• by Carri L. Wroblewski, BRIX Wine Shop •
Last fall when the season slowed, a couple that frequented the wine shop all summer invited me to their house for dinner. I knew they entertained a lot. Always armed with a detailed menu and a list filled with colorful sticky notes, they would come to the shop seeking wine pairings for their dinner parties. That night driving over, I figured I would be in for a treat. And dinner was just that, but it was their cocktail hour that I loved.
In a room just off the kitchen, my host had everything set up precisely. Even the chairs were perfectly positioned—encouraging you to talk to the person next to you whom you’d never met. On the small center table sat a well thought-out cheese selection, two cheeses, just enough. Cucumber rounds kissed with edamame spread and unsalted almonds filled out the table.
Just behind the sitting area sat another table lined with wine glasses—short stemmed and perfect for the cocktail hour rosé that was just about to be poured. That early evening we sat and talked and laughed and drank up each other’s company. I thought “this is how cocktail hour is done.”
The island of Nantucket is no stranger to the cocktail hour. In fact, cocktail hour might as well have been invented for us. With warm breezy evenings and sunny skies, it’s practically an invitation to libation. But who invented the cocktail hour and when did it all begin?
It’s not so much who invented cocktail hour, as it is what invented cocktail hour. Enter Prohibition. From 1920 until 1933, Americans could no longer legally buy alcoholic drinks at restaurants. At that time women were not allowed into illegal speakeasies either. So what’s a girl to do? Guys and gals started gathering at their homes during pre-dining hours to indulge in a few beverages before heading out for the evening. And so the cocktail hour was born. But it may have started long before that. Cocktail expert A.J. Rathbun wrote, “in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, enthusiastic imbiber Falstaff says, “Come, I will go drink with you, but I cannot tarry dinner.”
Over the years, the cocktail hour has fallen in and out of style. During the 1950s, when the economy flourished, cocktail culture hit its stride. Imbibing in a beverage typically meant you aspired to sophistication and elegance. It was a time to kick back and relax after a hard day’s work with a martini or a manhattan. It became more of a mood, a tradition, than a period of time. The growing trend of families migrating to the suburbs in the 50s also offered up plenty of opportunity for home entertaining. The cocktail hour was alive and well.
But during the 1970s the cocktail hour went dry. People’s interest turned to wine, beer, and other “non-alcoholic” festivities. Fancy drinks and all their frills exited left. No more were the early evening gatherings celebrating clever conversation and tasty tipples.
Fast forward to present day, and we can thank the rebirth of craft cocktails for reigniting the cocktail hour. From Nantucket to New York City, restaurants, speakeasies, and craft cocktail bars are creating and recreating intricate drinks with complex flavors and ingredients. From boutique tonic syrups like Jack Rudy to small batch bitters like Bittermens, and artisanal spirits, people are sipping serious drinks with serious ingredients. And many of those cocktails date back to post-prohibition time.
One of my favorite post-prohibition libations is a cocktail called The Bees Knees. Prohibition-era slang for “the best,” The Bee’s Knees used citrus and honey to camouflage the almost undrinkable flavor of bathtub gin. Still a timely concoction, today I use Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin. Made by Vermont beekeeper and honey aficionado Todd Hardie, his gin is perfect for this recipe. Located on the banks of the Lamoille River, Todd’s distillery is in Hardwick, Vermont. Just before bottling he adds a touch of honey to his craft gin, which imparts an aromatic, floral quality. Try this recipe at your next cocktail hour:
The Bee’s Knees
- 2 oz. Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin
- 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz. honey simple syrup (1:1 ratio)
- Shake and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Truthfully though, the beauty of today’s cocktail hour is that you don’t have to drink a cocktail at all. Nowadays, anything goes. From the island’s favorite sip, rosé, to a six-pack of Cisco’s Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, the cocktail hour is whatever you make of it. For me, rosé is my preferred cocktail hour pour. Offering up so many different styles, rosé can easily pair with food or not. A few of my go-to’s this season include Gobelsburger Zweigelt Rosé from Austria, Selection Ott ‘Les Domaniers’ (Domaine Ott’s little brother), and Domaine Vacheron Sanerre Rosé from the Loire Valley.
Cocktail hour—it’s about anticipating that particular hour of the day, when the clock can’t hurry fast enough to five. It’s about gathering a group of people—a group of friends—encouraging conversation over whatever libation, be it a glass of wine or a cocktail from an earlier time.
I’m a now very good friend of that couple who invited me over last fall. In fact, I’m lucky to be invited over to their house for dinner often. And even when it’s just the three of us, they assure a proper cocktail hour is always had. Because it’s five o’clock somewhere, right?