Brunch offers a view into the intriguing social mores that have formed around drinking. As a nation that is simultaneously judgey about booze and quite fond of it, we have collectively arrived at a widely understood schedule for when it is acceptable to consume alcohol. Thus the phrase “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” used to justify the desire for a drink outside of the set hours that some vague collective of doctors, clerics, government experts and moms have decided will not lead to moral and physical ruin.
But then there’s brunch, a means to break from the usual social drinking order without drawing a side-eye.
The mimosa and the bloody mary are classic brunch drinks; a bruncher who orders Old-Fashioneds is likely to stand out. But why? What qualities make for a good brunch drink? Why is a bloody mary a brunch drink but a Manhattan isn’t? And why do so many seem to dismiss the brunch drink canon as somehow unworthy and lesser among the classics?
First among the characteristics of a classic brunch drink, I would argue, is a relatively low alcohol content — though it certainly wasn’t always so. We used to be much boozier, much earlier; never mind 5 o’clock. An 1889 dictionary of American slang defines a “corpse reviver” as a dram of spirits, tying into the old notion that a bit of alcohol, “the hair of the dog that bit you,” would help alleviate the effects of a hangover.
A few morning-friendly drinks of the early cocktail era share the name. “The Savoy Cocktail Book” contains an infamous warning about the Corpse Reviver 2 (gin, orange liqueur and lemon served in a glass rinsed with absinthe): “Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”
We’ve sobered up plenty since those days, and yet even as we’ve done so, we’ve developed a slight sneer toward drinks that don’t have enough muscle to knock one flat. Drew Lazor, author with other editors of Punch of the new “Session Cocktails,” notes that as he was working on this book on lower-alcohol drinks, he would frequently encounter one question from friends: Why bother?
Since many classic brunch drinks fall into the lower-alcohol category, some of that contempt falls on them.
“I think it has to do with the mentality that these drinks are ‘weak,’ and therefore froofy or bougie or ineffectual,” Lazor said in an e-mail. “ ... In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that a drink is only as good as its alcohol content.” His book argues that we’ve entered a new golden era of low-ABV drinks and that their appeal goes way beyond brunching hours.
But a low-alcohol content is just one trait in the brunch-drink template. We gravitate toward drinks that are bright, refreshing, with wakeful qualities: a blast of citrus or a tongue-livening fizz or even a shot of coffee. There’s a reason bubbly Champagne shows up at so many brunches, either on its own or dolled up with fresh orange juice in a mimosa or peach purée in a Bellini.
Such drinks remind the suffering bruncher that the sun has risen again over a blooming, fruitful earth; drinks that incorporate fresh fruits and herbs and vegetables signal a hope in the world’s capacity to go on nurturing us. Here the bloody mary, too, is an obvious source of sustenance.
Once a fairly simple drink, the bloody now frequently emerges from bars bedecked with enough protruding foodstuffs that one must perform a sort of bomb-defusion before sipping, the various celery stalks and bacon strips and cucumber spears and pickled eggs and cornichons and shrimps and mini-cheeseburgers skewered in a complex maze above the rim of the drink.
Still, the bloody mary captures a number of qualities that suggest matinee drinking: savoriness, spiciness, the presence of healthy fruits and vegetables that can convince the drinker who has indulged too much the night before that she is returning to sensible modes of consumption.
The classic bloody is also made with vodka, and this too is a frequent characteristic of brunch drinks: the use of lighter spirits over dark, aged ones. Maybe this is simply a visual affinity — a booze that echoes the clear light of day — but some research on hangovers suggests that congeners (chemical compounds in ethanol, which are more heavily present in dark spirits and red wine than in their lighter counterparts) may in fact play a role in the misery one experiences after a night of drinking too much.
Finally, if you’re about to indulge in a serious food inhalation, you may want something with appetite-stimulating qualities: an Aperol spritz, perhaps, or another bitter herbal liqueur like Campari or Suze mixed with club soda or tonic and a twist of citrus.
While you can always turn to the old reliables, I selected a little roster of recipes that represent some of these morning-friendly qualities and may expand your brunch drink repertoire. Drink any of these at a reasonable pace, and no matter how many hours your indulgent brunch goes on, you’ll be able to stand up from the table and go about your day. Even if that day includes a rejuvenating nap.