THE LONG DRINK

America’s First Drinks Writer: G. Selmer Fougner

The prolific New York “Sun” columnist helped teach Americans how to drink after Prohibition.

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to become the Daily Beast’s Senior Drinks Columnist. I’m not a novice at writing booze columns, though. Over the past 15 years, I’ve written 130 or so of the things for Esquire (plus another 150-odd for the magazine’s website), 30 for the Whisky Advocate, about the same number for Wine & Spirits, 15 or so for Imbibe, 25 or 30 for Liquor.com, 20 for the late Drinks magazine, a handful each for Saveur and various Edibles and The Faster Times and Marie Claire (really!) and Gotham and a couple of other places that escape me at present—and that’s not counting features and one-offs. Add them all together and the total tops 450 pieces—or roughly what G. Selmer Fougner would turn out in a year and a half.

Beginning on Friday, Oct. 20, 1933, and lasting until his untimely death on April 2, 1941, Fougner wrote a daily column, “Along the Wine Trail,” for the New York Sun. Daily. Six days a week, 52 weeks a year.

I break out in hives just thinking about it—I’m bad enough with a monthly deadline or, truth be told, a bimonthly, quarterly or even occasional piece (just ask my editor here or, well, anywhere). A daily deadline? The man must have been made of titanium, in one of its spongier, more absorbent alloys.

If Fougner were simply a hard-grinding hack, I’d still admire him, if only for the work ethic. But he was no hack. “Baron” Fougner, as he was known (the title was awarded by his fellow newspapermen because he seemed baronial—to them, anyway), did something very few of us get to do in this life. He got to invent not merely his own job, but the entire field he worked in.

Before his column, American newspapers covered wine rarely, beer almost never and mixed drinks—well, they talked about those, or had in the decades before Prohibition. But when they covered them, it was either as color commentary (humor, basically) or they called on a bartender and recorded his recipes and opinions with utter credulity and not the slightest bit of critical analysis.

There were no dedicated drinks writers. The men who covered the topic were usually the ones whose turn it happened to be to go out on a story, although occasionally it went to someone who was known to have a bit of specialized knowledge or interest.

That seems to be how the Baron got his job. Gustave Selmer Fougner was born in Chicago in 1884 to middle-class French-Norwegian immigrants (his father was an editor and an advertising executive) and spent much of his childhood in France, where his parents returned in 1893 or thereabouts. He attended the Sorbonne for a period, but by 1906 he was back in America, at the New York Herald—who promptly bounced him back to France to be the society editor for their legendary Paris edition.

This isn’t the place to delve into the paper’s gloriously eccentric history (its sports columnist was Sparrow Robertson, inventor of the Old Pal cocktail, whose prose was so abstract it rivaled Gertrude Stein’s), but it’s clear that the young Fougner fit right in. Al Laney, an editor at the paper, recalled him as one of the flamboyant, even eccentric “characters who seemed to be out of books” that James Gordon Bennett, the paper’s owner, liked to foist on it as “special writers.”

After a couple years of that, he was back stateside, working in New York for the New York Press and in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a junior editor at the International Review, which for some reason was published there. Around 1912, he got picked up by the Sun, the best-written of New York City’s many dailies and one of the most enduringly popular.

In 1915, as the First World War was raging, the Sun sent Fougner to France to cover it, which he did with skill and courage. After the war, he worked as press agent for a time for one of the many semi-governmental commissions that sprang up to try to stick the pieces of a broken world back together again. By the end of the 1920s, though, he was back at the Sun, a member of the editorial pool, albeit one with a recognized expertise in culture—that Sorbonne degree plus a stint as a music critic for a French paper saw to that. He also had developed the reputation, and figure, of a man who knew his way around a menu and could tell a Beaune from a Barsac wine and know which years there was too much rain right before the grape harvest.

It made sense, therefore, that at the end of 1933 with Repeal imminent the Sun assigned him to do a 25-part series of articles, as he announced, “dealing with all of the beverages which will become legal with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.” By “all of the beverages,” Fougner meant mostly wine. This too made a good deal of sense. At that point, 14 years into Prohibition, Americans didn’t know shit about wine. They retained some knowledge of spirits—at least as much as you needed to tell good adulterated booze from bad—but few bootleggers bothered with low-proof goods like wine when there was whiskey at hand. What wine there was was mostly artificial—homemade from bricks of pressed grapes—and revolting.

Fougner approached those early columns dutifully and seriously, taking his readers through all of the great European regions and appellations. By the time Repeal was ratified, though, he was on his 38th column—already far beyond the original 25. “Along the Wine Trail” was generating letters by the bushel, and the paper liked that. The second series of 25 was followed by a third, this one on spirits and cocktails. (Fougner at least knew enough about the latter to have been a judge at the famous International Bartenders’ Contest, held in Paris in 1929.) After that his editors stopped talking series and just let the thing run, as long as the Baron could keep it up.

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By March 1934, “Along the Wine Trail” had assumed the form it would retain right up to the end. Each day, there would be a couple of words at the top of a column announcing its theme, a brief epigraph—a bible verse, a few lines from a long-dead poet (e.g., “Great the strength / which generous wine imparts to men who toil—Homer”)—and then Fougner would dive right into it. Usually, he’d use the first part of the two half-columns he was allotted (say, some 750 words, give or take) to soapbox about some issue of the day: the need to call your brands at bars, the proper handling of Champagne, the construction of the Old-Fashioned (he took his as one should, without the “garbage,” as the common muddled-in orange and cherry were known, but at the same time—also as one should—he refused to stigmatize the garbage-lovers). So on and so forth.

If his column were confined to these little essays, it would still be a useful, if rather conventional, resource. In most things, his opinions didn’t stray far from received wisdom—or perhaps to us now it seems that way because we received that wisdom largely from him. To be sure, Fougner was an early advocate of American wines, writing about them with neither the condescension nor the naïve boosterism between which the wine writers of the day tended to oscillate.

He covered unusual spirits—e.g., vodka, in those halcyon days a little-known, foreign spirit—and knew his whiskey. But sometimes, just sometimes, he let his patience slip and unloaded a little, as in his 1937 verdict on the many cocktail contests he had judged: “despite their utter futility, cocktail contests continue in popularity,” though they “as a rule prove nothing at all.” (Having judged a great many of the things myself, I can’t entirely disagree.)

It was in the rest of the column, however, that Fougner really invented modern drinks writing. As early as two weeks into his new job, the Baron swerved aside from his plan in order to answer questions, a whole column’s worth. A week later, he did the same. After Repeal, everyone had questions. Most of them were practical: How do I tell if this wine is genuine? What’s in this weird bottle with the strange writing? Do you know a good punch for a wedding party of 50? What’s this old bottle worth? Are any of these new whiskies worth drinking? Some were off the wall, like the time a reader asked if it was true that most Scotch whisky was actually made in Australia. (Fougner had to put aside his customary inflappable patience and got a little snippy about that one.)

But other questions were a little more interesting, particularly those having to do with origins of various drinks. When Fougner tried to answer readers’ requests for the stories behind them by passing on whatever meager information could be found in the drink books of the day, others began writing in with their own opinions. Often enough, these were no help, mere rumor and speculation. But plenty of times Fougner’s questions elicited testimony from people who had been there at the creation, or close enough, including many bartenders from those misty days before the Great Drought. In short, people who actually knew something—and in many cases, something we still don’t know today.

One example among many is the free-floating discussion of the Daiquiri that began in late 1934 and spilled over into the early months of 1935 (lag time was a lot longer before the Internet), which culminated on Feb. 11 with a letter from one Robert H. Lyman of Cobalt, Ontario. The conventional story of the Daiquiri is that it was invented in Cuba by Jennings Cox, a mining engineer near the town of Daiquiri. Lyman, in fact, was there—one of the Yanqui engineers on Cox’s staff. His letter gives a detailed account of the process that led the “seven bachelors”—Cox and his crew—to create this indispensable classic. The invention, it turns out, wasn’t the result of a flash of individual genius, as the myth holds, but rather of a group effort and a lengthy one due to the infrequency with which they could get the necessary ice.

There are plenty of other good stories in Fougner’s column, including one from a guy who wrote in about a drink his brother had invented in Hoboken back in the 1890s. He was wondering if anyone had ever heard of it (They had: It was the Rob Roy). Then there were the many world travelers who weighed in on the Singapore Sling, proving that there was not one authentic recipe, but rather, as a reader stated, “there are as many Singapore Gin Slings as there are people in Singapore who make them.”

If there’s so much good stuff tucked away in “Along the Wine Trail,” why doesn’t anybody know about it? The answer, I believe, holds a caution for today’s mixographers. Fougner was too busy (and died too soon) to properly secure his legacy. There exists no central repository of his columns. While he edited some of them into pamphlets back in the 1930s and then edited those pamphlets into a book, in the process he cut out most of the good stuff, the detail and the discussion. That leaves us the original pages of the Sun, which means either reading them on microfilm or somehow extracting them from the vast electronic database found at fultonhistory.com. That isn’t easy, as the database doesn’t present the papers issue-by-issue or in chronological order. You just have to fish, but after years of fishing, at best I’ve only managed to collect perhaps a third of Fougner’s columns.

That difficulty of access has kept Baron Fougner in the shadows, nearly unknown to the thriving profession that he almost singlehandedly founded. Somebody oughta write a letter.