Carl Hiaasen: Drinking Rules
The best-selling author and journalist talks about his first adult cocktail, his favorite gins, and how he is mystified by wine.
What was the first drink you ever had? “I literally turned 21 a week before I got my first newspaper job right out of college. I was already married at that point and had a three-year-old kid, so it wasn’t like I was a big partier. I’ll never forget, in the newsroom, the guys said, ‘We got to take the new guy out to have a drink.’ You’re going to think this is nuts, but I had never had a mixed drink before in my life. I didn’t know anything about alcohol. So they took me across the street to the newspaper bar in this small Florida town. Somebody ordered me a Tom Collins, which was fantastic because, as usual, it was about 90 degrees and all those kinds of drinks taste good. I think that was my first adult beverage besides beer.”
Wow! That is amazing. “I will tell you a funny story. My dad died when I was pretty young and he was an attorney. He liked his Jack Daniel’s. I never acquired a taste for it. But when he died, I saw the will and he’d written into it that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes put in a Jack Daniel’s bottle [to be] left on a chair in his law office. And if there was no Jack Daniel’s bottle around, he said just use a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can. I thought that was fantastic. My mom didn’t go for it. We didn’t end up doing that. But I think that’s what he would have loved.”
As a newspaperman for more of your life than not, what do you think is a quintessential newsroom drink? “I go back to when the newsrooms were just what you would see on television. I was lucky enough to be at the Miami Herald when all that was happening. I was working on the investigations team there. We had pretty late deadlines then. You could work late on a story and get it done and go out with everybody and have a drink. I have one drink, it’s Tanqueray & Tonic, and that’s it. I’d have one and whoever else was at the table would have whatever they wanted, some would be drinking bourbon, some of them would be drinking vodka. There wasn’t one thing.”
Have things changed today? “I don’t mean to be nostalgic, but those days are kind of gone. Newsrooms have changed so much. First of all, they’ve shrunk dramatically. They’re more like insurance offices than like the old newsrooms. It was kind of a golden time, sitting around in smoky darkness just talking about editors and how they screwed up the headline on your story. It was a great thing. You had a drink or two and then you’d go home. The mass exodus from the newsroom to the bar—I doubt if it exists much anymore because there are no masses to exodus. Newsrooms are so small.”
Do you ever have a drink while you write? “No. If I had one beer, I couldn’t write a postcard afterward. I don’t know how these guys used to do it, Hemingway and Faulkner. I don’t know, honestly, how they functioned. I’m such a wimp. If I work all day, my wife and I go out and I love to have a Tanqueray & Tonic and it feels great. But if I had it in the morning or the afternoon or any kind of alcohol, I’m telling you the words don’t look the same on paper. Nothing that my brain is spitting out is going to be as sharp or as good if I have any. It requires every ounce of sobriety just for me to get a paragraph right.”
Do you have any tips for making a Gin & Tonic? “I always like the bottles of tonic water instead of [out of a soda gun]. I think the carbonation is better and it’s usually sharper. Once in a while I’ll have Hendrick’s. Hendrick’s is good gin, too. But there are also some brands of gin out there that will take the chrome off a trailer hitch and they taste like it. I don’t drink them. I’m a pretty boring drinker. On most days in Florida nothing tastes better than a Gin & Tonic. The silly thing is, I’m going off on this book tour and I’ll be in Toronto in a couple of weeks and Boston and it might be 60 degrees out and I’ll still order one of those.”
Do you ever drink wine? “I’ve tried to drink some wine. Once in a while I’ll have a glass of red wine with my wife because that’s what she drinks. It’s fine, but I can’t get into the whole wine thing. I can’t be a student of wine and spend a lot of time thinking about it. I write all day. I just want a drink that is friendly and familiar and makes me feel good. I don’t want to have to study a label to figure out what year or where it came from. That’s too much work. I’m too fricking lazy to do that.”
How about beer? “I confess I haven’t gotten into the craft beer trend. I’m sure it’s great. I have sat down with guys, you could name ten craft beers and they could tell you the precise alcohol content of each one. They like to study it. I’m thinking, who has the energy to do that? I don’t want to have to take out a calculator to figure out how much alcohol is in a drink. It’s just too much work. At the end of the day it’s just beer. I haven’t been able to throw myself into that culture. I’m sure it’s generational. I’m sure I’m just an old fart.”
Is it important to you what a character drinks in your novels? “It is important. In Yancy’s case in Razor Girl, he likes Barbancourt Rum. That is a good rum. I’ve been to Haiti many, many years ago and had Barbancourt down there. But Yancy has one precious little bottle of it in his house. He’s not a guy that makes a lot of money. He’s restaurant inspector for god’s sake. He’s on roach patrol. But that’s his thing. It’s his sunset drink. Everybody’s got one in Florida and Barbancourt is his.”
Will you try everything a character orders in one of your books? “I will never have them drink something that I haven’t tasted.”
Carl Hiaasen is the author of dozens of books, including the brand-new Razor Girl: A Novel, and has been writing a column for the Miami Herald since 1985.
Interview has been condensed and edited.