A New Kind of Drunkenness
The greatness of gin.
Barroom folklore conveys truths greater than verifiable fact could ever provide, so let's accept as reality that the most refreshing of summertime cocktails derives its name from the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. The hoax was a kind of guttersnipe hunt: The prankster would first lead the victim to think that a mystery man known as Tom Collins was spreading foul lies about him. With the victim on the hook, the prankster would then reveal that this scoundrel, Collins, could be found at one particular watering hole or another. The mark would then charge into the joint, demanding to see Tom Collins and ready to demand satisfaction—at which point the barkeep would present him with a tall, cool, good tart gin drink topped with fizz. The quaff must have been especially welcome after storming around town all day in pursuit of a phantom slanderer.
The legend of the hoax reflects gin's properties as a quickening zing on the palate, seriously mischievous. Gin comes to us from Holland, where the physician Franciscus Silvius began treating the body with this spirit in the 1600s. (The "Dutch courage" we commonly enjoy here is—like genever, its full-bodied cousin—flavored with juniper, coriander, and other botanicals, but we can discuss its particulars another time, perhaps over a herring platter.) In the 1700s, a craze for "Madame Geneva" swept England with such force as to generate statistics that defy belief. Iain Gately writes in Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol that by 1723, it was as if "every man, woman, and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per head per week." The lower classes bore the brunt of a resultant moral panic, as a tract by the novelist Henry Fielding indicates: "A new kind of drunkenness, unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up amongst us, which, if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people."
Let's chalk it up to the daze of mystery enshrouding so many quality drinking sessions that a gutter swill is now a respectable elixir. When I say now, I mean both the post-Prohibition era and this, the opening of 2010's summer boozing season: With the reintroduction of the slightly sugared Old Tom brand, it's easier than ever to concoct a Tom Collins of optimal sweet-tartness. The gin and tonic endures as a WASP beverage for Americans of all creeds and colors, its wedge of lime matching any number of Lilly Pulitzer prints. (Further, the G & T's simple elegance renders the drink almost impervious to the mixological ineptitude of sub-standard wedding-reception bartenders.) And take care not to neglect the Gin Rickey, which hails from our nation's fetid capital and allegedly owes its existence to a lobbyist who enjoyed it as a breakfast drink (and who, it should go without saying, represented the lime industry). Any one of these potions will aid a reader in savoring the wisdom found in an armful of recent cocktail books—and also in chuckling with derision at their spasms of idiocy.
Pride of place goes to a reissue of The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (Tin House), righteously written by the critic, Twain scholar, and eminent historian Bernard DeVoto. First published in 1948, The Hour is meant to be savored in one wing-chair sitting. Not just a purist but a dogmatist, DeVoto scorns the Tom Collins—and, indeed, any drink with any fruit near it—as an abomination, and he does so with the wizardly charisma and haughty vehemence of a cult leader. In the introduction, Daniel Handler refers to DeVoto's tone as one of "deadpan fascism." A typical pronouncement: "Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum."
DeVoto believes that gin is appropriate at any time of year, but the only use he has for "Royal Poverty" is as the base of a Martini—a "supreme American gift to world culture." His Martini recipe is wet in balance and cold in temperature, calling for 3.7-to-1 ratio of "White Satin" to vermouth, "five hundred pounds of ice," and a lemon twist. Each of you will have your own ideas about how much stiffer than that a Martini should be, each her own stories about vermouth rinses, mists, eyedroppers, and passing shadows. DeVoto would call each of you lushes. The six o'clock cocktail hour is a serious thing, he insists, a special hinge in the day, and it would be a waste to be wasted then: "This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn. But it would not be a martini if we should see him."
God only knows how intensely DeVoto would curse Peterson's Happy Hour: Spirited Cocktails and Helpful Hints to Brighten Daily Life, newly wreaked by Valerie Peterson. DeVoto was a man who was suspicious of a drink as legit as a Manhattan: "It signifies that the drinker, if male, has no spiritual dignity and would really prefer white mule; if female, a banana split." She, meanwhile, is a woman who believes that on Halloween, after inspecting "every piece of candy for potential allergies," a harried mother should relax with something called a Nutty Candy. If you are in any way queasy, move on to the next paragraph now. A Nutty Candy involves 1.5 ounces amaretto, 1.5 ounces chocolate liqueur, 1.5 ounces coconut milk, and, one can only hope, a hangover too harshly punitive for von Sacher-Masoch to imagine.
Warmly illustrated with old magazine ads and family photos, Peterson's Happy Hour has a strenuously cutesy conceit. The central idea is that contemporary American women ought to unwind with an adult beverage every now and then and that some horribly sweet drinks are particularly well suited to assuage particular stresses. These stresses range from taking the car into the shop to dealing with oneself after an overly crowded yoga class, but let's say, just for instance, that the trouble involves seasonal housing: "When you agreed to share a summerhouse, you hadn't realized the others would be so inconsiderate." Should you find yourself in such a position, then whip up a batch of Beach House Bogarts, which are effectively apple-lime Jell-O shots. This is silly. Any sensible modern mother looking to alter her mood would dip into her kids' prescription bottles.
How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice (Harper), whipped up by Jordan Kaye and Marshall Altier, employs the same gimmick as Peterson's, pairing cocktails with appropriate occasions. However, they suggest drinks that are drunk by people you actually might want to get drunk with, and their ideal reader is the aspiring sophisticate attracted by our ongoing cocktail renaissance. Kaye and Altier recommend a Gimlet for a second date, a Collins when striking up a conversation with stranger, and a Pink Gin for "cocktails with people you despise," and when they do so, they are speaking truth to power. The authors are professional bartenders, and the real meat of the book is in its supplements and sidebars. These supply the basic- and intermediate-level information (about bitters and muddling and aperitifs and on and on) that enable the reader to begin his journey toward mixing superlative drinks.
But the authors are decidedly not professional writers. It takes professionals years to master the science of padding out a flimsy story. These guys merely rely on cheerful empty patter to fill the space between recipes. Their conceit only takes them so far, as when they advise that a Negroni will facilitate three-way sex. "The Negroni doesn't ask you to choose. With aperitifs, as with sexual partners, you can have it both ways, and we encourage you to do so with this brilliant and iconic cocktail." This is a tawdry thing to say about a noble libation, a simple drink with a complex taste and perhaps the highest purpose that "My Lady's Eye Water" can be put toward. (Moreover, I have read elsewhere that a fifth of rye and an eightball will do the trick, no shaker necessary.)
Nonetheless, I embrace these authors in fellowship, not least because of their obvious affection for "the Cream of the Valley." There's a lovely illustration near the end of the book featuring a few of the botanicals that give good gins strong character—citrus peel, cardamom, coriander seeds, juniper, and orris root, which looks to be a cross between a shooting palm tree and a prehistoric tropical insect. All in all, How to Booze would be a good college-graduation gift for an easily amused, generally pleasant young man needing to be weaned off of Jager and Natty Light.
By contrast, Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool Wisdom would be an appropriate present on the occasion of a 60th birthday or a second divorce. Written by Robert Schnakenberg and beautifully designed by Doogie Horner, it features 70 recipes for cocktails, each preceded by a capsule history or concise tribute, as if to provide a seed for an inexcusably long night of sitting on a barstool talking shit. In explaining the origins the Monkey Gland, Schnakenberg finds occasion to discuss the sexual potency of William Butler Yeats.
What makes the book a treasure are its many frank, fond black-and-white photographs. Shot by Michael E. Reali, these depict veteran boozehounds in their natural habitats. Some are hearty bon vivants, some sad old alcoholics, and most have pulled their glasses away from their mouths long enough to share some sagacity. Tom (age 62, retired golf pro) references French Symbolism: "No one said it better than Charles Baudelaire: 'Be drunk; be always drunk.' You can take that any way you like." Caesar (60, engineer and painter) is a dive-bar Zen master: "Most of us are afraid. When your fear comes to an end, then you discover the whole universe." Gary (65, retired marketing manager) gives a confident thumbs-up and quips like P.J. O'Rourke: "Scotch goes well with anything, especially marriage." I have only one serious complaint about Old Man Drinks, and it regards a serious abuse of "the Regular Flare-Up." Page 46 spotlights Gin and Milk—"a great way to polish off leftover milk that's reached the end of its lifespan." Combine the ingredients. Shake. Strain. Serve. Shudder.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of gin © Getty Images.