TT: Retro or Rockin’?

Elegant Assortment

Elegant Assortment

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it, but I have a very firm memory of someone saying that – in addition to smoking – nothing makes an SF story seem more out of date than having the characters all sitting around drinking cocktails.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JANE: I did some research and, here in the U.S. at least, cocktail culture seems to be perceived simultaneously as out-of-date and ultra-retro-chic.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?

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13 Responses to “TT: Retro or Rockin’?”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Cocktails have been around a long time. Read any historical fiction and there are drinks being offered when guests arrive and certainly the after dinner men only cigars and drinks routine was around.

    Alcohol was also much used medicinally in those days and still continues to be used as such instead of sleeping pills etc.

    Of course in a lot of those books the lead characters are also upper class and the snobbery evident in the type of alcohol consumed is very evident.

    I think that with the after WWII prosperity more of the middle class began to indulge. Sort of a trying to be like all those hoity doities that one saw in the movies or newsreels.

    Why the popularity has declined? My guess is the working mother who is not at home to prepare the event and entertaining has become less formal and rigid.

  2. Dawn Says:

    When I was growing up in the 70’s & 80’s my Mom kept a stocked bar. And at least one of the houses we lived in had a wet bar built in to the den. So when she and my Dad has guests over drinks were often available. I got to be the bartender too. I remember making Brandy Alexanders with ice cream at about 16! It was New Year’s Eve and I had a friend over. We poured ourselves some too! My Mom let us try things at home, under her supervision.
    I learned how to make all sorts of drinks as a teen. It was fun.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Wow, a bunch of thoughts here.

    First, off, distilled spirits have been around since the Arabs (al-cohol), and mixing even beer with other stuff to make it more palatable goes back to the neolithic, according to the archaeologists who are analyzing residues from clay pots (Some of it must have been pretty bad if adding hawthorn berries was an improvement). What changes isn’t the habit of mixing stuff into booze to cut the alcohol a bit and add some flavor, it’s the recipes and the context, as you noted. That changes with every culture, if not every generation. At least we’re not putting white lead into our wine to sweeten it, as the Romans supposedly did.

    IIRC, modern cocktails got a real kick in Prohibition, and a big part of the reason was that the booze in the speakeasies was often crappy. Cocktails were there to hide the ugly side of the alcohol that was available by mixing it with other strong flavors, like olives. A lot of post-war cocktail culture came from people who were kids during Prohibition, and I think their childhood experiences were part of it. It was one of the many aspects of the post-war culture in golden-age SFF that it does, indeed, date it as much as imperialism is dated in Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.

    The Gen Xers and to a lesser extent the boomers went retro in reviving the pre-Prohibition culture, and we were all about rediscovering that there were things like good wine, beer, and coffee, in reaction against the industrial mid-century products like Paul Masson, Coors, and Yuban (to name three at random). Nowadays, the Millennials are one-upping this, getting back into the old spirits, rediscovering the old cocktail recipes of the 20s and 30s, but trying to do them with (allegedly) good alcohol (or at least craft-distilled stuff) and off-beat mixers for allegedly sophisticated palates.* You can thoroughly skewer this culture too, if you pay enough attention to it. Ironic beards are a must for the men, I think, and the women should be well-muscled and very competent (as Garrison Keillor says about Lake Wobegon, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”)

    *Or suckers who want to give the impression that they have educated palates, and will swallow anything artfully presented to them as a result. These are also an ancient breed.

    • Peter Says:

      Hawthorn berries are a culturally-defined taste – in China haw candies are a hugely popular children’s treat. They pretty much occupy the bubblegum segment – go into a corner store (on the mainland; Hong Kong is a bit different) and you’ll see a huge rack of hawthorn candy right by the checkout, with nary a piece of bubblegum to be seen. (A lot of the space where you’d expect to see chocolate bars is filled with various meat and fish flosses. Also bouillon cubes.)

  4. Peter Says:

    Prohibition, as mentioned already, played a big part in the development of (US) cocktail culture, followed by a combination of wartime rationing in the 1940s making whisk(e)y and vodka hard to come by and Roosevelt’s Pan-American program, which made rum readily-available and trendy. There are also class- and leisure elements, in addition to the economic and political ones.

    Some cocktails evolved in the other direction – rather than mixing in additives to make the alcohol more pleasant, alcohol was added to medicines to make them more palatable – the classic gin and tonic began as a way to make taking one’s anti-malarials more palatable, and navy grog (the ancestor of cocktails like the daiquiri or caipirinha) played a role in the prevention of scurvy (it also made the watered-down rum ration more palatable).

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Mixing alcohol into questionable water also kills the bacteria in the water, although apparently it takes awhile to work, especially at low alcohol concentrations (something I wrote about a long time ago).

      Thanks for the info on hawthorn, incidentally.

      • Peter Says:

        Tying the hawthorn together with the cocktail-as-medicine, I learned at lunch that haw flakes (cylinders of haw candy) are often eaten when taking bitter herbal medicines to make them go down better (one of my colleagues was taking some truly pungent stuff at lunch, and washed it down with some haw candy.)

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Full disclosure: I actually know what hawthorn tastes like, because I used to use the tincture for blood pressure control. The tiny little warning is that, at least in me, hawthorn tincture is as good an anticoagulant as aspirin. While I don’t know if the candy has the same effect, the herb is not entirely harmless.

  5. Paul Says:

    I’m still trying to remember an SF story where cocktails are served.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison are likely suspects. Let’s see if my rusty brain will work… Actually, Walter Jon Williams had a cocktail in Voice of the Whirlwind, but sadly that was cyberpunk, so it’s a counterexample (I remembered, because there’s a typo, and the name of the drink changes from the beginning to the end of the scene). Certainly, there’s some in most bar stories (Callahans, for example) . How many examples do you want?

    • janelindskold Says:

      Henry Kuttner is another good candidate for cocktail hour in stories…

  6. Alex Says:

    H Beam Piper stories feature “cocktail hour”. Most notably his “Fuzzy” novels.

  7. CBI Says:

    When I was in high school, it was common to celebrate one’s 18th birthday by going out for cocktails with friends of that age or older. A few years later, when I was a young junior officer in the Navy, cocktails at parties were still fairly common. By the time I retired, they had gone away. But not really: they had just morphed.

    What seems to have happened is that wine became more popular. Instead of several different spirits and mixers, several different types of wine were enjoyed. The proliferation of reasonably-priced wines in the U.S.–especially California wines–allowed for a host to be both trendy–wine at parties was still a novelty–and a bit more cost-conscious. Within a few years, the displacement was complete.

    With the increase in craft breweries over the past decade or so, I’ve seen a variety of beers added to the menu, so to speak. In addition to the trendiness factor, one cause may be that a host can provide a variety of wines and beers for guests at a lesser cost than would be required to provide a variety of spirits.

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