The Cocktail Nation
Cigars. Steaks. Cocktails. This jazzy trio of former American favorites came roaring back in the 1990s, transformed from social vices into hallmarks of sophistication-especially for men. Driven by media coverage that has promoted as much as reported these trends, the renewed fads have been packaged together into a supposed redefinition of American’s attitude toward health-damaging behavior.
Across the country, writers have described the rise of “The Cocktail Nation,” a supposedly massive subculture of bon vivants living a devil-may-care existence. Their background music: aged crooners Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who several years back became suddenly popular among young people. Supposedly, this signaled a desire to return to the carefree American epoch of the singers’ original heydays. Spread by the 1996 movie Swingers, this vision of besuited guys who are “so money” chasing “beautiful babies” has hatched cigar bars and cocktail lounges on every mall-style hipster strip in America.
Drawing on this anecdotal evidence, trend writers proclaim that Americans have tired of cholesterol counts and sober living. We are ready to enjoy life again, damn it, and pay the consequences later. It’s a wonderful, seductive story line, one that has yielded some of the most overblown journalistic prose in decades. And the numbers seem to back it up. Cigar sales have skyrocketed. Hip bars compete to invent new cocktails. Steakhouses are doing great business.
But if you take a harder, closer look at what’s going on, the trend spotters have got it wrong. In fact, studies reveal that, whatever their occasional indulgences, Americans are more obsessed with their mortality than ever. Rather than going gung-ho into the good night, we’re terrified. Cocktail Nation? More like Nation of Wimps.
The New Martini is all glamour, its sleek image distilled from old movie clips and Algonquin Roundtable witticisms. It intoxicates with memories of tycoons and tough guys, starlets and vamps on ocean liners and in speakeasies. -St. Petersburg Times, April 1997
For those of us whose adulthood has been marked by downsizing and round-the-clock productivity, the three-martini lunch seems like a mass delusion, something possible only in an economy so strong it could roll along every afternoon on auto-pilot. Today, people who have anything stronger than a single glass of wine at a business lunch get odd looks from their tablemates.
Having spent years as the Chicago Tribune’s “Dr. Nightlife,” Rick Kogan remembers the days of the serious drinkers. He mocks today’s new breed of cocktail connoisseurs, who make a show of ordering complicated, recently invented drinks like the Cosmopolitan and Chocolate Martini. “In the old days, no one talked about, ‘sipping martinis’,” Kogan says. “They just said, ‘Let’s get a drink.'”
When you look at the actual trends in America-the kind supported by numbers, not buckets of printer’s ink-they punch a hole in the “cocktail nation” concept large enough to drive through several truckloads of goat-cheese-stuffed olives. Studies by the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley, California, show the number of people who say they did not drink in the past 12 months rose from 30.6 percent in 1984 to 35.4 percent in 1995. Over the same period, the number of people who report having five or more drinks a day at least once a week has also dropped, from 6.1 percent to 4.5 percent.
Furthermore, heavy drinkers are far more likely to be chugging than sipping. “Evidence has repeatedly shown that the heaviest consumption is in beer,” says the center’s Thomas Greenfield. “So many people may actually be drinking less by converting to cocktails. Beer accounts for 67 percent of all alcohol consumed in America, (as measured by the actual ethanol content of beverages consumed), according to a new study by the center. Hard liquor, which serves as the basis for any cocktail, accounts for only one-fifth of the alcohol we drink. Ten percent of American drinkers consume 57 percent of all our alcohol intake, and beer accounts for 75 percent of their imbibing.
“The alcohol industry likes to promote the idea of people saying, ‘To hell with all this neo-temperance,'” Greenfield says. “But actually, we’ve found there are two brands of abstainers: those who always abstain and those who occasionally let loose, reconnect to their glory days and regret it afterward.”
Grad student Carrie Yury, a 27-year-old who has bartended in New York City and Chicago, echoes Greenfield’s take. Among her customers, she distinguishes between the older cocktail set-who drink the same martini repeatedly, several times a week-and the new generation of cocktail types, who experiment more, order only off preset martini lists, and drink less.
Yury says her own evolution as a drinker reflects what she observes in young customers. “In the old days, when I drank all the time, I drank a lot more beer,” she says. “Now, my relationship to liquor is a lot more Epicurean than alcoholic. When I drink at all, I want something special.”
This is the 999999s, as in ‘dressed to,’ and most people are….After a 35-year dormancy, the Lounge is open again. Vamps in cocktail dresses and mugs in fedoras are slinking inside to pour their souls into the highball glasses that hold their hearts….But Lounge is so much more than a mixed drink, retro music, and a fine cigar. -Esquire, April 1997
As anyone who has tried to kick smoking knows all too well, there is more than a hangover to falling off the nicotine wagon. Among America’s most visible anti-smoking activists, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once compared quitting cigarettes to beating heroine addiction, saying nicotine junkies had it harder. Yet as the ill effects of smoking, and even second-hand smoke, have been better and better documented, the percentage of cigarette smokers in America has dropped precipitously.
In the 1960s, more than half of American men smoked, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By 1990, the share had dropped to 28 percent, and has plateaued around that level ever since. Among women, the drop is less steep. In 1965, one-third of all women smoked, compared with 23 percent in 1994.
For groups like the American Lung Association (ALA), that trend marks a significant victory. Not surprisingly, the ALA has been horrified by the recent surge in cigar smoking. Anti-tobacco types have tried to counteract the stogie’s surge by mounting campaigns that point to the increased chances of mouth cancers associated with lighting up.
The case is hardly helped by the widespread view that cigar smoking is a “safer” alternative to cigarettes, because cigar smokers do not inhale the way cigarette smokers do. In theory, this allows the same relaxation without the long-term damage. Shorter-term effects count, as well, says PR maven Tom Doody of Chicago, who quit cigarettes but now smokes an occasional cigar. As head of a firm that does a huge business promoting nightclubs and restaurants, Doody has watched the cigar trend up close. “A lot of the former smokers I know quit because they felt cigarettes were affecting their performance-at the gym, in bed, running to the train every morning,” he says. “As for the new health campaigns trying to make cigar smoking look just as dangerous, I’ve never seen such completely irresponsible rhetoric.”
Celebrities seem to confirm this view. Paragons of health such as Chicago Bulls demigod Michael Jordan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger-who once chaired the Presidential Commission on Physical Fitness-regularly pop up on national TV and magazine covers smoking celebratory cigars.
In an odd example of unrelated fads compounding each other, hip-hop culture also played a role in popularizing cigars. This is especially true for the Phillies Blunt, a brand prized for the sweet taste it gives when half-emptied and re-packed with cannabis. The cigar’s popularity in trend-setting hip-hop circles is probably one reason teen cigar-smoking has increased dramatically. In 1996, an estimated 27 percent of teens aged 14 to 19 reported smoking a cigar in the past year, according to a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Here are other examples of the cigar’s growing popularity: often disdained for their pungent, room-clearing aroma, cigars are now even having perfumes named after them. The circulation of Cigar Aficionado magazine rose from 141,000 in 1994 to nearly 400,000 in 1996. Most major American cities now have several cigar clubs, havens where upscale smokers keep private humidors stocked and entertain business partners. Between 1993 to 1997, reported a recent National Cancer Institute study, the number of U.S. cigar smokers rose by nearly 50 percent.
The biggest growth area? Precisely those titanic cigars that pop up most in movie-star mouths. Consumption of large cigars increased 66 percent between 1993 and 1997, to an estimated 3.55 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). What we’re seeing is the wholesale reversal of a nearly three-decade trend. Sales of premium cigars, generally imported from the Caribbean, spiked an estimated 154 percent between 1993 and 1996, probably thanks to upper-income smokers who have strongly embraced the trend. The increase followed almost three decades of annual declines in the consumption of large cigars.
“Smoking a cigar makes you look successful,” explains Chicago painter Dzine, 27, who says he first acquired a taste for cigars three years ago while visiting Miami. The availability of “Cubans” makes the town a stogie-lover’s mecca. “I started smoking cigars instead of cigarettes, because I felt like it did much less damage to my health.”
There’s a long historical precedent for this attitude. U.S. cigar sales rose steadily for about a decade after the Surgeon General first warned that cigarettes damaged the health of smokers.
The popularity of Chicago’s steakhouses may have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the best of them have always been packed with hungry carnivores. The current resurgence has been touched off by two related trends. First would be the Rat Pack factor, whereby the present touchstone for all things hip seems to be Las Vegas 1961. What better way to progress from that icy-cold see-through to that long roll of Cuban leaf than with a steak big and bloody enough to do Frank proud? -NewCity alternative weekly, April 1998
Nothing symbolizes traditional American cuisine quite like a juicy steak, richly marbled with fat and served beside a heaping mass of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately for cattlemen, many Americans see that very platter as a one-way ticket toward angioplasty. Open most magazines that offer health tips and you’ll inevitably come across the suggestion to cut back on beef, substituting lighter meats such as chicken and fish in its place.
Many people seem to be following that dietary injunction. Overall per-capita meat consumptionincreased 9 percent between 1970 and 1995, to 192.5 pounds, according to the USDA. But the types of meat we eat are changing. Poultry consumption almost doubled over the period, to 62.9 pounds per person in 1995. Red meat declined by almost 13 percent, but Americans still eat plenty of it, at 114.7 pounds per person. Echoing those data, a 1997 Wirthlin Worldwide poll showed that more than half of U.S. men and almost three-fourths of women say they eat less red meat than two years before.
Don’t go to steakhouses, however, to try confirming this trend. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which tracks red meat’s popularity using an independent NET/NPD-Crest survey, boasts that the number of steakhouse patrons increased 43 percent between 1993 and 1997, when measured over a two-week period. Spending in casual steakhouses almost doubled over the period, to $2.3 million in 1997.
The implication seems clear: steak is becoming a restaurant treat, rather than an at-home staple. “People might be cutting back at home, but when they go out they say, ‘I’m gonna splurge,'” says Donnie Madia, who owns with a partner the hot-spot Blackbird restaurant in Chicago. “Frankly, I’ve been a little surprised. But people like their red meat; they want that eight-ounce fillet.”
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE TREND
In searching for an explanation of Americans’ renewed taste for the finer forms of indulgence, you can start by deep-sixing any notion of an anti-health backlash. In the same 1997 Wirthlin Report cited above, adults indicated the following recent changes in their eating habits: 68 percent buy more “light” or low-fat foods; 68 percent read nutritional labels before buying food; 65 percent watch their cholesterol intake more closely; 65 percent eat fast food less often.
Trying to reconcile the “cocktail nation” trend with our almost-obsessive concern over health, it’s instructive to think about St. Patrick’s Day-ironically enough, a generally beery holiday. In most American cities, parades march for hours, Kelly-green sweaters keep revelers warm, and affected brogues boom through the air. Want a tamer St. Patrick’s Day? Go to Dublin. In Ireland the occasion draws only a fraction of its stateside fanfare.
Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: “Symbolic ethnicity.” Your average Irish American, for example, is less likely than his parents to live among other Irish Americans, know any Irish, or have visited Ireland. To compensate for the loss of the deeper ethnic connections, the theory goes, such rapidly assimilating Americans redouble their efforts on ethnic holidays.
In much the same way, the cocktail nation may well represent a sort of symbolic hedonism. Having quit smoking, people smoke an occasional cigar. After regularly choosing salads over fast food, diners reward themselves with a Porterhouse steak every now and then. And even the alcohol industry has made a mantra of the “drinking less, drinking better” concept. Much as we may miss the everyday highs that come from previous bad habits, the 1990s’ productivity-paced lifestyle makes them difficult to sustain. But when the pressure lifts momentarily, we make the most of it.
Still, there’s some truth to the idea that Americans have rebelled against a completely spartan lifestyle. Brad Fay of Roper Starch Worldwide calls current attitudes toward indulging “cool fusion,” a process in which Americans meld together seemingly contradictory habits to achieve a more emotionally balanced, enjoyable lifestyle. “We see this in many aspects of American life,” he says. “Think of the Victorian-style house, complete with a wraparound porch, but also wired for new technologies. Or the mixing of business travel with vacation time, something people never used to do. Or people taking more work home, but also conducting more personal business at the office. It’s an end to either/or, black-and-white thinking.”
Viewed from a “cool fusion” standpoint, Fay says, the mixing of healthy living with cocktail-sipping or cigar smoking makes perfect sense. “People are taking better care of themselves overall, but making exceptions to go all out on a special occasion or to reward themselves,” he says. “And many doctors would probably agree that it’s not so bad to indulge yourself once in a while, because what really counts is the day-to-day.”
Ice Clinks. Dino’s on the hi-fi. Every news organ in the western hemisphere has already run your story. ‘Lounge Culture,’ as the name suggests, never really goes anywhere. One day a federal death squad will hunt down and eliminate every loser with thick-rimmed glasses and a smoking jacket. Until then, however, there will be articles by overeager J-school trend spotters announcing the Cocktail Renaissance. -Spy, July/August 1997
Clearly, the numbers show that there is a market for the resurgent cocktail-steak-cigar troika. But what was once a way of life has been fetishized into a ritual, with trend journalists beating the drum. “This cocktail trend isn’t a new lifestyle,” says Rick Kogan, aka Dr. Nightlife. “It’s more like people putting on their dad’s old clothes for a night. I hate to blast the media, but every time you open a martini bar within five blocks of a newspaper, a trend is born.” Granted, some of those martini bars will do quite well, especially the ones that really work the retro angle. (If it has not hit your town already, expect a return of swing dancing.)
But do not bank on the end of American health-consciousness. Because if anything seems clear, it is that the trend spotters read way too much into the Cocktail Nation’s emergence, misjudging the underlying attitudes at play. What we’ve seen is just an appropriation of certain elements from the 1950s halcyon nightlife, not its wholesale return.
To Chicago’s Doody, who has made his living off nightlife for two decades, what we’re seeing is an evolution toward a more mature market, one that values sophistication over getting obliterated. “This is a whole new phenomenon, with nightlife going more toward a French-style appreciation of finer products,” he says. “And that wasn’t there in the Rat Pack heyday, when people were drinking Cutty Sark-and-soda and puffing nickel cigars.”
Now, he says, the emphasis has turned toward more ritualistic settings, like the cigar room or cafe. There, the emphasis is on catching just enough of a buzz to get conversation flowing, but no more. As Madia’s partner at the Blackbird restaurant, liquor connoisseur Ricky Diarmit puts it, “The 1950s were a beautiful time to be living, with guys rolling down the road in convertibles drinking martinis. Now, people aren’t throwing everything to the wind the same way. There are more restraints. We’ll never see those Sinatra and Dean Martin days again.”
Taking It Further
The Alcohol Research Group conducts the National Alcohol Survey. It can be reached at 2000 Hearst Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709; telephone (510) 642-5208. The American Lung Association tracks data on cigarette and cigar smoking. Contact the organization at 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019-4374; telephone (212) 315-8622. The National Cancer Institute recently released a comprehensive report on cigar smoking. Cigars: Health Effects and Trends is a 200-page monograph, available on the institute’s Web site at http://www.nci.nih.gov/. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service maintains and updates data on tobacco use. See its tobacco briefing page at http://www.econ.ag.gov/Briefing/tobacco/. Wirthlin Worldwide conducts regular surveys on many topics. For more information on its June 1997 survey on nutrition attitudes, contact the company at 1363 Beverly Road, McLean, VA 22101; telephone (703) 556-0001. Data on per-capita food consumption are compiled annually by the USDA Economic Research Service. They are available on its Web site at htttp://www.econ.ag.gov. Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc., conducts a monthly survey of U.S. adults on many topics. For more information, contact the company at 205 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017; telephone (212) 599-0700.
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