Have you ever wondered when it became commonplace for people to end the workday and kick the evening off with an alcoholic beverage?
The popularity of cocktail hour — or “happy hour,” as it’s sometimes known — has been a tradition for hundreds of years, although exactly what it looks like has evolved over time and taken on various forms.
In fact, it’s possible that we may see a resurgence of the home bar and the observance of cocktail hour during the COVID-19 era as we all now have a bit of extra time at home and can benefit from a comforting ritual.
Here’s a bit more about how this tradition emerged and what it looks like today.
Let’s start with the word “cocktail.” Have you ever wondered what a rooster tail has to do with a mixed drink?
Meggen & Peter Lane Taylor of FindEverythingHistoric.com wrote in the Huffington Post that no one is completely sure where the term emerged. However, probable theories include that rooster tail feathers were used as Colonial drink garnishes, or that mixed drinks took on the colors of a rooster’s tail.
Yet another theory is that the name comes from when British sailors were served mixed drinks in Mexico back in 1936 with a plant that was called a Cola de Gallo, or cock’s tail, due to its shape.
Finally, this theory by etymologist Anatoly Liberman is cited here on Wikipedia:
“It was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred […] They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, the word cocktail was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding. […] Of importance [in the 1806 citation above] is […] the mention of water as an ingredient. […] Låftman concluded that cocktail was an acceptable alcoholic drink, but diluted, not a “purebred,” a thing “raised above its station.” Hence the highly appropriate slang word used earlier about inferior horses and sham gentlemen.”
Prohibition and the Jazz Age
According to this NPR piece on the Golden Age Of Cocktails, the first bartender’s guide was penned in 1862 by Jerry Thomas, who is considered the father of American mixology.
Thomas was famous for making bartending a form of entertainment. His unique theatrical presentation and new blends of drinks helped build enthusiasm for alcohol. But, according to award-winning mixologist Derek Brown, “it was also blamed for encouraging the kind of rampant overdrinking that inspired women’s suffragists to denounce the societal ills of alcohol, and eventually led to Prohibition in 1920.”
Interestingly, the tradition of cocktail hour may have gained traction throughout the Jazz Age in the U.S., during which time alcohol was made illegal and jazz clubs and speakeasies began to thrive. It’s around this time that the term “happy hour” may have started being used as a substitute for “cocktail hour.”
The Huffington Post article explains it this way: “For those law-breaking Americans who wanted to imbibe in secrecy, a kind of a 20th century pre-game emerged. Friends would meet at speakeasies or someone’s home before going out for dinner, thus creating the cocktail hour.”
Plus, according to this encyclopedia entry, “Cocktail historian Stephen Visakay says that since New York hotels were already serving tea at 5 o’clock in the early twentieth century, ‘it was a short leap to the 5 o’clock cocktail hour.’”
Hollywood stars of the 20s and 30s such as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn also popularized cocktails. They were often shown enjoying martinis in sophisticated clubs.
A Suburban Ritual
By the 1950s, the tradition of cocktail hour had spread from city hotels and clubs to the suburbs. It was common for working men to come home from work and enjoy a cocktail at their home bar.
Edible Austin’s A Brief History of the American Cocktail describes it this way:
“Without the convenience of the corner tavern or neighborhood pub, we saw the rise of the home bartender and an explosion of gear catering toward that emerging market. Whereas cocktail manuals from before Prohibition were sparse guidebooks for working professionals, those that emerged afterward were lush with detailed descriptions and images.”
The Past Few Decades
Cocktails disappeared from U.S. culture for the next several decades before seeing a renaissance.
According to Thrillist, interest in pre-Prohibition cocktails started to surge again in the ‘90s in coastal cities, where “neo-Speakeasies” complete with password requirements began to pop up. The term “mixologist” was coined in the 2010s to describe those people who specialized in creating craft cocktails.
The movement paralleled the “Good Food Revival Movement” in the restaurant world, where restaurateurs championed farm-to-table cuisine and authentic ingredients for discerning foodies.
Cocktail Hour Today
Now that it’s difficult to meet in person, cocktail hour might not be as social as it once was. However, it’s being observed by many safely at home.
Liquor stores were classified by many state governments as “essential businesses” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit with the understanding that people would need a way to unwind in these stressful times. Plenty of people have taken advantage of a bit of extra time at home to learn how to make their own specialty cocktails.Now that it’s difficult to meet in person, cocktail hour might not be as social as it once was. However, it’s being observed by many safely at home. Click To Tweet
We like the way Ginia Bellafonte summed up the role of cocktail hour during the coronavirus pandemic in her NYT column Why Cocktail Hour Is Back:
“There was a growing need as well for new rituals to replace the ones that had vanished from our lives — for a style of drinking that was neither rushed nor indiscriminate, presuming we were of sound health and blessed with the structural comforts. Gulping down a glass of wine from a screw-top bottle as you frantically heated leftovers because you got home late from work, again, was a habit it no longer seemed necessary to honor.”
Some people have even been using video conferencing tools to enjoy cocktails with their friends virtually.
Join us for a Drink in Savannah
At Upper East River, we’re located in the lovely, historic city of Savannah — and there’s no shortage of amazing spots to enjoy an authentic craft cocktail here in the city.
Head over to Visit Savannah to learn more about a few of the bars to put on your list of places to visit.