The cocktail hour Home: A new generation gets into the martini mood, with all the appropriate appurtenances.


In the film classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Audrey Hepburn threw a great party. There were martinis. Cigarettes. Snazzy mood music. Smoking jackets.

Last month, 25-year-old Dominic Vecchiollo, who wasn't born when the 1961 movie was made, threw a great party, too. There were martinis. Cigarettes. Snazzy mood music. Maybe a vintage smoking jacket or two.

In the midst of near-beers and microbrews, the cocktail culture is making a comeback. After all these years, the 1940s and '50s have taken on an allure for people who grew up long after they ended.

"There's an aura of something high class about those parties. We have these images of James Bond sipping his martini, the whole shaken-not-stirred thing," says Vecchiollo, a publications associate at Center Stage. "That's what everybody did back then. It looks fun."

As anyone who occasionally ventures into bars knows, in recent years, martinis have become wildly popular -- once again. Cigars, once eschewed as unhealthy, smelly and intrusive, are being passed out at dinner parties, written about in their own magazine and viewed as status symbols in some professional circles. And the demand for "lounge classics" -- CDs featuring cheesy swing numbers and "space-age" instrumentals -- has soared.

So perhaps it makes sense that what began in bars and cocktail lounges as a martini craze would make its way -- accompanied by finger foods and Vegas-style music -- into people's homes.

"It may be a knee-jerk reaction -- a sort of spitting in the face of political correctness. It's all those politically incorrect things -- cigars, liquor and so on. Or maybe baby boomers and the people younger than that are seeking, as the millennium approaches, a return to simpler times," says Brian Lawrence, art director for Baltimore's Style magazine, who is mulling over the idea of throwing a holiday cocktail party.

Perhaps so. The signs are everywhere.

Smoking jackets (for the guy who truly has everything else?) are being sold by Neiman Marcus, Alfred Dunhill and Sulka New York. Saks Fifth Avenue offers $198 smoking jackets for women. Sales of gourmet items such as caviar and certain premium liquors are up, according to manufacturers. Demand for mood music continues to grow: This Christmas, even the Wireless catalog includes a $24.95 boxed set of symphonic pieces called "Cocktail Classics."

Websites offer everything from instructions on how to make a "Vesper" (a martini named after a character in the 1967 James Bond movie spoof "Casino Royale") to a debate centering on whether drinks made with the trendy new flavored vodkas can even be called martinis. And a newly released movie, "Swingers," offers a glimpse into the cocktail culture in its portrayal of two overly cool guys who spend much of their time sipping sophisticated-looking drinks.

Perhaps the biggest tip-off that the cocktail culture is trickling into mainstream American consciousness is seen in home furnishing stores such as the Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. They're offering everything from elegant glasses for martinis and things that stir and shake them to monogrammed napkins. "We've got the book [about martinis], the shakers, the olives. Everything but the vermouth," says Laura Jenney, manager of Crate & Barrel at Towson Town Center.

Stemware and fondue

Vecchiollo, whose party was inspired by the Audrey Hepburn film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," rented stemware from a catering company for the martinis, served fondue and played CDs with titles like "Bachelor Pad Royale."

The movie captured his imagination because the period it depicted seemed to be one of greater innocence, a time of carefree parties and less cynicism, he says. Plus the clothes were great.

"They had such reckless abandon, not really having a care in the world," he says. "There's sort of an innocence around the music and the period. The fashions have clean lines and it's really highly stylized. It evokes such an elegant image. It happened before the Vietnam War, before social consciousness. It seems like the last time people really had a good time."

And he adds, "There is an element of dress-up to all this."

Indeed, at a time when corporations are sponsoring casual dress days and when a party outfit is often jeans and an oversized sweater, an excuse to dress up a little is just part of the fun.

These young professionals also say they've watched hours of Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite with its reruns of "I Love Lucy" and the "Dick van Dyke Show" -- programs in which cocktails and cigarettes made many appearances.

Subsequently, having a cocktail party seemed natural. "When I watched TV as a kid -- all the sitcoms from the '60s and '70s -- there were always cocktail parties," says Dana Johns, a museum administrator at the Contemporary, who is planning to give a cocktail party to mark her 30th birthday. "We're moving into a more mature part of life, and I think cocktail parties make sense. I think people are becoming a lot more social. And I know for myself that planning this party has been a real pleasure."

Retro and new

But these 20- and 30-somethings are adding a few new twists to an old idea.

Their get-togethers often are a tongue-in-cheek combination of retro and new. There are martinis -- but they range from the classic gin drink to those made with a range of flavored vodkas being heavily pushed by manufacturers such as Finlandia. Their guests may wear smoking jackets or a cropped Jackie O-style jacket -- but these were often bought at vintage clothing stores.

And at least some of these partygoers say they have a different attitude. This, after all, is the designated-driver generation. "The trick about these drinks is you really have to take it easy. The party can get ruined very easily by someone who has had too many martinis," Lawrence says. "I think we are approaching it from a more responsible direction -- people aren't drinking and driving."

All this talk about the return of the martini -- and cocktail culture -- can be amusing to those who have been staunch fans for decades. "In certain circles, martinis never went out of fashion," says Lorraine L. Whittlesey, a composer. She first tasted martinis at a post-debutante-ball party in Manhattan years ago, and has liked them ever since.

Whittlesey shudders at the notion of anything other than premium gin being used to make the drink. "I consider a vodka martini an abomination," she says flatly. "And as far as the specialized flavors, anything that interferes with the silkiness and viscosity of the gin is just not right. What's going on now with martinis isn't for the serious martini drinker."

Still, she adds, "The whole idea is fun."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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