L’Heure du Cocktail is a witty, opinionated book of recipes and drinking etiquette from 1920s Paris. Reprinted this year in English, its structure and style are more original than most cocktail books published in the last 90 years.
So often, cocktail books – and bar menus, for that matter – succeed in answering the question “what drinks can I have?” but leave drinkers mired in the much trickier question: “what should I drink?” Back before mood-based menus and encyclopedic recipe indexes, a pair of cocktail-loving French journalists tried to solve this problem with their book L’Heure du Cocktail, or in English, The Cocktail Hour.
Written by Marcel Requien and Lucien Farnoux-Reynaud and first published in 1927, L’Heure du Cocktail has been dusted off and reprinted this year courtesy of Paris-based Corps Reviver Editions. The new edition sports all-new illustrations and – most importantly for those who don’t speak French – an English translation by Doug Skinner and Gaylor Olivier.
L’Heure du Cocktail Takes You on a Trip Around The Dial
When L’Heure du Cocktail was first published, it was remarkable for being aimed at the general public, rather than professional bartenders. In fact, it was the first cocktail book written in French by amateurs, for amateurs. Books like that may be typical today, but L’Heure du Cocktail’s most striking feature remains revolutionary even now: the book contains 24 chapters, one for each hour of the day.
Rather than divide by ingredients or complexity, the book’s 224 recipes are separated into the times of day when it’s most appropriate to drink them. With no index, the structure is less than ideal for a busy bartender, but it’s perfect for the domestic drinker who struggles with making decisions.
Open the book at any time of day and your options are immediately reduced to a manageable handful of recipes appropriate for the hour. There are categorizations sure to provoke debate – such as listing the Martini as a lunchtime libation rather than a pre-dinner aperitif – but, for the most part, the system works. Daytime drinks are lighter, evening drinks become more bracing, and flavors tend to get much more intense after midnight. If you think 24 hours’ worth of specific drink recommendations is a stretch, the book does occasionally concede that there are times when cocktails aren’t appropriate, although 5 a.m. isn’t one of them.
Cocktail Recipes From Beyond the Bar
As for the recipes themselves, Requien and Farnoux-Reynaud sourced them from bartenders all over France, along with a few from London and New York. But they didn’t stop with the professionals. In a reflection of how commonplace cocktails had become in the 1920s, the duo’s friends contributed recipes, too. L’Heure du Cocktail showcases the favorite drinks of prominent actors, film directors, journalists and writers of the day, alongside recipes from bartenders including Harry MacElhone of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris.
In true journalistic fashion, Requien and Farnoux-Reynaud printed their source for a cocktail beneath its recipe – sadly not a practice which caught on with later cocktail book writers. The numerous eclectic sources make the book doubly interesting. To a bartender, L’Heure du Cocktail is an invaluable record of what people were actually drinking in 1927; to the casual reader, it’s fascinating to see who was downing these classic cocktails.
One highlight is a decidedly tongue-in-cheek recipe from the novelist and poet Jean Cocteau that features cologne and “a finger of shampoo.” The aptly named “Cocktail Désespoir” (Cocktail Despair) is the only thing L’Heure du Cocktail recommends at 6 a.m. Clearly, at any time of day, just one of these is enough.
Bar Aphorisms for the Twitter Age
That wry sense of humor pervades the book, which presents itself less as a list of recipes and more as a tome of essential advice being passed from one generation of drinkers to the next. Complete confidence in your opinions and a good sense of humor about your task are the only way to make something like a cocktail etiquette book work. Thankfully, L’Heure du Cocktail has plenty of both. Its pithy advice on a wide range of topics connected to drinking is highly quotable: “A cocktail must never appear on a table where a well-bred man is eating.” Unafraid to move from the practical to the philosophical, the book later declares that, “there are three subjects on which everyone possesses an inflexible opinion: God, love, and cocktails.”
In both tone and aim, L’Heure du Cocktail’s closest English cousin is Bernard DeVoto’s strident, witty The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, published 20 years later. But where DeVoto is a crotchety old purist, decrying any drinks invented since Prohibition, Requien and Farnoux-Reynaud gleefully embrace a wide range of alcohol and creative concoctions. The book includes many different punch recipes, and several cocktails featuring beer (in some cases, stout), some of which are served hot. Apparently, 4 p.m. is the time for egg-based drinks, including multiple variations on eggnog, and kümmel is a surprisingly common ingredient throughout the day. In fact, iced kummel is recommended as the ideal follow-up to an evening cigar at 11 p.m.
Despite its name, L’Heure du Cocktail doesn’t shy away from telling you when (and how) to drink something other than cocktails. At 2 a.m. we learn that, “champagne is drunk at all hours, but now becomes imperative…It must be iced in a silver bucket, uncorked without noise or foam, and sipped with one hand on a bare shoulder.” Presumably, using one of your own shoulders would be cheating.
At times, the book marks itself out as very much a product of its time and place. It doesn’t take the authors long to go from a rumination on the artistic merit of cocktails to making unflattering remarks about female fashions of the day. And there’s no mistaking the book’s country of origin with lines like this: “If there are good bars throughout the entire world, there are only good drinks in Paris.” In today’s more globalized bar industry, one wonders what Requien and Farnoux-Reynaud would make of a bar like Coupette – imagine the English taking a cue from the French!
A Note From 1927: Don’t Forget The Bar Food
Still, these proud Frenchmen are happy to give credit to the English when it comes to food. In a section which comes after the hour chapters, Requien and Farnoux-Reynaud declare “a bar, whether public or private, becomes a true bar only on the arrival of a plate of ‘chips.’ That is what we call, more from habit than from anglomania, fried potatoes.” After a providing a paragraph-long recipe for chips, they go on to give timeless advice about bar food which many modern bar owners would do well to read. And of course that advice comes accompanied by equally detailed recipes.
Having dealt with food, L’Heure du Cocktail turns its attention to making cocktails at home and hosting cocktail parties. Once again, the advice has stood the test of time remarkably well. It ranges from the act of mixing drinks, to stocking your home bar, creating your own recipes, and attending other people’s cocktail parties.
Truly Timeless Advice
In many ways, this final section is the best part of the book. The authors advocate for intuition over precision when mixing drinks: “If you slip on spectacles to calculate the gin, vermouth, and sherry, find work as a laboratory assistant.”
And when drinking cocktails at a friend’s place, “never give advice, never pronounce that painful phrase ‘What I would do…’, keep your recipes, ask others for theirs, and let your regulars make the comparison in your favor.” Words to live by, whether you’re a Jazz Age reveler, or a modern-day bartender.
Surprisingly prescient advice and a reverently irreverent tone make L’Heure du Cocktail more than just another time capsule of Prohibition-era recipes. It reads like an entertaining conversation with a knowledgeable but slightly old fashioned friend – one you’ll find yourself returning to more often than you’d expect.