It was almost 100 years ago exactly that every bar in America was shut down, thanks to Prohibition. Back then, brave folks with a thirst for drink flocked to speakeasies.
But a century later, when the nation's bars closed again in the grip of a pandemic, a new way to share a drink was born: The virtual cocktail hour.
These days, brick-and-mortar establishments are reopening in places like Memphis. But many people continue to gather virtually, for safety, to connect with friends in other cities, and maybe most importantly, to delineate when the "work from home" day has actually ended.
"The old adage that 'It's 5:00 somewhere' has never seemed more true, I think, in these days," said food historian Laura Carlson, host of the podcast "The Feast." "With just the bizarre situation that we find ourselves, I think a lot of people are concerned that alcohol is kind of starting to play a larger role as well, to deal with stress and anxiety, as a lot of people have turned to alcohol for in the past."
Carlson told correspondent Luke Burbank that the modern cocktail hour can be traced back to 1917 – and a woman named Clara Bell Walsh. "She was a St. Louis socialite, and became known for hosting parties that had cocktails," she said.
Back in those days, according to Carlson, cocktail hours were a chance for (mostly rich) women to have a drink together at a socially-acceptable hour. "A lot of times these were women that were feeling that they were not allowed out of the home to pursue work or other employment or other, say, educational opportunities." These cocktail hours were "proto-book clubs or salons," where they could discuss, say, intellectual matters" ... over drinks!
For those looking to throw a proper virtual cocktail party in 2020, Linden Pride and Nathalie Hudson have you covered. Pride and Hudson co-own Dante in New York City, which was voted "Best Bar In The World" in 2019. But when the pandemic hit, they had to re-think things. "It's been challenging," Hudson said. "But also kind of fun to adapt the business model in a way that we never thought we would have to do before."
Pride said, "The second day that we had to transition to the to-go cocktails, I was standing in Dante. And there's buckets and bottles of cocktails and people scribbling down recipes and trying to work out how to create, you know, two ounces into 55 ounces into a large vat, so that we could bottle them. It's a bit like mad science."
They've continued serving regulars with pre-made cocktails "to-go," including their world-famous Negroni, which Burbank was curious to try making himself, via Zoom. What he didn't spill was judged by Burbank to be "delicious."
Armed with the perfect drink, he was ready to throw the perfect virtual cocktail party with some friends.
The vibe was relaxed, and surprisingly fun, even though there were some hiccups. "I got a ring light by the way, because I'm trying to be an influencer," Burbank said, before the light fell over.
These days, a feeling of normalcy seems to be in short supply, so finding some, even briefly, even via a video conference, can feel like a real gift – a "happy" hour in maybe the most literal sense.
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Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Carol Ross.