What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Drinking
An American History of Writing Cocktail Writing and Inebriation
Why do we drink alcohol? I heard it spelled out with clinical precision one night, years ago. I’d recently landed a job as a fact-checker at Gourmet and found myself out for drinks near the magazine’s Times Square offices with some editors I was a little in awe of. My shoes were all wrong. Where I’d gone to college was all wrong. I was pretty sure any drink I ordered would be judged wrong, too, as my companions sloshed single-malts around on their palates and assessed the esters and phenolics.
But I needed a Manhattan—my grandma’s cocktail and, for me, always, a big boozy hug of a drink—so I ordered one. The grizzled editor seated next to me did the same, which I’ll confess I found affirming. When our Manhattans arrived, he and I sipped in silence for a few minutes, letting the liquor do its work. Then he smiled down into his glass, palpably gratified, and said, “After a long day, having a Manhattan is a lot like having a mild stroke.” So true, I thought—and so far from anything we’d print in the magazine.
At the time, the writing on drinks in Gourmet ran more to pairing advice like the following: “The wine’s verve is undiminished by the cream cheese in the canapés, and its flavor . . . unfurls, discreetly but irrepressibly, even across green olives, scallions, and Tabasco.” This was the early aughts. The craft-cocktail boom was detonating all around us, but it took a few years to reverberate in the pages of Gourmet. Drinks Editor James Rodewald first nodded to New York’s new-school speakeasies in a brief item in 2004; two years later, he noted “a return to the classics of the pre-Prohibition golden age, and a new culinary approach to making drinks” taking hold across the country. In 2008, Executive Editor John Willoughby praised “the intellectual rigor of these nouvelle bartenders.” Nothing like a little conspicuous intellectualizing to peg a thing as worthy of connoisseurship.
I offer this potted history of cocktail coverage in what was, at the time, America’s most influential epicurean publication as context for considering what’s deemed pertinent, polite, and otherwise up for discussion—and what isn’t—in drinks writing today. I currently edit the columns on wine, spirits, and beer in The Wall Street Journal’s weekend lifestyle section. Staying on top of that beat involves reading what all the other publications are putting out there.
These literary types hadn’t gotten the memo about sticking to what occurs on the palate and stopping short of what happens when the alcohol hits the bloodstream.
Of course, there are memoirs dealing with drinking and the attendant physical highs and lows; the medical literature on the subject trickles down steadily in news items alternately advising us to avoid alcohol and to drink more. I’m talking here about the genus of drinks writing that appears in culinary publications, men’s magazines, the dining sections of newspapers, and booze blogs—the kind that tells you how to do it. In the interest of search-engine optimization, the headlines are skewing ever more gruff and pedantic: “Session Beer Is Dumb” (Esquire, November 2014); “Yes, You Should Be Drinking Canadian Whisky” (Punch, March 2018). I’m not a fan of this trend in display copy, but it does neatly distill the aim of the articles: service. Count on them for actionable advice on which bottles to buy (and which to avoid), how to mix a cocktail, and the eternal conundrum, pairing. In the pages I edit, I try to provide that and more, with stories on the production, distribution, service, and sharing of wine, beer, and booze—the “why” behind what we’re drinking now.
The thing is, nobody expects you to conclude, on the record, that the “why” amounts to “because it feels good to get a little squiffy.” I didn’t fully grasp this until a couple of years ago when I launched a new drinks column. I wanted to offer a fresh perspective and a good read, so I made it a point to assign the column to novelists, poets, and other stripes of authors unaccustomed to covering the beverage segment. The results were engaging, sometimes moving, blessedly jargon-free, and genuinely surprising. These literary types hadn’t gotten the memo about sticking to what occurs on the palate and stopping short of what happens when the alcohol hits the bloodstream. They let fly on the page about being tipsy or outright drunk. Reader response split more or less down the middle between thrilled and scandalized.
In the 1940s, it would have come as no surprise to a reader to find inebriation openly referenced in writing about beverages that are, after all, formulated to elicit that effect. Gourmet’s original drinks columnist, Charles H. Baker, Jr., regularly assessed the physical and psychoactive effects of the cocktails featured in his “Here’s How” column. An early entry, from October 1942, comes right to the point:
One and all, these personal liquid whimsies are admittedly cooked up for three purposes, and three alone: to pick you up, to mow you down, or concerning those whose names appear on the distaff roster, to remove—putting it mildly—the more comely, nubile samplers from the ranks of those still able to claim a veritable biological integrity. Any drink inventor claiming otherwise, lies in his teeth!
Baker was a man of his time in more ways than one. There’s no mistaking the casual violence in his snickering reference to undoing the “biological integrity” of the nubile. Though Gourmet articles of that era were generally gender-neutral in their address, Baker clearly sees his reader, the discerning drinker, as male. Regarding one cocktail of lime juice, Curaçao, Grenadine, and Crème de Vanille, he allows, “The ladies like this one, for it is fairly sweet.”
In the same column, Baker promises that when it comes to especially potent recipes, “we shall label all such liable formulae, so that they may be approached discreetly and advisedly, with forewarning and forearming, or else, in the instance of such case-hardened alimentaries as mine, boldly and come what may.” This sort of advice was business as usual in drinks writing of the era. In his seminal guide The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks—first published in 1948 and probably the single greatest influence on the generation of bartenders who first linked the words craft and cocktail—David A. Embury includes a section ranking the efficacy of different spirits.
“Liquors that are unaged or only slightly aged, such as gin, vodka, or akvavit, give a quicker lift than those that are old and mellow, such as well-aged whiskies,” he writes. “Dry drinks give a much quicker reaction than sweet drinks. Even the use of Italian vermouth will slow down the reaction time.” Following this logic, Embury declares the Martini the ideal aperitif: “It sharpens the taste; it makes the stomach fairly cry out for food; and, since its reaction time is practically instantaneous, it gives fair warning to the drinker not to take too many.” Dubious science aside, his frank assessment of the potency in a typical bar lineup is notable.
Writing in the wake of Prohibition, Embury wanted to educate a generation who came of age in that benighted time on how best to hold their liquor as well as on the finer points of building balanced drinks, appropriate glassware, etc. For him, as for Baker, a serious drink was a dry drink; sweetness could too easily mask inferior ingredients, as it did of necessity during the years of bathtub gin and “Scotch” cooked up in New Jersey:
So unutterably vile were these synthetic concoctions that the primary object in mixing a cocktail became the otherwise emollient and anti-emetic ingredients (cream, honey, Karo, canned fruit juices, etc.) to make it reasonably possible to swallow the resultant concoction and at the same time to retain a sufficient content of renatured alcohol to insure the ultimate inebriety.
For a sense of the sheer giddy relief post-Prohibition Americans felt at being legally reunited with their inebriety, see the movie The Thin Man and its sequels (1934-1947), which are set to a steady soundtrack of ice rattling in cocktail shakers. For lingering outrage at the indignities the 18th Amendment visited upon us, count on Embury. To him, discernment was a religion.
The novelist Kingsley Amis occasionally referenced Embury on matters of mixing in the drinks columns he wrote for Penthouse and the Daily Telegraph, among others, beginning in the 1970s (many of which are reprinted in the 2008 collection Everyday Drinking). But then, mixing was never Amis’s primary concern. In an essay titled “Actual Drinks,” he roughly delineates the period 1925-1945 as the age of the cocktail,
which probably faded away along with the disappearance of servants from all but the richest private houses. Nearly every cocktail needs to be freshly made for each round, so that you either have to employ a barman or find yourself constantly having to quit the scene so as to load the jug.
Tedious, that. Later in the same essay, he cites the “General Principle” (capital letters his) that when serving guests one should go for “quantity rather than quality”:
Most people would rather have two glasses of ordinary decent port than one of a rare vintage. On the same reasoning, give them big drinks rather than small . . . Serious drinkers will be pleased and reassured, unserious ones will not be offended, and you will use up less chatting-time going round to recharge glasses.
“No one ever sat me down and said, ‘Don’t do this,’” Newman added. “It’s implied—a huge unwritten rule about a line never to cross.”
Amis even calls out Embury as an obsessive and a prig on a few occasions. To the latter’s edict that hot buttered rum “should be permitted only in the Northwest Passage, and, even there, only by highly imaginative and over-enthusiastic novelists,” Amis responds with a smart-alecky “Dear dear.”
Being British, Amis never suffered through Prohibition and was burdened with no baggage regarding drinking merely for the pleasure of it, in volume and with the object of getting drunk. Early in Everyday Drinking, he argues:
The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.
Even the aftereffects are rendered affectionately as “that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization.”
In the end, Amis’s approach to drinking and life did take a toll. As Christopher Hitchens, himself an unapologetic and prolific boozer, points out in his introduction to Everyday Drinking, “[T]he world now knows what Kingsley’s innumerable friends had come to realize, which is that the booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health.” Even by the time Amis was writing his drinks columns in the 1970s and ’80s, his attitude and his subject were throwbacks. As Robert Simonson notes in his history of the early-aughts cocktail revival, A Proper Drink, “The 1980s were dark days for drinking. Cocktails were simply uncool: establishment intoxicants of which your parents had drunk too many.”
Nevertheless, even through the ’80s and ’90s, the gentlemen’s magazines bore the tattered standard for boozing, albeit with an elegiac tone, the way a fellow might recall a world before the Dodgers’ defection to Los Angeles or women’s lib. In Esquire’s July 1983 issue, Bruce Weber carps, “Ever since Jimmy Carter frowned publicly on the three-martini lunch, the heartiness has been dwindling from the midday libation.” In Esquire today, cocktail historian David Wondrich injects all the legitimizing geekery of the craft-cocktail movement into his scholarly profiles of drinks. The naughty-boy attitude to drinking persists in articles by Aaron Goldfarb, which offer advice on such pressing questions as “How to Nail the Perfect Buzz to Last Your Entire Vacation.” But his adamant embrace of intoxication makes Goldfarb the gadfly who proves the rule.
Mulling over why most other drinks writers of today look away from the pink elephant in the room, I reached out to one I work with regularly. The author of five books on cocktails and the spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Kara Newman has a lucid and unsentimental way of writing about drinks that I’ve always admired. “We don’t want to promote (or be perceived as promoting) irresponsible consumption,” she said. “
That’s nothing new, according to Mark Forsyth, author of A Short History of Drunkenness, published last year. “Drinking has always been surrounded by rules,” he writes, “but they rarely get written down.” Forsyth’s account restores intoxication and the rules around it to their positions of central importance in human history. He begins with the biologist Robert Dudley’s “drunken monkey” hypothesis, which proposes that the scent of alcohol in fermenting fruit drew our primate ancestors down from the trees and the high calorie content conferred an evolutionary advantage; sharing this alcoholic fruit in groups provided protection from predators. A few hundred millennia later, archaeological evidence indicates, hunter-gatherers “invented farming because we wanted to get drunk on a regular basis.” From ancient Sumeria to Prohibition-era New York, it’s often in the rules prohibiting drunkenness that Forsyth finds the most compelling descriptions of drunkenness itself: “If you have to condemn something, it’s because people are doing it. The sins of a society are revealed in its pieties.”This description of the effects has been credited with making the book a hit and inspiring curious marijuana consumers for generations to come.
Because prohibitions can also produce unintended opportunities, it’s worth looking at the writing on another intoxicant: marijuana. Increasingly criminalized in the United States over the course of the 20th century, pot has, historically, been the province of counterculture publications such as High Times and also, interestingly, culinary writing. Does anyone remember any recipe in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book besides the one for Haschich Fudge? “Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected,” it reads. Toklas claimed never to have sampled the goods herself—the recipe was contributed by her friend Brion Gysin—but this description of the effects has been credited with making the book a hit and inspiring curious marijuana consumers for generations to come.
At a tender age, I was inspired by another classic of culinary bohemia, The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, first published in 1972. Of all the practical advice offered in the chapter titled “Entertaining,” the following stood out:
If you have passed a joint around before dinner to sharpen gustatory perceptions, you most likely will pass another one after dinner, and everyone knows what that will do—the blind munchies can strike at any time.
She recommends a bowl of strawberries and cream along with other equally elegant answers to cannabis-induced cravings. But her offhand reference to sharpening gustatory perceptions was the revelatory part for me. Up to the point when I came across this book, I don’t think I’d considered that a meal is meant to be felt as well as tasted and judged.
With the legalization of cannabis for medical as well as recreational use in a growing number of states, writing on consuming it is expanding further into mainstream media, notably cookbook publishing. In this year’s Bong Appétit, the editors of the Vice Media food website Munchies profess scientific rigor when it comes to potency: “We lab tested all of our recipes to make sure you wouldn’t have to worry about (a) wasting a bunch of weed making food that doesn’t get you high or (b) making food that gets you so high you have to call in sick for work the next day.” In this second post-prohibition era, cooks new to the drug or to cooking with it need practical guidance regarding the effects.
Above all, what sets writing on consuming marijuana apart from drinks writing is the way it explicitly acknowledges the body. In Cooking with Herb, co-authored with Raquel Pelzel, Cedella Marley, daughter of the musician Bob Marley, continually emphasizes the physical pleasure that consuming cannabis brings her, turning
an ordinary dinner with friends into an immediate celebration of life and feeling good. It’s a really wonderful way to entertain, and put everyone into a higher vibration . . . yeah man. I mean imagine a party where everyone just forgets their troubles and dances!
Imagine. This writing has all the joyful hedonism The Thin Man conveyed in another post-Prohibition moment. I hope we can hold onto some of that this time around.
From Creative Nonfiction #69 (Winter 2019: Intoxication). Copyright © 2019 by Beth Kracklauer.