Cocktail hour. It is the golden hour of fraternising. No one need talk to anyone longer than five minutes. It is less dreary than dinner, less boorish than beer o’clock in the pub. The drinks, like the British, are stiff and cold with fruity accents. And after three of them everyone is your “mate”.
At English summer garden parties under the setting sun and a phalanx of umbrellas, find a martini for warmth and a pergola for shelter. Weather the rain and the blather of drunk and sober bores with grace and a light buzz. Remember drinks, not drinkers, should be sloshed and trolleyed. And mingle. During cocktail hour you sit at your peril, lest some drunken oaf sit beside you. Or sit, if you must, somewhere no one can bother you but where everyone can admire you. In a tree, perhaps. Or straddling an inflatable flamingo, mid-swimming pool.
The institution of cocktail hour has an apocryphal history, but it was Evelyn Waugh’s brother, Alec, who staked the loudest claim to its invention, writing an article in Esquire in 1974 about how he came up with it half a century earlier. Although each were celebrated authors in their own right, their sibling rivalry was straight up and on the rocks; presumably Alec felt the urge to trump Brideshead Revisited.
During the prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s, thirsty Americans who couldn’t find the nearest speakeasy set sail across the Atlantic for a “mixed drink” at the Savoy’s American Bar in London. There they guzzled the Bee’s Knees, the Whizz Bang and the Gin & Sin — silly drinks with silly names to inspire silliness. Asked about the best way to drink a cocktail, Harry Craddock, Savoy barman at the time, answered, “Quickly, while it’s still laughing at you.”
Today cocktails — and cocktail hour — are enjoying a revival, not least here at House & Home where we invented The Pink ’Un. Not to be conflated with “happy hour”, which reigned in the 1980s and 1990s. Happy hour is the muzak of drinking; cocktail hour is the slow jam.
“More ritual, less binge,” says Kerstin Ehmer, who co-founded the Victoria Bar in Berlin and co-authored The School of Sophisticated Drinking, based on the bar’s infamous Sunday drinking lectures. “Cocktail hour is having a moment because the trend goes towards drinking better drinks in elegant locations, flanked by attentive waiters instead of drowning your brains in loads of cheap wine and beer.” Competent design, she says, amplifies the siren call of cocktail hour. “A good bar has to be dark. Light should carve islands out of the general darkness.” True to this, the Victoria is a pantheon to wood and leather. Artists were invited to adorn the bar’s walls with murals and craftsmen commissioned to make furniture — art and craft to accentuate the art and craft of cocktails.
“Cocktail hour was brought to the stunned Berliners by the allied troops of the UK and US,” claims Ehmer, adding that “alcohol in general helped to ease meetings between east and west, capitalism and communism in cold war times”. But cocktail hour is inherent to the European DNA. In Paris an apéritif-cocktail is quaffed en terrace — a Kir, perhaps, à votre santé. In Milan cherry-red Negronis and amber Aperol Spritzes traffic light the end of the working day and the start of the aperitivo. In London cocktail hour started with the aristocrats. The Queen Mother christened six o’clock her “Magic Hour”, which she respected with a martini.
“When I think of cocktail hour I very much think of mid-century design,” says Frieda Gormley, founder of House of Hackney in London, which has redesigned the terrace of Annabel’s in Berkeley Square — the only nightclub the Queen is thought to have visited. “The design reflects the sexy, witching hour of cocktail hour. Moody lighting, fringed lampshades, sultry tones and lots and lots of British velvet.” The opening affair was a cocktail party, of course. “The most interesting projects are the spaces which are used, enjoyed and partied in,” says Gormley. Naturally. Cocktail hour is about conviviality and companionship; turning strangers into friends, not friends into strangers.
“The most important thing about cocktail hour is its interactivity — that it brings people together,” says Lebanese designer Rami Boushdid, of Studio Caramel. Boushdid recently designed a bar cart for Baron restaurant in the modish Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael. The cart is a sleek formulation of walnut wood, brass and steel, its generous back wheel inspired by the penny-farthing bicycle. “We had to be able to rotate it easily. Wheelchairs have the same system — it can turn 180 degrees around its own axis.” The cart’s design promotes its theatrical proclivity. “It switches the convention of people getting drinks at the bar — instead the drinks come to them. It hops from table to table. People at the next table get inspired by what others are ordering.”
At dusk after work young people gather in Mar Mikhael. What used to be an area filled with garages and electricity shops is now replete with bars and restaurants. “They are there to forget about whatever hard times they have had throughout the day. They want to have fun, they want to get drunk,” says Boushdid. “Beirut went through a war and since then it has changed a lot. We’ve tried to revive a bit of the spirit of before the war. Before the war Lebanon was different. The economy was different. Society was different. Nightlife isn’t the only thing currently keeping the country alive but it’s definitely in the top three things.”
Studio Caramel’s bar cart owes its influences to mid-century design, but the paraphernalia of cocktail hour grew out of the art-deco style of the 1920s and 1930s — its glamour, its chrome, its chromatic glass. Playfulness pervaded each element of cocktail making from Napier’s stylised 1930s shaker in the mould of a penguin to Bakelite’s swizzle sticks fashioned into golf clubs. Jiggers used to measure alcohol by the ounce were fashioned into sterling silver top hats and jockeys’ caps.
Contemporary designers have continued cocktail hour’s tradition of frou-frou ornamentation. Single rocks, double rocks, flutes, hurricanes, colourful champagne coupes, whimsical pineapple shot glasses — who wouldn’t feel light-hearted sipping from these? Why carry drinks on any old tray when Oscar de la Renta has designed a vermilion salver that doubles as a mini bar? Or knock back one shot when LSA has a set of 12? If you must slurp from a straw, let it be from Liberty and dunked into a MacKenzie-Childs wine bucket brimming with Pimm’s. And, in case you get so blotto that you forget where the whisky is kept, Theo Fennell has created a silver Jim Beam Sleeve — gaudy bling worthy of the fictional bootlegger Jay Gatsby.
Of course cocktails were created by bartenders but they were canonised by writers. Characters who booze are often as colourful as their drinks: Bond is as camp as his Martini, Gatsby is as bitter as his Gin Rickey and Holly Golightly as strong-willed as her White Angel. And, of course, where there’s hooch, there’s Hemingway — the man who had Giuseppe Cipriani at Harry’s Bar invent the Bellini so he could cut back on his Martinis.
Perhaps the most potent allure of cocktail hour is its invitation to momentarily inhabit a fiction. To nurse a cocktail, to roam free and tipsy at twilight is to imagine yourself sitting at the corner table next to Hemingway in a bar by the Venetian waterfront, or stepping into Fitzgerald’s world of The Beautiful and Damned, raising a glass “to alcohol, the rose coloured glasses of life”.
Main photograph: Slim Aarons/Getty Images
Get alerts on Design when a new story is published