This is an article that appears in the latest edition of Slightly Foxed magazine on two of my favourite drink books: The Hour by Bernard deVoto and Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis. It’s always a great privilege to contribute to SF, a quarterly magazine where writers are allowed to write a length about books they love. I’d highly recommend you subscribe. The team also reissues classic books, does an entertaining podcast and puts on very jolly reader days.
Sayre’s Law states: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” I’ve noticed this in the booze world. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned very seriously. This can make much speciality drink writing a little, how can I put it, niche.
There are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach, and admit that it doesn’t really matter in the end. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto (below).
I am sure for most readers, Amis needs no introduction but I’d never heard of DeVoto before my wife gave me a small hardback called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. I learned later that DeVoto was an historian and journalist of some repute in America. He won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, he edited the letters of Mark Twain and for 20 years had a column in Harper’s Magazine. I am sure these were all worthy works but I cannot imagine that any of them has given the world as much pleasure as this slim volume first published in 1948.
The Hour was out of print for a long time but, thanks to its cult status amongst booze enthusiasts, has since been reissued. The book is in four parts: the first looks at a history of American drinking, the second the correct way to make drinks, the third the wrong way and final part is an ode to the joys of the cocktail hour. Born in 1897, DeVoto would have known the old tavern culture of New York and caught the end of the golden age of the cocktail. He would have seen them destroyed by Prohibition, visited speakeasies and known the deep sadness of being unable to find good liquor. But when I say the first section is history, it’s more of a riff on history. Reading De Voto ,one has to indulge in a kind of cognitive dissonance. He both means it, and doesn’t mean it. The trick is realising that whilst he is winking at you, he is also deadly serious.
Take his view on whiskey, for example: for DeVoto it is the true American spirit. It brings the country together. Whether you’re a Northerner or a Southerner, Republican or Democrat, everything is better after a drink: “and I’ll have mine with soda but not drowned. The barb is blunted, the knife sheathed. . . in a few minutes we will see each other as we truly are, sound men, stout hearts, lovers of the true and upholders of the good.” I’ll have what he’s drinking. This is the DeVoto style, soaring, heroic but with a gleam in his eye.
Better even than whiskey (rye or bourbon not Scotch!) is “that other supreme American gift to world culture, the Martini.” His preferred ratio is 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth with lemon oil expressed over the drink but don’t drop the twist in, no olives and certainly no onions, and don’t make them in advance either: “you can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there.” This is what you read DeVoto for, the pedantry and a magical prose style that always stays the right side of purple. It’s like making a Dry Martini, too much gin and the magic is spoiled. A Martini should be strong enough that: “we believe, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn. But it would not be a Martini if we should see him.” The Hour is full of wonderful images like this.
Just as important as the proper way to make a cocktail, are the drinks that are verboten: “Remember that the three abominations are: (1) rum, (2) any other sweet drink, and (3) any mixed drink except one made of gin and dry vermouth in the ratio I have given.” DeVoto even gives name to his foes, Chuck and Mabel. They are the kind of suburban drinkers who have a bar with a sign on it saying “Danger: Men Drinking”, stirrers shaped like naked ladies, and make lurid sweet cocktails from recipes found in cookbooks and household magazines.
So yes, he’s a bit of an urban snob, disdaining the provincials, or perhaps posing as one. He writes at one point: “The Martini is a city dweller, metropolitan, all cultural subtleties belong to the city”. But it there’s also big-heartedness and even a sexiness here. Nobody has written as poetically about the transformative powers of alcohol than DeVoto: “how fastidiously cold a second Martini is to the palate but how warm to the heart.” But, you should never rule out a third: “Certainly I’ll have another one… one more, and then with a spirit made whole again in a cleansed world, to dinner.” Doesn’t an evening with De Voto sound fun?
If De Voto is the bard of the cocktail hour, then Kingsley Amis is the poet of the following day. You’d expect the man who wrote the famous hangover scene from Lucky Jim to write well about alcohol, and he doesn’t disappoint. Everyday Drinking is made up of three collections of articles: On Drink, Every Day Drinking (sic) and How’s Your Glass. You can safely ignore the last part which is made up of a series of quizzes but the first two, however, are worth your time.
In many ways, Amis (above) is the anti-De Voto. Indeed, he wrote the kind of magazine drinks columns that De Voto despised. Amis even invented a cocktail called the Lucky Jim (like a vodka Martini but, oddly, with added cucumber juice). They are different in other ways, De Voto has an American generosity about him but with Amis there’s a pinched lower middle class stinginess. DeVoto writes: “if you can’t serve good liquor to a lot of people, serve good liquor to few people”, but Amis states: “go for quantity rather than quality”. Amis’s Christmas Punch where he tells readers to “cut all the corners you can” sounds particularly revolting.
But you’re not reading Amis for his advice, you’re reading him because he’s extremely funny. Every page has lines like: “Canadians are a great crowd, but are perhaps the only people who could have produced a boring whisky.” Or: “on the principle of not barking yourself if you keep a dog, test out the wine waiter whenever you eat in a restaurant”. And one day I will try his boozing man’s diet: “The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you some weight without reducing your alcohol intake by the smallest degree.”
Inevitably from the author of Lucky Jim, the chapter on the hangover is a highlight: “a hangover is the result of a shock to the system, chiefly from alcohol, sure, but also from fatigue – lack of sleep, burning up energy in ridiculous and shameful activities like dancing – and thirdly from other poisons contained in tobacco”. Amis divides the hangovers into two parts: the physical and the metaphysical: “guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H.” It requires spiritual solace, Amis suggests reading PG Wodehouse (but not Evelyn Waugh) and listening to Mozart.
If such a disparate collection of writing could be said to have a unifying theme, it’s a battle against what Amis calls the “tyranny of wine”. When he wrote these columns in the 1970s and 80s, Britain was at last becoming a wine drinking country. Born in 1977, I remember the change myself: the older generation drank their whisky and gingers, and brandy and sodas, whereas my parents drank wine. So when Amis had to write about wine, which he was often paid (very handsomely, I imagine) to do, he can never resist saying how ridiculous it all is.
Amis is particularly scathing about wine connoisseurs: “you can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out. . .” Perhaps the best thing in the book, is a chapter on Boozemanship: “the art of coming of ahead when any question of drinking expertise or experience arises” inspired by Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship. Amis’s tactic for dealing with a wine bore at the table is worth quoting in full:
“Wait for someone to drop a grain of knowledge, and work the old jujitsu trick of turning his strength to your advantage…. As soon as he mentions tannin. . . shush everyone and say: ‘Listen, chaps, here’s a chance for us all to learn something. Carry on Percy’ – the equivalent of dropping him on his head.
When he’s finished which should be pretty soon, ask a lot of questions, the more elementary the better, like: “does that make it good or bad?. . . The object is to make knowing about wine seem like an accomplishment on the level of knowing about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. . . “
In Amis’s world alcohol, especially wine, shouldn’t be taken too seriously and anyone who does is probably a bit suspect. It’s not that Amis doesn’t issue dictums, as a drinks writer you have to or what’s the point, you just know that he’d rather have a bloody drink than obsess about it being made the right way. His tastes are not subtle, one of his favourite drinks is Carlsberg Special Brew mixed half and half with standard Carlsberg. Ignore the tramp connotations, served very cold, it’s delicious.
Above all, Amis hates the faff around wine. “Drink any wine you like with any dish”, he advises. He does have a point. I remember going to dinner with a group of whisky writers and they couldn’t believe the rigamarole with the wine: the special glasses, the decanter, the sommelier, and then after all the poncing about, the wine turned out to be corked. When was the last time that happened with a bottle of Johnnie Walker?
Despite being written more recently, Amis’s book is more dated than DeVoto’s, perhaps because it contains contemporary references such as Cyprus sherry and a cocktail called “Reginald Bosanquet Golden Elixir.” There is, however, much in Amis’s writings that De Voto would approve of. They both abhorred fruit juice in cocktails and they were both great Martini men though Amis drank his at a whopping 15 parts gin to vermouth, and did heretically make them in advance.
But if you’re looking for advice, get David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, or Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. With Amis and De Voto, you read them to enjoy two superb writers letting their hair down a bit. If The Hour is a perfectly-formed little gem, Everyday Drinking is full of treasure waiting to be discovered. Both are books that I refer to again and again for amusement and inspiration. Just don’t take everything in them too seriously.
To read more about the latest issue of Slightly Foxed click here.