Drinking by the Clock

Which drinks are appropriate when, and why.


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ZINO's gin and tonic, left, and Gibraltar likely won't cause a stir whenever ordered.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Among society’s many mysterious unwritten rules is the rigid notion that certain drinks are appropriate only at certain times of day yet inappropriate at others. Sipping a martini while still in your morning pajamas would appear pathological, just as ordering a bloody Mary after dinner would out you as an extraterrestrial.

But what rationales underpin this circadian cocktail schedule? Some drinks’ temporal rules for social acceptability make sense; others, not so much. Not everyone knows the rules nor the reasons behind the etiquette. This handy guide should bring us up to speed.

Early Morning/Breakfast: The justification for all early morning alcohol is the presumption that you were drinking heavily the night before and have woken with a hangover. The dubious “hair of the dog” theory (named after a homeopathic folk cure for rabies in which one placed into the bite wound some hair from the dog that bit you) posits that drinking more alcohol will salve the effects of earlier overindulging.

The most famous hair-of-the-dog cure is the bloody Mary, made with vodka (to assuage alcohol cravings), tomato juice (to settle the stomach), and various salty/savory flavorings (such as Worcestershire sauce), which are theorized to supply electrolytes leached out by the previous night’s bingeing. Early-morning hangover cures are also sometimes called “wake-me-ups” and “corpse revivers.”

Mid-Morning/Brunch: Brunchtime drinks are less about hangovers and more about being light, fruity and “healthy.” Two recipes in particular rule this phase of the day: The mimosa (freshly squeezed orange juice with Champagne) and the bellini (peach purée and prosecco).

“Bloody Marys and mimosas are most strongly associated with morning and daytime imbibing,” said Dave Thomas, bar manager at Berkeley’s ZINO. “But I actually think well-crafted, full-strength drinks can be enjoyed at any time of the day, especially on the weekends.”

Higher-proof brunchtime cocktails retaining that health-conscious veneer include the greyhound (grapefruit juice and gin) and the screwdriver (orange juice and vodka).

Early/Mid-Afternoon: Social guidelines governing this phase of the day are vague. Assuming that it’s a sunny lazy afternoon, no one would look askance if you ordered something fun like sangria (Spanish red wine, ripe summer fruits, and sometimes liqueur), or light like a spritz (sparkling wine, a bitter aperitif, soda water), or tropical like a piña colada (pineapple juice, coconut milk, rum).

Happy Hour/Late Afternoon: Originally devised as a marketing ploy to lure patrons into bars and restaurants during the unprofitable downtime between lunch and dinner, “happy hour” has blossomed into an entire industry unto itself.

“It’s a way for restaurants to incentivize people to come in after a day at work,” explained Tacubaya bar manager Lauren Santos. “Happy hour cocktails should be inexpensive, approachable, simple, and appeal to a large audience.”

Priscilla Young, beverage manger at Lake Chalet Restaurant and Honor Kitchen & Cocktails, agreed: “Happy hour is that time between obligations where strangers and friends can eat, drink, and socialize together. In this era of ’round-the-clock stimulation and 60-hour work weeks, happy hour is an escape that doesn’t break the bank.”

Cocktail Hour/Early Evening: Subtly different from happy hour is its previous incarnation, “cocktail hour,” which is more about tuxedo-clad gentlemen getting plastered on expensive booze. Cocktail hour was the time to order classic combos like the martini and the Manhattan, the old fashioned or the cosmopolitan. “Sundowner” is another obsolete term for any drink ordered at dusk.

Pre-Dinner/Evening: Aperitifs are any drinks consumed immediately before a big meal, purportedly with the goal of awakening the digestive juices. No studies have ever demonstrated this ritual’s biological necessity, but common aperitifs include bitter Italian liqueurs such as Campari and Aperol, fortified wines such as vermouth, sherry, port, and madeira, and cocktails such as the Kir (cassis liqueur with white wine).

Post-Dinner/Late Night: Your socially approved nonstop sipping schedule concludes with the after-dinner drink known as the digestif, which is often a flavorful spirit served “neat,” e.g. unmixed and room temperature. Classic digestifs include cognac, Grand Marnier, Kahlua, Drambuie, or any number of brandies or intense liqueurs.

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