief circumstance in Ottawa where my parents lived and with whom I was quartered for the summer. I was with my colleague Murray Coolican and his friend Bill (whose last name I cannot recollect at the moment).  We were in Sandy Hill in the drawing room of the friend’s house, riveted to the television watching an unfolding political drama in which I imagine either Murray, his father (Denis Coolican, then first Chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton) or his friend had an interest.  Significantly arranged upon a side table was an ice bucket, a bottle of gin, a seltzer syphon, a bowl of sugar with a scalloped silver spoon and a beaker of freshly squeezed lemon juice. I have probably forgotten one of the ingredients of what I belief is called a gin fizz.  It was never one of my choices. I subsequently learned that the custom is restricted to summer weather – a habit which is instantly closeted after Labour Day along with whites.

A “fizz” is a mixed drink variation on the older sours family of cocktail. Its defining features are an acidic juice (such as lemon or lime) and carbonated water.

Years later in 1973 after having completed both undergraduate and law school but before having been called to the Bar in 1975 at Osgoode Hall, I repeated a similar domestic drama in the Sandy Hill home of L. C. Audette QC OC with his Professor Higgins comrade Dr. Douglas Peterson (whom we subsequently discovered to our mutual astonishment was an occasional dinner partner of my mother with her neighbours Dr. Ed Laroux and his wife when my father was out of town). It was no accident that Louis was familiar with Denis Coolican. Indeed Louis rejoiced in reminding others of his association with important people including a former Prime Minister of Canada who was the erstwhile landlord of the rental property in Rockcliffe Park where Louis at one time resided. Louis regaled to repeat the instance he had telephoned the Prime Minister to advise of some mundane residential complaint. It was illustrative of the fortuity of acquaintance which we jokingly dismissed by asserting there are only six families in Ottawa and the rest is done with mirrors!

Louis was the self-proclaimed authority of all matters alcoholic – a privilege he warranted by virtue of his advanced age and well-informed knowledge more than his indulgence. In addition to teaching me the imperative of the six o’clock cocktail hour and the ingredients of the gin fizz tradition, Louis routinely emphasized the propriety of what he called a long drink; namely, more Club soda than whiskey, a prescription we coined an “Audette “ in his honour. It was however a practice regularly abused though usually as a consequence of the after-dinner Porto which preceded the equally predictable subsequent enquiry, “Hey! What about a long drink!” It was I suppose his rendition of “One more for the road!”

To round out this account I should add that Louis performed another introductory custom at table upon the service of the soup course by his steward Jeffrey.  Feigning alarm following Jeffrey’s evaporation Louis would suddenly withdraw from the head of table and collect from the nearby cellaret a dry sherry which he would then dispense by the spoon into his soup plate before circulating the bottle to the left and ensuring never to allow it to settle upon the table before completing the round of dinner guests. Apparently the custom was peculiar to the naval officers with whom Louis supped when Commander of a corvette in the North Atlantic during WW II. Louis’ devotion to sherry, long drinks and Porto was so entrenched that when he was hospitalised late in life his former Rockcliffe Village girlfriend Alice Dexter reportedly visited him and secreted within her full-length raccoon coat a bottle of whiskey for him.

Louis wasn’t one whose nose was “well in the air” when it came to the choice of poison.  None of that single malt business. Blended whiskey was a preference I shared with him not because it was unpretentious but because it was to my taste more full-bodied. I suspect in retrospect Louis’ choice was partly economically driven (though as in so many similar instances it was a specious economy in the context of his many other expressions). As distinguished sounding as are both sherry and Porto, their most notable superlative is the ingredient of fortified wine; namely, Cognac. His stock whiskey was Dewars. Like most drinkers who prefer distilled alcohol he hadn’t an uncommon devotion to wine or Champagne.

By the way, should you care to know what Louis ate between drinks (after having munched on a small bowl of salted peanuts and olives), his diet was similarly guided by variety and economy.  In my view he ate like a bird. His favourite at dinner (for that was the only meal other than an occasional luncheon when we regularly foregathered) was a selection of hors d’oeuvres which included oysters Rockefeller and shrimp cocktail. A filet mignon was lost on him (though memorably he once remarked there was other meat he preferred, a poetic reference to his so-called “night visitors”).  He did however appreciate a crème brûlée.

By further coincidence when I moved from Ottawa to Almonte in 1976 I met Edward and Isobelle Winslow-Spragge. Louis had been Edward’s commanding officer during the war. We all met on occasion to celebrate the past and the cocktail hour.