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How To Make Cocktail Hour A Self Care Ritual

August 28, 2020

(This is a second excerpt from my upcoming book about cocktail hour. It’s due to be out in the fall of 2020 and will contain dozens of recipes for drinks and matching hors d’oeuvres. Please email the publisher to be notified of the release date).

Part Two: From Labor To Refreshment

(To read Part One of this article, please go here).

“Cocktail Hour” is the American counterpart to the much older European tradition of “aperitivo” or “aperitif.” In essence, it’s a ritual to mark the end of the day’s labors, and the beginning of refreshment. This calls for a small celebration – best had with good company, a small portion of appetizers, and a drink before moving on to dinner and evening activities. The secret lies in its ritual and regularity. Its purpose: to help us transition from our work and business mode into our private and social sphere. 

Why Cocktail Hour Is Not The Same as “Happy Hour”

“Happy Hour”, by contrast, was conceived as a marketing term. It’s a commercial means of promoting business for public venues. This goes contrary to liquor laws in many jurisdictions, which ban or discourage the promotional or discounted “giving away” of alcohol. As of 2015, “Happy Hour” was therefore banned in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont, Scotland, Ireland, England and Ontario. Why? Because it led to people to getting drunk before they even got home.

Of course, one could give commercial “Happy Hour” in a bar or restaurant spiritual significance. In Northern Italy for instance, meeting at a public venue for aperitivo with friends is a common social ritual, and so is Spain’s tapas culture. In America — not so much. 

How To Make Cocktail Hour A Self Care Ritual At Home

First, you and your household members and partner(s) in crime should agree on a time that’s mutually convenient. Make it recurring, and make it the exact same time each time. This is essential, because the purpose is to give our minds and bodies a landmark in the day. Cocktail hour should be something to look forward to during the entire workday. It becomes an anchor point in the day, a point in time after which no more labors are to be done. It’s a signal that work is over. You’ve done your best. Whatever you didn’t accomplish that day will need to wait until the next morning. You are officially relieved from duty for the day, and have permission to be at ease for the rest of the evening! Consider yourself liberated!

Alcohol Is Not Obligatory

The reasons why alcohol is part of many cuisines are that it functions as a preservative, is the byproduct of natural (and flavorful) fermentation, and it is an unbeatable solvent for chemicals that give food its taste and scent. If consumed in small quantities, it can help us to smell and taste more of our food. (Sniff a good glass of wine and a glass of grape juice – and you’ll quickly experience the difference). In addition, before pasteurization, refrigeration and water purification, only freshly boiled water and fermented or distilled alcoholic beverages were somewhat safe to consume.

That said, if you can’t have alcohol on medical, personal, spiritual or religious grounds – or even if you just don’t like the taste – there are plenty of delicious drinks that can be made without it. Cocktail hour does not require alcohol or caffeine.

No Sugar, Please!

Where alcohol is not a “must”, sugar is a “must not”. Sugary drinks or snacks should be kept to an absolute minimum for aperitif time!

Sugar (especially on an empty stomach) causes blood glucose level to spike quickly. At first, this will decrease your appetite. But rather quickly, the body reacts to blood sugar by pumping out insulin, which has dozens of effects on the human metabolism. Broadly speaking, the combination of high blood glucose and high insulin levels will put your body into stress mode. To make matters worse, insulin will soon cause your blood glucose level to drop. Now you’ll run the risk of developing the infamous “hunger pang”. Many people even feel nauseous or irritated and “hangry”. If you eat dinner at this point, you will most likely eat too much.

Eat Better And More Often. But Less Overall!

This is part of the European secret to eating, and the reason why obesity rates in most of  Europe are generally much lower. If done correctly, a cocktail hour with snacks will actually cause you to eat much less for dinner – and feel less bloated and more relaxed afterwards. And therein lie part of the health benefits.

As for the hors d’oeuvres: only the extent of your imagination and the contents of your pantry are the limits. It can be as simple and fancy as you make it. You can glaze a fig, top it with mascarpone and wrap it with prosciutto, or you can just serve a few plain, fresh figs on a plate and call it a day. If all you have on hand are a couple of crackers and cheese and some fruit, that’s just fine.

The Rules

Rule 1: An hors d’oeuvre is just a small dish, not a calorie bomb. “A dish” means that it’s pre-portioned, not a bottomless pit. Once you ate your portion, that’s it! No seconds, no refills!

Rule 2: Hors d’oeuvres shouldn’t come processed and pre-packaged from the store. Use your imagination and make it a collaborative household effort! The point here is: mindful enjoyment, not mindless eating.

Rule 3: The hors d’oeuvre should at least be a good pairing with the drink (or at least, not clash). Don’t be too rigid about this rule and feel free to experiment!

Sometimes culinary experiments are disappointments, but sometimes they lead to revelations. For instance, I attended several tasting events where traditional Japanese sake brewers paired their finest sake with European craft cheeses. The result was amazing, and it was interesting to see how sake brewers and cheese makers understood and appreciated each other’s craft despite being rooted in totally different cultures. And, I’ve known for some time that there is a particular Austrian wine grape called Grüner Veltliner, which pairs exceptionally well with Vietnamese cuisine. A gourmand’s world is always full of unexpected surprises waiting to be discovered.

Be Social

Another important aspect of cocktail hour is its social nature. Remember, this is where you rejoin society after a day at work. Before “BCH” (before cocktail hour), you were immersed in facts and figures, interacting with coworkers and machines, performing functions, and dealing with a lot of stress. With and after cocktail hour (“ACH”) you are interacting with other human beings, their feelings and emotions, as well as your own. This is time for yourself and others.

Which brings me to another very important rule: your digital devices, whatever they may be, must be banned from a cocktail hour gathering. Turn them off. Put them in another room. Lock them up! Just don’t bring them! 

Forget the machines, forget being a machine – be human and focus on the real world sharing experience. It’s a good idea to alternate preparation tasks: one person makes the day’s drink, while the other prepares an hors d’oeuvre to go with it. Rotate the assignments, so that nobody feels stuck!

The right ambiance is also important. Put some effort into the aesthetics of the setup, play some background music, but keep it quiet so you can have a conversation. Look each other in the eyes when toasting, and have a heartfelt conversation about pleasant topics. (This is not the time for doom and gloom, for politics, or to solve the world’s problems. Always a good bet is to ask how each other’s day went!)

Virtual Cocktail Hour? Why Not?

During the pandemic induced social isolation, making a personal connection can obviously be challenging. But luckily, we live in the golden age of information technology. Although it’s not quite the same thing as an in-person meeting, an online connection is the next best thing. There’s nothing wrong with the participants being in different places, connected by video call. Or just by phone line. 

Whatever it takes, don’t let anything deprive you of these minutes of quality time with someone else. When repeated and made a deliberate part of your day, this time can truly restore sanity, help all of us to unwind and de-stress, foster civility and mutual understanding – and change your life for the better. 

Text & Photos: Reinhard Kargl

Every day during the month of August at 5 PM, we are posting a new recipe on our social media:




Would you like the recipes for drinks and matching hors d’oeuvres? They’ll all be in an upcoming book due out this fall. Please email the publisher to be notified of the release date. In the meantime, please watch our video for more cocktail hour inspirations!

Reinhard Kargl is a journalist and media professional. He normally writes about science and technology.

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