Therefore, it’s practically impossible to comprehend that the cocktail is a fairly recent invention. According to Imbibe! by cocktail historian David Wondrich, Major General Sir James Edward Alexander, a Scottish soldier and writer, published the first cocktail recipe in 1831. At the same time, countless conflicting legends and stories about the development of the cocktail remain. The word “cocktail” itself has even more mysterious roots, and no one can pinpoint precisely its origins.
The birth of the cocktail hour, however, is more thoroughly documented. During the early 20th century, members of the British upper class began sipping drinks to fill the time between dressing for the evening and sitting down to elaborate dinners, and the practice came to mark the transition from day to evening. The men quickly learned that the cocktail hour offered a prime opportunity to negotiate deals as the drinks lubricated conversation and slowly lowered inhibitions. With that development, it didn’t take long for the custom to travel across the Atlantic and gain favor with Americans.
But cocktail hour didn’t leave the realm of private homes until a few decades later. “[It] became glamorous after Prohibition, made so by the ability to drink palatable spirits and by film, theater and popular literature,” explains Elizabeth M. Williams, cocktail historian and co-author of Lift Your Spirits. “People wanted to return to the camaraderie of the cocktail.”
In this hurried age, people don’t always set aside time for cocktail hour, despite its value as a way to decompress from the work day and connect with peers and loved ones. “We can cherish it as a special time carved out of an over programmed day for a quiet, intense civilized moment for business, for friendship or even romance,” Williams says.
This idea of the cocktail hour helped inspire InterContinental Hotels & Resorts Worldly Classics program created in partnership with renowned mixologist Angus Winchester. With cocktails like the American Dutchman inspired by the InterContinental New York Barclay and the Mexican Fire & Ice inspired by the InterContinental Presidente Mexico City, Winchester has succeeded in highlighting the history, flavors and cultural specialties of each city, giving the cocktails a sense of place and connection.
“I was given the list of classic cocktails that InterContinental wanted and also the list of wonderful properties that they have around the world,” Winchester explains. “I then looked at the ingredients and drinks associated with those places and tried to find ways to incorporate them into the drinks.”
Besides providing a chance to unwind, cocktail hour serves a practical purpose: You’re going to sit down to dinner, so why not elevate the experience with an aperitif? According to Winchester, drinking aperitifs improves both the flavor of the food and the appetite. Sharp citrus drinks like the Mexican Fire & Ice cleanse and refresh, while ones with herbal notes like the American Dutchman or the Brazilian Smash add depth of flavor and stimulate the sense of smell before dinner.
The cocktail hour still offers a convenient setting for a business meeting, without having to commit to a full meal together. “The meal can be a distracting element, but drinks allow for an efficiency that lets the parties discuss their business and be done with it,” Williams says.
Gathering over cocktails may also prove more productive than a breakfast session. For business occasions, Winchester favors simple cocktails without difficult garnishes, especially since the conversation will be taking center stage instead of the drink. “Everyone is more awake, more friendly and more focused in the evening rather than the morning,” Winchester says. “They’re more inclined to relax and the alcohol and informality can aid more productive conversations.”
At the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco, the 100-plus martini variations on offer at the hotel’s iconic Top of the Mark reflect its commitment to the cocktail hour, according to Joseph Ferragamo, food and beverage director. The menu pays tribute to the city’s connection to the martini, and how it likely evolved from the Martinez drink served during the 19th century in San Francisco. “We’re trying to keep with our roots a little bit even as we get more modern,” Ferragamo says.
No matter what type of cocktail you choose, it will likely prove a conversation starter. “People have favorites and also stories about how and where they enjoy cocktails, so it always leads to conversation,” Winchester says. ” Above all, there’s no better way to break the ice than with an expertly crafted cocktail. If it can be sipped among great company in a polished setting, then you’re guaranteed to connect with both new friends and old.