By Rebecca Smith
Cocktails are booming or, rather, “zooming” right now. Virtual cocktail parties are flourishing, as they offer ceremony and sociability, which we sorely need. They take advantage of the additional hours we all have and the flexibility of our schedules. They add a bit of elegance to our stuck-at-home frumpiness. As Gina Bellafante wrote in The NY Times on April 26, “a single cocktail can feel like the best inoculation against dread.” She expands, “We need the ritual; we have the time. And during lockdown, it’s 5 o’clock everywhere.”
In general, since shelter-inside orders were put in place, we as a nation have apparently been imbibing significantly more. It has been estimated that over half of Americans 18 and over have been indulging and alcohol sales are at record levels. Liquor and grocery stores have seen increases of over 26% and online sellers have claimed increases of over 42%. From the beginning, alcohol sales were deemed an “essential business”, apparently anticipating the need for anxiety relief, and even home delivery and carryout cocktails have been allowed. Consumption and enjoyment have been a frequent topic on social media and spirits of all kinds have been featured. Cocktails have enjoyed a particular spotlight with photos, recipes and tutorials abounding.
The history of the cocktail is a colorful one. The American version is that it began as a result of Prohibition when fruit juices were mixed with poor bathtub gin and other spirits to disguise the flavor. The “Cocktail Hour” was said to have originated when liquor was made legal again in 1933; it was a daily celebration. When and why it dwindled is debatable but technology and “productiveness” surely played their roles. Extended hours at work and even at home, long hours on the way to and from work, parenthood duties, and constant connectedness resulted in exhaustion more than anything else. And the traditional 5:00 toast? Most weren’t even home by then and, if they were, concocting an elaborate cocktail and setting an elegant mood was far from priority. Enter the Coronavirus.
There are seemingly no end to “cocktail” origin stories and the French play into many of them. The word itself probably came from the French word “coquetier” (pronounced ko-k-tay) which refers to a kind of eggcup, in which French apothecary Antoine Peychaud of Peychaud’s Bitters, would serve a bitters and brandy mix to sufferers of stomach ailments. Peychaud, who was born in Haiti and moved to New Orleans, is recognized as the creator of the “Sazerac”, the original branded cocktail. It was made with Sazerac French brandy with Peychaud’s gentian-based bitters (hints of anise and mint) an essential ingredient.*
An engaging but likely false account is that of an innkeeper Betsy Flanagan who was said to have served French soldiers fighting in our own Revolutionary War her “Betsy’s Bracers” drink, stirred and decorated with rooster tails, i.e. “cocks’ tails”. “Vive le cocktail!” a French officer reportedly exclaimed. **
The “Coquetel”, also connected with French military serving at that time, was a specific mixed drink from Bordeaux.**
But the French contribution is much larger than just in the naming. Long admired for their flair in the galley, French superiority can be seen in their mixology, as well as in their cuisine. Saveur.com describes Harry’s New York Bar as the most famous cocktail bar in Paris and one of the most historically well known in the world.
And France can claim to have fashioned some of the all-time most beloved cocktails. These include the Mimosa, the Sidecar, the Bloody Mary (with credit to the Americans bringing over tomato juice), the Kir and Kir Royal, the French 75, the Lumiere, the 1789 and, the most dramatic, perilous and artist-connected, Absinthe. (Interestingly, a dash of Absinthe also became an ingredient in the Sazerac.)
So - À votre santé!
To cocktail à la française, check out this guide to a handy liquor cabinet. (Notice his recommendation for a sweet vermouth harmonizes with Stanley Tucci’s how-to-make-a-Negroni demonstration now going gangbusters on social platforms.)
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