An Ode To The Hard-Working Cocktail

By Elizabeth Speth

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The cocktail may be the hardest-working American out there.

Think about all this little dynamo does.  It lubricates the enormous social machine that is our culture.  Without it, no one would donate money to political causes.  Fewer of us would write checks for charity. Questionable business deals would die a natural death.  Entire friendships and marriages would be obliterated — would never have gotten off the ground — without cocktails.

And what has it done for you lately?

It makes your jokes funny.   After it gives you the confidence to tell them.

Your killer dance moves?  Alcohol.

Alcohol renders the ugly attractive.

It transforms bad ideas into brilliant ideas.

It deadens the pain somewhat when you act on brilliant ideas.

It pries your clothes off.  Banishes modesty.  Silences towering insecurities and inhibitions.

As my favorite writer/social commentator/biting satirist Dorothy Parker so famously said:

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.”

This is Dorothy.  She looks like she’s had a few.  Which is why she was so funny.


The first “cocktail party” ever thrown was allegedly by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. Mrs. Walsh invited 50 guests to her home at noon on a Sunday. The party lasted an hour, until lunch was served at 1 pm.

Clearly, they were amateurs.

Understand that I am not criticizing them for starting so early.

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I just can’t believe they quit so soon.

Despite its bumbling start, the idea caught on.  A local newspaper reported that:  “The party scored an instant hit,” and within weeks, cocktail parties had become “a St. Louis institution”.

References to the practice in early etiquette books advise cocktails to “occupy guests between related events and to reduce the number of guests who arrive late.”

Wha…? Who is even sober enough to think up these things?

Later experts advised using cocktail hour as a way of dispensing with social obligations to people you didn’t like well enough to dine with.

Listen. By the time we’re done with cocktails, I promise I will love you enough to eat with you.

But the sturdy cocktail survived all this early mismanagement, and evolved into an end-of-day grace note.  A transition between the bitter travails of the work day and the soft comforts of home.

An exhale, albeit an alcoholic one, in the mad rush of living.

An opportunity to wear flattering clothing and flirt.  Fashion pays attention to the cocktail.  There are cocktail rings, and dresses, hats and purses.


They are all about playful allure.  As is the cocktail.

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Those who believe in the practice follow it rigorously.  We value our right to cocktail, and our loved ones accept and understand this.

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And, when we do so in regular moderation, we are the scientific  study subjects that appear to be living longer and better.

But enough about moderation.

I believe that all grown-ups, in a pact to keep the world a more civilized and genteel place, to keep the social machine running smoothly, are responsible for knowing how to make at least four cocktails.  You should have four recipes you can dash off without thought.  Drunk, even.

You can pick your own, whatever suits.  There are thousands, and new drinks are invented every day.  I’m a classicist, so I offer the following suggestions.

mimosa The Mimosa.

Everyone knows what this is.  Even your great-great aunt will sip one of these at brunch on Mother’s Day.  This is a Gateway Cocktail.  Everyone progresses to a darker place from here, but this is a sunny starting point.

Recipe:  Take a couple of swigs of orange juice.  It prevents scurvy.  Then rinse out the glass and pour yourself a proper serving of Champagne.  You’ve got no business putting orange juice in good Champagne, and life is too short to drink bad Champagne.

scotch Straight Scotch or Bourbon.

This is a serious drink.  A man’s drink, or a forceful woman’s. Figure out what you like.  Unlike wine, generally the more you pay the better it will be.  Once you find it,  research its origins.  Find out where in Scotland or Kentucky it was produced, and add just the smallest swig of water from that exact geographic area to your glass to bring out its natural attributes and regional charms, and to cut the alcohol.  Or just drink it straight.

martiniThe martini.

Vodka for me.  If gin for you, great.  More vodka for me.  Same thing with a lemon twist or an olive.  You decide. Have your bartender whisper the word ‘vermouth’ over the shaker, and then he must shake that blessed thing until small ice shards are floating in the alcohol.  Martini drinkers can pick up the sound of a shaker in the largest, loudest restaurant.  It sounds like sleigh bells.  It means our drink is finally coming.  It MUST be in a martini glass.  Always.   And if there are no shards of ice, send it back.

cocktail margarita The Margarita.

This recipe is very simple.  First, throw away the blender.  Always salt on the rim. Ingredients: Tequila. Fresh Lime Juice. Simple Syrup. Triple Sec or Grand Marnier. Measurements:   Lots. A little. A little. A little.

Because it’s five o’clock (ish), and I’m sipping a vodka martini right now, I want to throw in a Bonus Recipe.  I feel generous.  I practically love you right now.  I really do.

My favorite national holiday, Kentucky Derby Day, is coming up, so you’re going to want to know how to make a Mint Julep. Easy.  Swish some bourbon and toothpaste around in your mouth. Spit into a silver cup.  Hand cup to someone else.  Scroll up for straight bourbon recipe.

And now, before we part company, a toast:

Never lie, cheat, steal or drink.  But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love.  If you must steal, steal away from bad company.  If you must cheat, cheat death.  And if you must drink, drink the moments that take your breath away. 

11 thoughts on “An Ode To The Hard-Working Cocktail

  1. The Vesper is Kent’s (and Bond, James Bond) favorite Martini. Two Shots English Gin, One Shot Russian Vodka and 1/2 Shot of French Lillet (blanc). Shaken – not Stirred. I even like it!


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