What is it about brunch that seems to generate such a mix of pleasure and scorn? I’m happy as the next glutton to gavage myself with lemony hollandaise, but something about the way brunch is conducted (the all-you-can-eat buffets, the bottomless mimosas) makes me uneasy. I’ll never put a morsel of eggs Benedict to my lips without mentally adding a dash of guilt. It’s likely a product of a Catholic upbringing and having read too much Dante in school; reading “The Divine Comedy” can lead one to suspect that those who indulge in lavish brunches will spend the afterlife suspended headfirst in a vat of poaching eggs while chortling demons slap their hindquarters with slabs of hot French toast.
And yet 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, that loosener of ties and belts, that venue for a little sumpin-sumpin to soothe the self-inflicted wounds of the night before, 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; the hell with 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 email. “. . . 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. (It’s an interesting turn: Where brunch used to provide a means to drink in the morning, now we’re reaching a point where desires for drinks that allow one to sip and socialize for hours without leaving you wrecked are emerging from under the patio umbrella to claim more respect.)
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 puree 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. Instagram gold, these concoctions are, but whenever one approaches me I fear that I will put an eye out on it.
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. They include Left Door bartender Jeremy Wetmore’s delightful visual and palate play on the grapefruity Stiegl Radler beer, a breakfasty brew if there ever was one. (Wetmore called his concoction the Winona Radler because, he says, “it’s so good it will make you want to commit grand theft.”)
There’s also the New Best Friend, one of the many delicious low-ABV drinks from Lazor’s book, a bright and spicy little number that incorporates herbal Pimm’s and chile vodka. Finally, the Pineapple Perk, which I started pulling together a while ago after discovering the surprising affinity between bright, sweet pineapple and roasty coffee. 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.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
If you are concerned about a risk of salmonella, use the white of a pasteurized egg.
Adapted from a recipe by bartender Jeremy Wetmore, of the Left Door in the District.
½ ounce Campari
¾ ounce fresh grapefruit juice
¾ ounce grapefruit liqueur, such as Giffard Pamplemousse
½ ounce gin or vodka
1 large egg white (see headnote)
4 ounces chilled Pilsener or other lager-style beer
Twist of grapefruit peel, for garnish
Chill a Collins or Pilsener glass.
Combine the Campari, grapefruit juice, grapefruit liqueur, spirit and egg white in a cocktail shaker; seal and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Add ice, seal and shake (to chill), then double-strain into the chilled glass.
Allow the foamy head to settle briefly, then use a straw to poke a hole through the foam. Gently pour the beer through that hole, until the head rises slightly above the rim of the glass. Garnish with the grapefruit twist.
We used Califia brand cold brew coffee in testing this recipe, but you can use other brands (or your own home-brewed, chilled coffee), as long as it’s unsweetened.
MAKE AHEAD: Simple syrup can be refrigerated for months.
4 dashes Angostura bitters
¼ ounce simple syrup (see NOTE)
3 ounces pineapple juice
1½ ounces chilled, unsweetened brewed coffee (see headnote)
1 ounce dark rum
Pineapple slice, for garnish (optional)
Fill a Collins glass and a cocktail shaker with ice.
Combine the bitters, simple syrup, pineapple juice, coffee and rum in the cocktail shaker. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the glass.
Garnish with the pineapple slice, if using.
NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring just to a boil, then cool. Transfer to a heatproof container. Once it has cooled to room temperature, cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through.
MAKE AHEAD: The rich honey syrup can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur is widely available; we found St. George’s Green Chile Vodka at Ace and Batch 13, both in the District.
Adapted from a recipe by Rob Krueger of Extra Fancy in Brooklyn, N.Y., from “Session Cocktails: Low-Alcohol Drinks for Any Occasion,” by Drew Lazor and the editors of Punch (Ten Speed Press, May 2018).
¾ ounce St. George Green Chile Vodka (see headnote)
¾ ounce Royal Combier orange liqueur (may substitute Grand Marnier or an orange-flavored curacao)
¾ ounce Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce rich honey syrup (see NOTE)
1 strawberry, rinsed, hulled and sliced
1 ounce soda water
Fill a highball glass with ice, then transfer that amount of ice to a cocktail shaker. Add the chile vodka, orange liqueur, Pimm’s, lime juice, honey syrup and slices of strawberry. Seal and shake gently, then add the soda water. Pour into the glass, then back into the shaker, and then back into the glass.
NOTE: To make the rich honey syrup, combine 1½ cups honey and ¼ cup boiling water in a liquid measuring cup, stirring until the honey has dissolved. Cool and refrigerate before using.
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