What’ll It Be, Daddy?
May I teach my children to mix cocktails?
Photo by Christina Paige
Please send your questions for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Questions may be edited.)
Dear Gentleman Scholar,
I have a 3-year-old who, in a year or so, should become quite capable of mixing alcoholic drinks. Should I make an attempt at bringing to life this small part of the Mad Men universe?
Thank you for your question, Arkady, which is one I’ve been asking myself of late, given our 2-year-old’s interest in aping behaviors witnessed in the kitchen.
To wit: Just yesterday, wanting to toss together a quick Fitzgerald, I found myself stymied. My cocktail shaker was not where it ought to have been, and I was starting to get agitated about my inability to get to agitating—until I spotted the shaker on the stovetop of the boy’s toy kitchen.
Casting my mind back a week, I remembered a pretend-play routine the kid and I went through at his urging. He asked for and received the shaker, inserted a whole lemon, and went to work preparing a make-believe drink: “Here you go, Daddy!” I then thanked him for the drink and sipped it and make-believe finished it, just to be polite, while privately deciding that the drink was unpalatably tart and that next time I’d just stick to make-believe beer.
Though initially abashed to see the lad serving up imaginary cocktails in the same manner he makes imaginary hot cocoa, I soon enough came to recognize my discomfort as a reflex conditioned by our culture’s hypocritically selective association of liquor and sin. I began to reason that being straightforward with the child about adult beverages would be more healthful than building a strong taboo around booze. I hatched a plan to train the kid to make my evening cocktails—a fine way to teach mathematics and aesthetics and moderation—and useful preparation for the somewhat more important and notably more dangerous task of making my morning coffee.
I sense a chorus of scolds assembling: But what about the children?
Well, what about them? Look, I hear where the scolds are coming from, and I understand that conversations about children and chemical substances have a way of altering moods in the direction of irrationality. For instance, though I find it comfortable to imagine that the social smoking of marijuana will be culturally and legally acceptable in most of the better parts of this country in my lifetime, I don’t want to live anywhere that it is remotely OK to train a kid to roll a blunt, no matter how beneficial it might be for his fine motor skills. This is just to acknowledge my limits and to establish my credentials as a prude.
And, well, what about the children, anyway? What are the long-term consequences of muddling mommy’s Old Fashioned? Lacking the resources to mount a proper study with a statistically significant sample size, I tried the next best thing: interviewing veterans of the children’s mixology circuit. I discovered two, both level-headed and professionally successful, neither a big-time drinker—a father of two in his early 40s and a woman in her late 20s. Each developed martini-mixing skills at about 7 or 8 years old, which lends credence to my working theory that you can’t teach a child to make a quality drink until she’s reached the age of reason. (I offer the LW, with his 3-year-old, my regrets and counsel patience.)
I met the former while he was grabbing a beer in bar not far from where he grew up in Brooklyn Heights preparing his parents’ regular evening libation. A pour of Seagram’s gin, a couple splashes of vermouth, stir well—“or else you get all the bits of broken ice in the drink”—and serve. “You know, you take a little sip as you deliver it, and I kind of developed a taste for it. I guess I drank a lot more in high school than a lot of people, but that was just New York in the 1980s. You never got carded.” Having settled down in every sense—stirred well and poured clean—he thinks it an obligation to teach his 11- and 7-year-old sons that alcohol is not about “beer funnels and doing 20 shots.” They pour wine, for now, having developed a nose (if not the taste) for it. Has he taught them to make martinis? “Oh, no. My parents had a nightly martini thing and I couldn’t—or, shouldn’t—do that. A martini for me is a treat. But they’ll get there.”
My other subject developed her skills as a pint-sized bartender growing up in North Shore Chicago. She agreed to meet to discuss the phenomenon and suggested a rendezvous at the Algonquin, where I found her sipping a Diet Coke in the lobby lounge, slightly perplexed that anyone would think twice about the matter: “Is this very odd? Do parents just want people to be 16 and swigging peach schnapps in somebody’s basement? That’s setting them up for failure. I think there’s something important about teaching children that things can be done well.”
I quoted Steve Allen on the topic: “Do not allow children to mix drinks. It is unseemly and they use too much vermouth.”
She said, “Well, I should think you could break them of that.”
All her experience came making predinner martinis when her parents had people over. “It made me feel like I had a role in my parents’ parties, and an important role of participating directly in something that gave people pleasure. Much better than putting away coats.” She recalled a martini recipe involving a capful of vermouth and two tiny fists’ worth of gin. (“If you are 8 years old, you are going to be shaking.”) Garnish? “Some of those martinis had seven olives. Again, you are going to have to sacrifice the quality of the drink for the charm of the experience. And what is more cute than a child making a martini? Unless it’s a monkey making a martini.” (Readers interested in tutoring monkeys and other higher primates in the history and philosophy of the drink are advised to consult Slate’s Martini Madness series, running through April 8.)
Unlike my other source, who by middle school had begun parlaying his home-bartending experience into paying jobs working neighbors’ parties, she got out of the game at the age of 14. It used to be—this was part of her act—that whenever a guest would lean down to ask the little girl what she wanted to drink, she would say “scotch on the rocks,” and it would be cute and everyone would laugh. Then came the evening when she tried the same line and someone handed her a glass of Dewar’s.
“It’s the kind of thing,” she noted, “that only works as a charming affectation until you’re in your early teen years.” But until your kid skulks off to the bedroom, take advantage of those precious few years of adorable docility to impart an important lesson in hospitality. Now please excuse me while I complete the purchase of a board book that promises to set my son up for success: Baby, Mix Me a Drink.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.