JANE: I don’t know where or when or who said it, but I have a very firm memory of someone saying that – in addition to smoking – nothing makes an SF story seem more out of date than having the characters all sitting around drinking cocktails.
This got me wondering. Are cocktails automatically “retro”? Has coffee culture replaced cocktail culture?
ALAN: Interesting questions, and I must confess that I can’t answer them. Mainly because I know almost nothing about cocktail culture.
JANE: I did some research and, here in the U.S. at least, cocktail culture seems to be perceived simultaneously as out-of-date and ultra-retro-chic. Moreover, whether old style or new, it seems to be very, very skiffy.
Would you be interested in taking a look at how this odd set of circumstances developed?
ALAN: Yes please. As I said this is all pretty much a closed book to me.
About all I know about cocktails is that they are often served in the bars of hotels, particularly resort hotels, and they seem to consist largely of various fruit juices, solid fruit, cream, sugar and spirits. Often they come with a paper umbrella, a straw and sometimes a swizzle stick. They strike me as rather like dessert in a glass and given that most of them can also be ordered virgin (i.e. without alcohol), the analogy is perhaps even closer. Maybe they correspond to the fussy things on Starbucks menus that you compared to desserts? Anyway, I’m quite looking forward to what you have to say…
JANE: Thanks! As a non-drinker, my knowledge of cocktail culture is pretty much secondhand. However, I talked with a bunch of people of varying ages and came up with some interesting bits of information.
First, apparently cocktail purists don’t include those fussy drinks you mention above as cocktails.
Writer and editor Gardner Dozois commented: “I don’t think that daiquiris and Pina Coladas are considered to be cocktails. The real cocktail purists, like Michael Swanwick, don’t consider half the things that are on today’s cocktail menus to be cocktails either. He has a lot about this on his blog.”
My friend Chris Krohn added, “Some suggest that if it wasn’t poured from a cocktail shaker, then it’s not a cocktail. This tight definition, however, would preclude all fizzy drinks such as G&T [gin and tonic].”
ALAN: I’ve never met anybody who owns a cocktail shaker, though I do know people who drink gin and tonic.
My grandfather would drink something he called a “Gin and It” where the “It” was Italian Vermouth. That might almost have been a martini if he’d put an olive in it. But it wasn’t chilled – the British don’t do ice…
JANE: No ice? Weird!
When I was a kid – we’re talking 1960’s – just about any party (including casual ones like cookouts) featured cocktails.
At least where I lived, even in summer, these weren’t the sort of fussy dessert drinks you mentioned above, but harder hitting drinks like gin and tonic, whiskey sours, and martinis. About the only fruit you’d find in these were olives or, maybe, maraschino cherries.
John Maddox Roberts (author of, among other books, the SPQR series I’ve been mentioning a lot lately) offered the following, almost anthropological, assessment of earlier cocktail culture.
“I believe the domestic cocktail party as I remember them from my childhood was a result of the new postwar prosperity and the move into the suburbs. People were expected to actually know their neighbors and a major occasion for a cocktail party was when a new family moved into the neighborhood. Someone would throw a party and the newcomers could meet all their neighbors at once. After Depression and WWII austerity the varied and abundant liquors and mixers represented the new middle-class prosperity. I remember my mother saying how difficult it was to get even whiskey during WWII because of sugar rationing, Scotch was out of the question, Vodka hadn’t caught on yet but there was always plenty of cheap rum from Cuba and Bermuda. Rum and Coke was the order of the day.”
ALAN: Shortly after we moved to our new house, we had a meet the neighbours party. We had a couple of bottles of champagne for our guests to drink and there was beer in the fridge. Some people also brought beer or wine, and one non-drinker brought ginger beer. There wasn’t a cocktail to be seen.
Indeed, the only time I remember seeing any kind of spirits at a party was one we held after a friend died and we drank the rather sparse contents of his spirit cupboard in his memory. But wine, beer and bubbles are the more usual tipples.
JANE: That’s the case here as well.
I think John is right on target here – that cocktails involve a degree of expense and, therefore, aren’t just drinks, they’re social statements and more likely to be found in social settings.
John concluded his comment by noting, “Our generation started drinking during our college years and we could only afford beer and cheap wine and we’ve stayed loyal to those. And we rarely know or care who the neighbors are.”
However, cocktail culture is far from dead. It has simply morphed. My friend, Rowan Derrick, who is in her early thirties, had some interesting things to say about this.
“The driving factors are probably less to do with shunning cocktails specifically than they are with group dynamics and economics.
“Group dynamics because parties are more often a collaborative effort than a ‘hosted’ affair amongst this age group. That means that you have a group involved in bringing drinks. Cocktails would require more coordination, plus more accounting for differences in taste, than just asking people to show up with a bottle of wine or a six-pack.
“Economics because even a minimally stocked bar is a big up-front investment, so staying stocked for regular cocktail hours might be intimidating for a notoriously broke generation. Additionally, the amount of extraneous ingredients for some cocktails (citrus, cream, seltzer, tonic, syrups, etc.) adds up – both in terms of money spent and space taken up.”
ALAN: Also spirits get you drunk far too quickly. Personally, I prefer my alcohol in less powerful forms.
JANE: Actually, if getting drunk was the only point, then spirits would be a better choice but, as various people have noted, the point of a cocktail party is socializing with getting tipsy as a bonus.
So, there you have it… The routine cocktail hour of my childhood did indeed die out – probably due to economic and social shifts. However, as is so often the case, what was old is new again.
So I guess it’s okay to have your space travelers sipping cocktails as they travel the spaceways without that making the story automatically out-of-date.
However, they don’t need to stick to martinis. There’s a lot of SF specific drinks out there, both real and imagined. How about we save those for next time?