Extending well beyond the domain of hair-of-the-dog cures, and spanning multiple styles beloved on both sides of the bar, brunch is nothing short of an institution in the United States. The word is not only a noun, but also a verb and, depending on whose Instagram account you’ve stumbled across, a way of life. It’s the late-morning and early-afternoon equivalent of the aperitif: a time to take a deep breath, relax and reflect on the day—or, in the case of brunch, the night before.
The word brunch itself first appeared in print in 1895, when an Englishman named Guy Beringer penned a celebratory essay in Hunter’s Weekly, praising the “cheerful, sociable and inciting” custom and its ability to “[sweep] away the worries and cobwebs of the week.” It is the cultural imperative brunch represents—the act of exhaling over a long meal after a long week—that has made it more than just a clever mash-up of “breakfast and lunch.”
The portmanteau would pop up in print in the United States a year later, in a Pennsylvania newspaper describing the meal as “the latest fad.” But fad it was not. Brunch would persist in America as a tradition both social and spirituous—the late-morning train that helped establish the daytime drink in a country still reeling from the so-called noble experiment of Prohibition. “In the early to mid 1900s, brunch offered a platform for people to drink during the day in a socially acceptable fashion,” wrote the Washington Post in an article entitled “How Brunch Became the Most Delicious—and Divisive—Meal in America.”
While the “brunch cocktail” has become as broad a notion as “brunch food,” some specific drinks do come to mind. “There are several families when you start thinking of brunch drinking,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, head bartender at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. He designs brunch beverages in five distinct groupings: Bloodys, covering riffs like Caesars, Marias and Red Snappers; sparkling wine and simple spritzes (like the classic St-Germain Cocktail); drinks made with juice; drinks made with egg whites; and coffee-based cocktails. (A sixth category, beer-based cocktails, such as shandies and Micheladas, are becoming increasingly relevant in the brunch realm, too.)
There’s supreme variation here, and some drinks, like Morgenthaler’s East of Eden—gin, St-Germain, lemon, egg white, gewürztraminer reduction—straddle multiple styles. “This is the kind of drink that I want with brunch, [and] St-Germain goes beautifully with white wine,” he says.
A few characteristics—effervescence, fresh juices and herbs, etc.—apply across the board regardless. The most important, however, is a predilection among bartenders for low-alcohol drinks. Why? Julie Reiner, owner of New York’s Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge, puts it bluntly: “You want to be able to have a couple cocktails and feel fine.”
Laurent Lebec, beverage director of Big Star in Chicago, looks to the drinking mood of his brunch guests, pacing himself accordingly. While the classic pairing of Lone Star and shot of Old Grand-Dad has its loyalists, others choose to move slower. “People consume early on in a way that [feels] a bit more laid-back and restrained,” says Lebec. This leads him to light, fruit-forward preparations, like his Grievous Angel, a barrel-aged bourbon drink tempered with St-Germain, strawberry syrup and lemon. “It’s a brunch-ready market fruit sour where the bourbon sneaks up on you in the right way,” he says.
Likewise, Lynnette Marrero, beverage director at Brooklyn’s Llama Inn, takes into account that many people who end up at her bar early on a Saturday or Sunday are looking to ease their way into the weekend, and they aren’t in a hurry to do it. “You have to consider the state everyone’s in when they’re coming,” she says. In her Señorita Spritz, she pulls from a suite of ingredients that spans the globe—mixing fino sherry, gin, St-Germain, muña (a mint-like Peruvian herb), strawberry shrub and Cava for a fizzy, food-friendly brunch drink that defies easy categorization.
Though these bartenders don’t get to enjoy brunch quite as often as they work it, they share a similar mentality when it comes to approaching the ritual: A focus on simplicity, and a dose of well-placed restraint, leads to the best results. After all, brunch is a meal meant to be relished. “Unless you want to go to bed early,” says Xavier Herit, of New York’s Wallflower, “make it easy drinking.”