Cocktail Bars Are Embracing a New Kind of Happy Hour

Happy hour is joyous, convivial, a financially prudent and expedient way to get a little buzzed. Sophisticated, though? Not so much.

But over the past few years, the ritual has been undergoing a bit of an identity shift. Once the domain of regulars at the raucous dive or neighborhood bar, happy hour has arrived at destination cocktail spots, sometimes masquerading under a different name: Aperitivo Hour, Golden Hour, La Hora. 

The driving forces, much like the approaches, are varied. As menu prices swell across the board, propelling cocktails into out-of-reach territory, accessibility and approachability are at the forefront of many establishments’ minds. The growing stateside popularity of aperitivo culture, Italy’s more glamorous take on golden hour drinking, is certainly part of it, too. Whatever the incentive or aim, a trend emerges: Happy hour is growing up.  

“Frankly, cocktails aren’t the cheapest thing to drink,” says Danielle Cochrane, a bartender at Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “If you’re trying to end your day or just sit down for a few drinks and relax, it’s nice you can do that at a little bit of a lower price.”

Though the spirit of the ritual remains universally intact—cheaper drinks served within a set time frame—happy hour doesn’t look the same at any two places. Every day from 2 to 5 p.m., New York City cocktail bar Dante presents the Negroni Sessions, offering 10 variations on the classic served for $10; at the bar’s West Village location, the Martini gets the happy hour treatment during the daily Martini Hour. “It’s not about cheap drinks deals and getting drunk,” says Dante principal Linden Pride. Though the establishments don’t strictly follow the aperitivo format, which typically features snacks and not discounts, their approaches are inspired by the Italian ritual “to promote a European sensibility in the bar,” he adds. 

At Detroit’s Shelby, on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 6 p.m. the bar offers select serves, like Daiquiris and Espresso Martinis, for the bargain price of $8, as well as $10 share plates. Between the same hours, Spanish-style Bar Moruno in Los Angeles celebrates La Hora. Alongside three drinks—a gin Martini, a Gin & Tonic and vermouth on draft—the bar serves smaller bites, like tinned fish on fried flatbread. “We wanted to … be a safe space for people to try things they’ve never tried before, at a price that’s reasonable,” says bar lead Dave Kupchinsky.

As whispers of a coming recession grow louder, happy hour’s proliferation is coming just in time for our uncertain economic moment. A thoughtful, balanced cocktail now routinely costs north of $20, and for many, the pre-dinner drink has become inaccessible. “Going out for a couple of cocktails can definitely be prohibitively expensive,” says Portland Hunt + Alpine Club’s Cochrane. 

While the Scandinavian-inspired cocktail bar in the heart of Maine’s Old Port used to celebrate Late Night Happy Hour, during which you could score a classic cocktail or an “Industry Happy Meal” (a Miller High Life and a well shot) for a 10-spot, it has just pivoted toward a new daytime model. Among the updated offerings are snacks and drinks that’d fit solidly in the crushable category—“things that are deliciously satisfying and make you wanna stick around for another, basically,” adds Cochrane. “Of course, the price of a happy hour drink is great. It gives you the ability to stay for a few if you want to.”

Respected neighborhood joints, too, are embracing happy hour. The HiHi Room, which supplies Brooklyn’s original restaurant row with elevated American classics and inventive cocktails, joined the party last winter. Its happy hour menu, offered weekdays between 5 and 6 p.m., features chili dogs and sliders, as well as boilermakers and half-off bottles of wine and draft beer. Likewise, Martha, a spacious spot bordering Philadelphia’s Fishtown and Kensington neighborhoods, recently introduced a proper happy hour six months ago. “The decision to adopt a happy hour wasn’t necessarily a light switch,” says beverage director Daniel Miller, “but more so part of an ongoing discussion about how to keep Martha accessible while food and beverage costs from our purveyors are slowly creeping up.” From Monday through Friday (excluding Tuesday) from 5 to 7 p.m., featured drinks cost between $3 and $6.

From these adaptations, a new image of happy hour as a savvy, lighthearted ritual, one that bars can trim and tweak to their unique concept and needs, is emerging. While the affordability aspect remains intact, no longer does the ritual carry the reputation as the after-work cousin of the bottomless brunch. “I also really like happy hour because it’s often, like, ‘What products do we have? What does the kitchen have left over? How do we minimize waste?’” Miller continues. Depending on the answers to such questions, Miller then offers the bar staff a weekly prompt to help get creative juices flowing. For instance, “‘We have extra watermelons’ or ‘I bought too much plum brandy.’” Among the latest creations was the Suddenly Salad, featuring dry vermouth “infused with flavors of an Italian hoagie,” plus gin, cucumber and citrus. It’s a drink that points to the opportunity to reconsider happy hour as a ritual that leans on inclusivity and experimentation.

“Five years ago I was like, ‘I hate happy hour,’” admits Miller. “I never thought I’d say ‘Happy hour is fun,’ but it is.”

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