The Cocktail Nation

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Cigars. Steaks. Cocktails. This jazzy trio of former American favorites came roaring back in the 1990s, transformed from social vices into hallmarks of sophistication-especially for men. Driven by media coverage that has promoted as much as reported these trends, the renewed fads have been packaged together into a supposed redefinition of American's attitude toward health-damaging behavior.

Across the country, writers have described the rise of "The Cocktail Nation," a supposedly massive subculture of bon vivants living a devil-may-care existence. Their background music: aged crooners Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who several years back became suddenly popular among young people. Supposedly, this signaled a desire to return to the carefree American epoch of the singers' original heydays. Spread by the 1996 movie Swingers, this vision of besuited guys who are "so money" chasing "beautiful babies" has hatched cigar bars and cocktail lounges on every mall-style hipster strip in America.

Drawing on this anecdotal evidence, trend writers proclaim that Americans have tired of cholesterol counts and sober living. We are ready to enjoy life again, damn it, and pay the consequences later. It's a wonderful, seductive story line, one that has yielded some of the most overblown journalistic prose in decades. And the numbers seem to back it up. Cigar sales have skyrocketed. Hip bars compete to invent new cocktails. Steakhouses are doing great business.

But if you take a harder, closer look at what's going on, the trend spotters have got it wrong. In fact, studies reveal that, whatever their occasional indulgences, Americans are more obsessed with their mortality than ever. Rather than going gung-ho into the good night, we're terrified. Cocktail Nation? More like Nation of Wimps.

The New Martini is all glamour, its sleek image distilled from old movie clips and Algonquin Roundtable witticisms. It intoxicates with memories of tycoons and tough guys, starlets and vamps on ocean liners and in speakeasies. -St. Petersburg Times, April 1997

For those of us whose adulthood has been marked by downsizing and round-the-clock productivity, the three-martini lunch seems like a mass delusion, something possible only in an economy so strong it could roll along every afternoon on auto-pilot. Today, people who have anything stronger than a single glass of wine at a business lunch get odd looks from their tablemates.

Having spent years as the Chicago Tribune's "Dr. Nightlife," Rick Kogan remembers the days of the serious drinkers. He mocks today's new breed of cocktail connoisseurs, who make a show of ordering complicated, recently invented drinks like the Cosmopolitan and Chocolate Martini. "In the old days, no one talked about, 'sipping martinis'," Kogan says. "They just said, 'Let's get a drink.'"

When you look at the actual trends in America-the kind supported by numbers, not buckets of printer's ink-they punch a hole in the "cocktail nation" concept large enough to drive through several truckloads of goat-cheese-stuffed olives. Studies by the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley, California, show the number of people who say they did not drink in the past 12 months rose from 30.6 percent in 1984 to 35.4 percent in 1995. Over the same period, the number of people who report having five or more drinks a day at least once a week has also dropped, from 6.1 percent to 4.5 percent.

Furthermore, heavy drinkers are far more likely to be chugging than sipping. "Evidence has repeatedly shown that the heaviest consumption is in beer," says the center's Thomas Greenfield. "So many people may actually be drinking less by converting to cocktails. Beer accounts for 67 percent of all alcohol consumed in America, (as measured by the actual ethanol content of beverages consumed), according to a new study by the center. Hard liquor, which serves as the basis for any cocktail, accounts for only one-fifth of the alcohol we drink. Ten percent of American drinkers consume 57 percent of all our alcohol intake, and beer accounts for 75 percent of their imbibing.

"The alcohol industry likes to promote the idea of people saying, 'To hell with all this neo-temperance,'" Greenfield says. "But actually, we've found there are two brands of abstainers: those who always abstain and those who occasionally let loose, reconnect to their glory days and regret it afterward."

Grad student Carrie Yury, a 27-year-old who has bartended in New York City and Chicago, echoes Greenfield's take. Among her customers, she distinguishes between the older cocktail set-who drink the same martini repeatedly, several times a week-and the new generation of cocktail types, who experiment more, order only off preset martini lists, and drink less.

Yury says her own evolution as a drinker reflects what she observes in young customers. "In the old days, when I drank all the time, I drank a lot more beer," she says. "Now, my relationship to liquor is a lot more Epicurean than alcoholic. When I drink at all, I want something special."

This is the 999999s, as in 'dressed to,' and most people are....After a 35-year dormancy, the Lounge is open again. Vamps in cocktail dresses and mugs in fedoras are slinking inside to pour their souls into the highball glasses that hold their hearts....But Lounge is so much more than a mixed drink, retro music, and a fine cigar. -Esquire, April 1997

As anyone who has tried to kick smoking knows all too well, there is more than a hangover to falling off the nicotine wagon. Among America's most visible anti-smoking activists, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once compared quitting cigarettes to beating heroine addiction, saying nicotine junkies had it harder. Yet as the ill effects of smoking, and even second-hand smoke, have been better and better documented, the percentage of cigarette smokers in America has dropped precipitously.

In the 1960s, more than half of American men smoked, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By 1990, the share had dropped to 28 percent, and has plateaued around that level ever since. Among women, the drop is less steep. In 1965, one-third of all women smoked, compared with 23 percent in 1994.

For groups like the American Lung Association (ALA), that trend marks a significant victory. Not surprisingly, the ALA has been horrified by the recent surge in cigar smoking. Anti-tobacco types have tried to counteract the stogie's surge by mounting campaigns that point to the increased chances of mouth cancers associated with lighting up.

The case is hardly helped by the widespread view that cigar smoking is a "safer" alternative to cigarettes, because cigar smokers do not inhale the way cigarette smokers do. In theory, this allows the same relaxation without the long-term damage. Shorter-term effects count, as well, says PR maven Tom Doody of Chicago, who quit cigarettes but now smokes an occasional cigar. As head of a firm that does a huge business promoting nightclubs and restaurants, Doody has watched the cigar trend up close. "A lot of the former smokers I know quit because they felt cigarettes were affecting their performance-at the gym, in bed, running to the train every morning," he says. "As for the new health campaigns trying to make cigar smoking look just as dangerous, I've never seen such completely irresponsible rhetoric."

Celebrities seem to confirm this view. Paragons of health such as Chicago Bulls demigod Michael Jordan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger-who once chaired the Presidential Commission on Physical Fitness-regularly pop up on national TV and magazine covers smoking celebratory cigars.

In an odd example of unrelated fads compounding each other, hip-hop culture also played a role in popularizing cigars. This is especially true for the Phillies Blunt, a brand prized for the sweet taste it gives when half-emptied and re-packed with cannabis. The cigar's popularity in trend-setting hip-hop circles is probably one reason teen cigar-smoking has increased dramatically. In 1996, an estimated 27 percent of teens aged 14 to 19 reported smoking a cigar in the past year, according to a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Here are other examples of the cigar's growing popularity: often disdained for their pungent, room-clearing aroma, cigars are now even having perfumes named after them. The circulation of Cigar Aficionado magazine rose from 141,000 in 1994 to nearly 400,000 in 1996. Most major American cities now have several cigar clubs, havens where upscale smokers keep private humidors stocked and entertain business partners. Between 1993 to 1997, reported a recent National Cancer Institute study, the number of U.S. cigar smokers rose by nearly 50 percent.

The biggest growth area? Precisely those titanic cigars that pop up most in movie-star mouths. Consumption of large cigars increased 66 percent between 1993 and 1997, to an estimated 3.55 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). What we're seeing is the wholesale reversal of a nearly three-decade trend. Sales of premium cigars, generally imported from the Caribbean, spiked an estimated 154 percent between 1993 and 1996, probably thanks to upper-income smokers who have strongly embraced the trend. The increase followed almost three decades of annual declines in the consumption of large cigars.

"Smoking a cigar makes you look successful," explains Chicago painter Dzine, 27, who says he first acquired a taste for cigars three years ago while visiting Miami. The availability of "Cubans" makes the town a stogie-lover's mecca. "I started smoking cigars instead of cigarettes, because I felt like it did much less damage to my health."

There's a long historical precedent for this attitude. U.S. cigar sales rose steadily for about a decade after the Surgeon General first warned that cigarettes damaged the health of smokers.

The popularity of Chicago's steakhouses may have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the best of them have always been packed with hungry carnivores. The current resurgence has been touched off by two related trends. First would be the Rat Pack factor, whereby the present touchstone for all things hip seems to be Las Vegas 1961. What better way to progress from that icy-cold see-through to that long roll of Cuban leaf than with a steak big and bloody enough to do Frank proud? -NewCity alternative weekly, April 1998

Nothing symbolizes traditional American cuisine quite like a juicy steak, richly marbled with fat and served beside a heaping mass of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately for cattlemen, many Americans see that very platter as a one-way ticket toward angioplasty. Open most magazines that offer health tips and you'll inevitably come across the suggestion to cut back on beef, substituting lighter meats such as chicken and fish in its place.

Many people seem to be following that dietary injunction. Overall per-capita meat consumptionincreased 9 percent between 1970 and 1995, to 192.5 pounds, according to the USDA. But the types of meat we eat are changing. Poultry consumption almost doubled over the period, to 62.9 pounds per person in 1995. Red meat declined by almost 13 percent, but Americans still eat plenty of it, at 114.7 pounds per person. Echoing those data, a 1997 Wirthlin Worldwide poll showed that more than half of U.S. men and almost three-fourths of women say they eat less red meat than two years before.

Don't go to steakhouses, however, to try confirming this trend. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which tracks red meat's popularity using an independent NET/NPD-Crest survey, boasts that the number of steakhouse patrons increased 43 percent between 1993 and 1997, when measured over a two-week period. Spending in casual steakhouses almost doubled over the period, to $2.3 million in 1997.

The implication seems clear: steak is becoming a restaurant treat, rather than an at-home staple. "People might be cutting back at home, but when they go out they say, 'I'm gonna splurge,'" says Donnie Madia, who owns with a partner the hot-spot Blackbird restaurant in Chicago. "Frankly, I've been a little surprised. But people like their red meat; they want that eight-ounce fillet."

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE TREND In searching for an explanation of Americans' renewed taste for the finer forms of indulgence, you can start by deep-sixing any notion of an anti-health backlash. In the same 1997 Wirthlin Report cited above, adults indicated the following recent changes in their eating habits: 68 percent buy more "light" or low-fat foods; 68 percent read nutritional labels before buying food; 65 percent watch their cholesterol intake more closely; 65 percent eat fast food less often.

Trying to reconcile the "cocktail nation" trend with our almost-obsessive concern over health, it's instructive to think about St. Patrick's Day-ironically enough, a generally beery holiday. In most American cities, parades march for hours, Kelly-green sweaters keep revelers warm, and affected brogues boom through the air. Want a tamer St. Patrick's Day? Go to Dublin. In Ireland the occasion draws only a fraction of its stateside fanfare.

Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: "Symbolic ethnicity." Your average Irish American, for example, is less likely than his parents to live among other Irish Americans, know any Irish, or have visited Ireland. To compensate for the loss of the deeper ethnic connections, the theory goes, such rapidly assimilating Americans redouble their efforts on ethnic holidays.

In much the same way, the cocktail nation may well represent a sort of symbolic hedonism. Having quit smoking, people smoke an occasional cigar. After regularly choosing salads over fast food, diners reward themselves with a Porterhouse steak every now and then. And even the alcohol industry has made a mantra of the "drinking less, drinking better" concept. Much as we may miss the everyday highs that come from previous bad habits, the 1990s' productivity-paced lifestyle makes them difficult to sustain. But when the pressure lifts momentarily, we make the most of it.

Still, there's some truth to the idea that Americans have rebelled against a completely spartan lifestyle. Brad Fay of Roper Starch Worldwide calls current attitudes toward indulging "cool fusion," a process in which Americans meld together seemingly contradictory habits to achieve a more emotionally balanced, enjoyable lifestyle. "We see this in many aspects of American life," he says. "Think of the Victorian-style house, complete with a wraparound porch, but also wired for new technologies. Or the mixing of business travel with vacation time, something people never used to do. Or people taking more work home, but also conducting more personal business at the office. It's an end to either/or, black-and-white thinking."

Viewed from a "cool fusion" standpoint, Fay says, the mixing of healthy living with cocktail-sipping or cigar smoking makes perfect sense. "People are taking better care of themselves overall, but making exceptions to go all out on a special occasion or to reward themselves," he says. "And many doctors would probably agree that it's not so bad to indulge yourself once in a while, because what really counts is the day-to-day."

Ice Clinks. Dino's on the hi-fi. Every news organ in the western hemisphere has already run your story. 'Lounge Culture,' as the name suggests, never really goes anywhere. One day a federal death squad will hunt down and eliminate every loser with thick-rimmed glasses and a smoking jacket. Until then, however, there will be articles by overeager J-school trend spotters announcing the Cocktail Renaissance. -Spy, July/August 1997

Clearly, the numbers show that there is a market for the resurgent cocktail-steak-cigar troika. But what was once a way of life has been fetishized into a ritual, with trend journalists beating the drum. "This cocktail trend isn't a new lifestyle," says Rick Kogan, aka Dr. Nightlife. "It's more like people putting on their dad's old clothes for a night. I hate to blast the media, but every time you open a martini bar within five blocks of a newspaper, a trend is born." Granted, some of those martini bars will do quite well, especially the ones that really work the retro angle. (If it has not hit your town already, expect a return of swing dancing.)

But do not bank on the end of American health-consciousness. Because if anything seems clear, it is that the trend spotters read way too much into the Cocktail Nation's emergence, misjudging the underlying attitudes at play. What we've seen is just an appropriation of certain elements from the 1950s halcyon nightlife, not its wholesale return.

To Chicago's Doody, who has made his living off nightlife for two decades, what we're seeing is an evolution toward a more mature market, one that values sophistication over getting obliterated. "This is a whole new phenomenon, with nightlife going more toward a French-style appreciation of finer products," he says. "And that wasn't there in the Rat Pack heyday, when people were drinking Cutty Sark-and-soda and puffing nickel cigars."

Now, he says, the emphasis has turned toward more ritualistic settings, like the cigar room or cafe. There, the emphasis is on catching just enough of a buzz to get conversation flowing, but no more. As Madia's partner at the Blackbird restaurant, liquor connoisseur Ricky Diarmit puts it, "The 1950s were a beautiful time to be living, with guys rolling down the road in convertibles drinking martinis. Now, people aren't throwing everything to the wind the same way. There are more restraints. We'll never see those Sinatra and Dean Martin days again."

Taking It Further The Alcohol Research Group conducts the National Alcohol Survey. It can be reached at 2000 Hearst Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709; telephone (510) 642-5208. The American Lung Association tracks data on cigarette and cigar smoking. Contact the organization at 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019-4374; telephone (212) 315-8622. The National Cancer Institute recently released a comprehensive report on cigar smoking. Cigars: Health Effects and Trends is a 200-page monograph, available on the institute's Web site at The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service maintains and updates data on tobacco use. See its tobacco briefing page at Wirthlin Worldwide conducts regular surveys on many topics. For more information on its June 1997 survey on nutrition attitudes, contact the company at 1363 Beverly Road, McLean, VA 22101; telephone (703) 556-0001. Data on per-capita food consumption are compiled annually by the USDA Economic Research Service. They are available on its Web site at htttp:// Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc., conducts a monthly survey of U.S. adults on many topics. For more information, contact the company at 205 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017; telephone (212) 599-0700.

Just when it seemed that every last American had gotten the message that healthy habits make for healthy lives, steakhouses are hot, cocktail lounges are sprouting up everywhere, and true celebrity is conferred to medium-profile entertainers and unknown moguls by cover stories in Cigar Aficionado magazine. Consumers are flocking to products and places that are carefully positioned by entrepreneurs with a sharp eye for what's cool. "People are sick of the lifestyle police telling us what we can do," says Cathleen Burke, vice president and director of marketing for Kobrand Corporation, a wine merchant in New York City with one of the nation's fastest-growing distilled-spirits products in its portfolio.

Indeed, consumers are shelling out good money for indulgences that come with government warnings or draw the wrath of volunteer health organizations. For example, even as the volume of spirits consumption declined 0.5 percent from 1996 to 1997, according to industry watcher Adams Liquor Handbook, sales revenue was up 2.2 percent to $34.1 billion. "High-end products, such as cognac, single-malt Scotch, imported gin and vodka, and super-premium brands across all categories had increased sales," the trade publication reported, along with an annual list of the fastest-growing beer, wine, and liquor brands for the one-year period.

Here are three stories of businesses bucking the decades-long gospel that says watch your cholesterol, be careful about alcohol, and always shun tobacco.

PORTERHOUSE, MEDIUM RARE Filet mignon and prime rib move quickly at Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, where attire is strictly casual. With checks averaging $18 per person, Lone Star, like a host of other chain steakhouses, is attracting patrons from a wide swath of the market.

Although 80 percent of entrees sold are steak dinners, the menu shares the spotlight with a cultivated Texas roadhouse atmosphere. Country & Western music plays in the background, and the wait staff breaks out in an occasional line dance on Friday nights in Colonie, New York, an Albany suburb far from the Lone Star State in every way.

The concept has worked so well that the company has grown from a single location in 1989 to 268 Lone Star Steakhouses in the U.S. and 38 abroad. In addition, development plans call for nearly 20 new restaurants in 1998. The chain only recently opened its first restaurant on the West Coast, in Los Angeles.

But even with the huge West Coast market unserved by the chain, almost 4 percent of adults surveyed in 1997 by Mediamark Research said they had dined at a Lone Star in the previous six months. Reflecting its accessibility to families with kids, Lone Star's patronage is spread fairly evenly among a range of ages: 12 percent aged 18 to 24; 22 percent aged 25 to 34, 27 percent aged 35 to 44; 22 percent aged 45 to 54; and 13 percent aged 55 to 64. Lone Star cultivates a middle-market image, but many of its clients are upscale-32 percent have household incomes of more than $75,000.

The company has its eyes on much more than the family market. It is rolling out two new higher-end steakhouse formats, taking aim with one at the downtown business entertainment market. Five Sullivan's Steakhouse restaurants, featuring certified Angus beef and live jazz most nights of the week, were open for business in April 1998, and six to eight more were on the drawing board. Checks average $50 per person at Sullivan's. Three Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak Houses, with checks averaging $60, were open, and three or four more are in the works. One will be in the McGraw-Hill Building at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan.

"Our most direct competitor will be Morton's of Chicago," says John White, chief financial officer for Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, adding that beef never lost as much favor in restaurants as it did at home. In fact, he says, Lone Star capitalized on an opportunity created by Ponderosa, Sizzler, and downscale steakhouses that began to de-emphasize steak a decade ago.

BOMBAY MARTINI WITH TWO OLIVES Look for the bright gold and red bottles of Alize at the next backyard barbecue you go to this summer.They may be there if you're in the company of trendy women aged 21 to 35. Although 70 percent of its sales are through liquor stores, the cognac and passion fruit juice mix is also selling to women who enjoy their nights out at retro-chic cocktail lounges, says Burke, the marketing director at Kobrand.

And sell it does. Kobrand moved 475,000 cases of Alize last year, according to Adams Liquor Handbook. That is dwarfed by Absolut vodka's 3.4 million cases or Jack Daniel's 3.1 million cases. But those longer-established brands can't touch Alize's growth. Sales in 1997 were up almost 19 percent from the previous year. The brand was discovered in France by a Kobrand executive 12 years ago, and it's posted annual compound growth of 80 percent since 1993. Burke says she expects at least several more years of double-digit increases. Sales are strongest in big cities, she says, but are coming from all corners of the country and across the racial and ethnic spectrum. Alize 's appeal drops off for women older than age 35, primarily because they are less likely than younger women to go out to bars and to keep up with fashionable concoctions, she says.

Although Kobrand uses billboards and magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour to advertise Alize, the drink really wins a following when young women taste a sample at food events or in bars where the distributor sponsors a tango-dancing couple clad in Alize colors. "Nobody has been able to duplicate what we have in the bottle," Burke says.

Yet it's not just the brand's taste that has it booming. Alize has benefited from a resurgent interest in cocktails among hip, young, urban dwellers who patronize nightclubs with neon martini glasses in the windows and Tony Bennett records playing in the background. Women especially, who often consume sweet mixed drinks, are driving sales of several fast-growing tequilas, gins, and vodkas, Burke says.

Alize has in its favor that it really isn't part of an established liquor category, she says. It doesn't have to take sales away from a direct competitor in order to succeed. The same can be said for other fast-growing distilled spirits cited by Adams Liquor Handbook. T.G.I. Friday's, a line of pre-mixed drinks made by IDV North America, chalked up annual compound growth of 93.5 percent between 1993 and 1997, reaching total sales of 1.3 million cases. Ice Box, another line of prepared cocktails, from White Rock Distilleries, averaged 35.9 percent growth from 1994 to 1997, reaching total sales of 140,000 cases.

But there are fast-growing players in traditional categories, too. Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy has posted 27.9 percent growth from 1996 to 1997. It moved 619,000 cases last year. Skyy Vodka grew 18.8 percent over the same period, with sales hitting 594,000 cases last year.

MACANUDO AND A LIGHT The Federal Grill & Cigar Bar in Allentown, Pennsylvania, tapped into a rich vein of interest when it opened in the summer of 1997. Never mind that cigars had been scorned by previous generations, or that Allentown is an historically blue-collar community, where upscale smokes and booze might be less popular than straightforward American favorites.

"We have a lot of weekend smokers who are not necessarily committed cigar smokers, but are doing it because it's fun," says owner Iris Konia. The weekenders pick from a list, complete with descriptions about each of the premium brands kept in stock. "Then we have people who are serious cigar smokers. They're the ones who come in with their own cigar cases, their cutters and their lighters. They're very knowledgeable about cigars."

With a full dinner menu, an assortment of single-malt scotches, sipping tequilas, small-batch bourbons, 14 microbrews on draft, and a list of 40 different martinis, Konia says, "We feature all the indulgences."

Not all patrons light up. But cigars are an important part of the atmosphere at Federal Grill. So far, it's an atmosphere that appears to have appeal. Konia says she serves as many as 250 dinners in her 64-seat dining room on Friday and Saturday nights, and typically100 to 125 dinners on weekday nights. Federal Grill's customers are largely business owners, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, Konia says. Men and women alike patronize the establishment, with the majority between their late 20s and 50s. "They're sophisticated," she says. "They've been around. They've tried different foods and different wines."

While their numbers will never rival more mainstream establishments, like family-style steakhouses, such dens of decadent pleasure have burgeoned well beyond big cities. Even more common are cigar nights at restaurants, bars, and clubs. Cigar Aficionado lists 600 establishments hosting regular cigar nights.

Perhaps with places like Federal Grill in mind, or perhaps reflecting readership that draws advertisers like Cartier, Jaguar, and Tiffany, Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken wrote in a recent issue, "As a cigar lover, you have witnessed one of the most extraordinary cultural and business phenomena of the past 50 years. It's been incredible to see cigars transformed from their pariah status in the United States to something that is associated with the good life."

Konia doesn't expect the good life to go out of style any time soon in Allentown. "People are coming to realize that doing things they enjoy in moderation is probably more healthful than this constant state of denial," she says.-by Bill Stoneman

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