The Origins of Happy Hour

By Berlin Schaubhut

Happy Hour. It’s that magical twilight time each evening between the end of the workday and the night. When Mad Men-esque cocktails are sipped glamorously half price and the time poor college kids rely on for two for one burgers and dollar beers. Over SXSW when day parties were abundant but nighttime shows too exciting to miss, we started calling that time between the day and the night the crucial hour. It was the time when some people went home to rest and never emerged from their beds. Or the time when some were just getting off work and not sure yet to do with their freedom. We discovered that this was the best hour. Cheap drinks, cheap eats, a beautiful sunset, a less crowded street, and the ability to actually talk during the musical lull. This prompted me to do a little more digging into this history of this hour, and well it wasn’t disappointing.

So where did the happy hour come from? It’s American right? Well, like most things American, its origin is not American but stems from some of our friends from across the seas. Namely, the Parisians. Let’s travel back to the 1700s to Couvet, Switzerland, a little town on the French border. A Dr. Pierre Ordinaire claims fame for bringing a green alcoholic drink that we know now as absinthe into use as a medical cure all. Absinthe is a greenish colored liquor made from several different types of herbs including fennel, green anise, and wormwood. Absinthe went from tonique to aperitif in the late 18th century and travelled over the border to France, making quite the splash in Paris by the early 1800s. Under the reign of Napoleon III absinthe became the drink of choice and because of its high alcohol content, which is about two to three times that of a normal brandy or whiskey, it was customary to not have more than one absinthe drink. (This is not to say that after l’heure verte they didn’t just move on to other drinks, n’est-pas). The Parisians therefore started arranging their days around this one coveted strong drink, and henceforth this time became known as l’heure verte, the “green hour”.

L’heure verte was a bourgeoisie custom to begin with, as absinthe itself caught on first with the richer class. However, it was not long before all of France (and much of the rest of the West) was imbibing in this mysterious drink. Absinthe was said to “sharpen the appetite” and so was the perfect before dinner cocktail to start the evening off right. One to two hours between five and seven o’clock was the only respectable time to drink the liquor, and ordering a second was a definite faux-pas. Although the social stigma of a second glass of absinthe didn’t last for more than a century, the customary drinking time seemed to stick.

Just as absinthe and French cooking made their way to the states, so did l’heure verte, although the name obviously did not stick. Supposedly “happy hour” was a term used by the Navy to describe a short time of scheduled fun or entertainment. Then in the 1920s during Prohibition we saw people gathering for a pre-dinner illegal cocktail hour in similar custom to the French. These would be hosted at a Speakeasy, which is basically just an illegal drinking establishment. However, it wasn’t until 1959, when the phrase happy hour first emerged. And, according to Chef Marcus Samuelsson it was featured on a Saturday Night Live Post that was featuring the military lifestyle, and the name stuck. Bars started using it to attract people in, and it worked! It also helped that at the time happy was slang for being tipsy.[1]

So in celebration of the vibrant cultural history of happy hour, take your friends done to one of the many local joints fashioned “à la Speakeasy” around town. For example, Peché in the warehouse district has happy hour from 4pm-6pm, featuring old fashioned cocktails, an absinthe menu, and a delicious food lineup that’s “tweeted fresh daily” along with classic staples such as Escargot. East Side Showroom, on east 6th, is another speakeasy inspired restaurant/bar with happy hour from the classic 5-7pm range, eccentric live music, and a great choice of local and organic produce, seafood, and meats on the menu. These prohibition era styled bars might not be illegal anymore, but they do have great happy hours, food, cocktails, and ambience. So go take your friends to one, and while you’re at it, impress them with a little history on the little post-work pre-dinner tradition of the happy hour, or should we say l’heure verte.

Sources: Baker, Phil. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe. Cambs: Dedalus, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. James D Ross says:

    Verry verry lntresting stoery and was realy apreseated excuse the spelling

  2. I believe you mean “Saturday Evening Post” and not “Saturday Night Live Post”. 😉

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