How Ernest Hemingway Taught the World to Drink
On Hemingway’s 117th birthday, Philip Greene, who wrote the book on Papa and cocktails, argues that the famed author changed how we all drink.
Like that old poem about the six blind men, each perceiving an elephant in vastly different ways (a snake! a wall! a spear!), so it is when it comes to people’s perspectives on Ernest Hemingway.
Indeed, he taught the world to write; his distinctive use of short, declarative sentences influenced many generations of young writers. He taught the world to hunt and fish: From trout streams up in Michigan to trophy marlin and tuna in the Caribbean to big game on the African veldt, his vivid depictions of these experiences inspired many to wet a hook or shoulder a rifle. He brought the drama and tragedy of bullfighting to the world and prompted many to journey to Pamplona to run with the beasts.
His love of travel motivated many more to follow in his footsteps. Ventures in Chicago, Michigan, the Great American West, Italy, France, Bimini, Cuba, China and, of course, Africa informed his writings with exploits worthy of any Lonely Planet guide.
And, of course, he taught the world to drink.
I am speaking of quality, mind you, not quantity. Hemingway, who would have turned 117 today, was no stranger to excess, and I routinely caution that while one should experience the wide array of drinks he brought to us, it should be done in moderation. That said, if you want to try to break the house record he set at the Floridita in Havana in 1942—17 double frozen daiquiris downed in one sitting—be my guest!
As a young reader, I found myself drawn to a handful of novelists who used food and, specifically, drink, as an effective means of developing a character, a scene, a mood or other elements of the story. If it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s depiction of cocktails on the lawn at one of Gatsby’s soirees, or James Bond relaxing in Jamaica with a gin & tonic or Hemingway’s Robert Jordan de-stressing with an absinthe after a day of combat in For Whom the Bell Tolls, I clamored to learn more about the sophisticated culture of cocktails and couldn’t wait to be old enough to try one.
In my view, it was Hemingway who most deftly used drinks to unlock the mysteries of the world. He traveled globally, imbibed locally, and his choice of drinks offered a diverse palette: grappa, marsala, and Campari in Italy; limes, coconut water, or rum in Cuba and the Keys; cognac, Armagnac, the Chambéry Cassis, Pernod and marc in France; Anis del Mono, aguardiente, amontillado, or Fundador in Spain.
Hemingway was never content to simply tell us that drinks were being had. We learned what characters were drinking and it enriched the entire reading experience. If you didn’t pause to look up the definitions of some of the concoctions (fine à l’eau, anyone?), you missed half the fun.
He also used drinks to express a mood. Take the role of the martini in A Farewell to Arms: The protagonist, Frederic Henry, after defecting from his unit in World War I and months of suffering the horrors of war, he longs to feel normal again, to just… tune out. Wearing civilian clothes for the first time in ages, he sits at the bar, sips his drink.
"The martini felt cool and clean… I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. I had had too much red wine, bread, cheese, bad coffee, and grappa. I sat on the high stool before the pleasant mahogany, the brass, and the mirrors and did not think at all.”
The martini is again a barometer of mood in Across the River and Into the Trees, where we find two star-crossed lovers enjoying an evening for perhaps the last time. After that first sip of the cocktail, “they felt them glow happily all through their upper bodies,” the drink having brought them “warmth and its momentary destruction of sorrow.”
My advice, if you’re revisiting the Hemingway you read in school, is to do so with an eye toward enjoying the rich variety of drinks his characters enjoy—which could result in you finding the experience that much more satisfying. Cheers!