The Preprandial Drink

It is well-timed that I should be putting together this particular piece about “the cocktail hour” on July 4th, a notoriously social day in the United States (for whose people I have prodigious affection). I admire their entrepreneurial spirit, their resourcefulness, their hedonism and – more to the point – their inclination for material incentive.

The cocktail hour is after all a reward, a prize for having survived the day and maybe even for having accomplished something worth noting. After one has endured the boot-strap detail of one’s personal drudge, the thought of settling into a cushy green leather chair with an improving book, a salty snack and a restorative drink is seductive. The resulting respite and discharge from having realized the duties of one’s private avocation merit recompense.

I confess I am somewhat myopic in this regard in that I sense a positive necessity to wring all I can out of life while the opportunity presents itself. Others may feel the need or propriety to defer their celebration of life for another day or otherwise bank the entitlement, but I am unwilling to take the chance of missing out.

Recently, in a moment of self-purification and in an attempt to circumscribe our epicurean predilections, we have bandied about the idea of delimiting the cocktail hour to the cocktail ”half-hour”. This we have discovered is an abuse destined to failure, not to mention that it gainsays a valued tradition which has been years in the making. Whether one is diverting oneself with the local news, surfing the internet or reading a respectable novel, the process of decompression requires at least an hour for its fruitful achievement.

My preferred companion to the evening cocktail is a lively narrative by one of Britain`s dazzling writers, say Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen. In this age of e-books I have agreeably discovered that I can download endless numbers of my favourite volumes without expense as most of what I fancy is beyond the bounds of copyright. For example, all eight hundred pages of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire! A masterpiece for less than a song!

Pardon me, although I am already well into the subject, I must qualify my trifling opinions by acknowledging that, when employing the expression “the cocktail hour”, I am loosely including more than what are strictly speaking cocktails, unless you own that a vodka or gin martini (my personal poison) merits the distinction. Historically I have thought of cocktails as involving at least three singular and marked ingredients, with the glass itself frequently dressed up with perhaps a small paper umbrella. Think, for example, of the traditional Side Car or Old Fashioned. The definition admits however to greater particularity:

The first documented definition of the word “cocktail” was in response to a reader’s letter asking to define the word in the May 6, 1806, issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository in Hudson, New York. In the May 13, 1806, issue, the paper’s editor wrote that it was a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar; it was also referred to at the time as a bittered sling. J. E. Alexander describes the cocktail similarly in 1833, as he encountered it in New York City, as being rum, gin, or brandy, significant water, bitters, and sugar, though he includes a nutmeg garnish as well.

By the 1860s, it was common enough for orange curaçao, absinthe and other liqueurs to be added that, as first mentioned in The Chicago Daily Tribune on July 25, 1880, the original concoction, albeit in different proportions, as being called “old-fashioned”[ and came back into vogue itself]. The most popular of the in-vogue “old-fashioned” cocktails were made with whiskey, according to a Chicago barman, quoted in The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1882, with rye being more popular than Bourbon. The recipe he describes is a similar combination of spirits, bitters, water and sugar of seventy-six years earlier.

Traditionally, the first use of the name “Old Fashioned” for a Bourbon whiskey cocktail was said to have been, anachronistically, at the Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club founded in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky. The recipe was said to have been invented by a bartender at that club in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper, a prominent bourbon distiller, who brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

The cocktail hour has lately been the subject of much attention on Broadway where the culture of preprandial indulgence has surfaced as the object of analysis in a modern play, one by the way which has not been altogether well received because, in times of economic distress for many Americans, it chronicles the dizzy indulgences of upper class Americans who use the hour as a forum for nothing more than complaint and controversy.

Certainly the performance and habit of the cocktail hour is not the norm for most families, especially those graced with children (who inevitably sterilize any modicum of evasion of the realities of life). The cocktail hour is thus the reserve of those of “advanced age” (or perhaps the very rich, if those types continue to exist). It is, whatever one might say, a vernacular reserved for them who at least have the privilege of looking upon their back yard without having to worry about putting the lights out!

Timing, as in everything, is also relevant to the cocktail hour. As fond as I am of a mid-day mart to jolt a luncheon of sea bass or scallops with a simple salad, the intemperance unhappily robs the evening cocktail of its punch. The cocktail hour is in my opinion strictly bound to six o’clock and not a minute afterwards! The respect of the limits of the cocktail hour should also be observed especially when one is out of one’s own house. If the invitation to a cocktail hour specifies 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. one should never linger longer. A loitering cocktail guest, just like a late dinner guest, is as much an insult to the host and an outrage to the chef.