I’ve been a drinks writer for a very long time.
I first started writing about cocktails and spirits and their (mostly) amusing histories at the end of 1999. When the Supreme Court halted the recount of Florida ballots at the end of 2000, thus awarding the presidency to George W. Bush, I was a drinks writer. When passenger planes brought down the World Trade Center towers and smashed into the Pentagon, I was a drinks writer. When American tanks rolled into Baghdad; when the economy threw itself out of a high window; when we voted Barack Obama into the White House (remember that?); when he watched from the Situation Room as American troops caught and killed Osama bin Laden; I was a drinks writer.
And, God help me, I’m still a drinks writer, even as America and the world are forced to abide within one little man’s unsleeping, unsparing, and unendurable psychomachia; his savage internal Seventy Years’ War.
Now, it hardly seems an adequate response to the high drama of the times to sit down and write little histories of the Clover Club cocktail or some brand of rye whiskey; to diagram the proper way to cut a lime for a Caipirinha or give tasting notes on six modern gins.
Looking through my files, I see I wrote a little column for Esquire.com on the Boilermaker on September 17, 2001. There was still ash then in my Brooklyn backyard, just over two miles from Ground Zero. On April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell, I was invoicing Wine & Spirits magazine for a piece titled “Swizzle In and Swagger Out, or Rum and How to Mix It.” And so on.
Am I proud of this? Let’s just say that when I read the Parable of the Talents in the book of Matthew, and I get to the “wicked and slothful servant” who dug in the earth and hid the money his master had entrusted him with rather than investing it and making it grow, I tend to flip the page pretty quick. I’m not exactly writing novels that open hidden hatches deep in the American soul to let in the clean, cleansing sunlight that will kill the fungus inside, or editorials that rally my divided and afraid fellow citizens to come together and embrace their better natures.
But then again, I’m not ashamed of it either. There are plenty of serious novelists out there; dozens, hundreds, thousands. Yet after all that sunlight, the American soul is just as dank and fungus-ridden as it ever was. And don’t get me started on editorials. In fact, in tough times there are far more unhelpful things to be writing about than mixing drinks. In wartime, people like to drink; need to drink. It’s not just the alcohol; it’s the rituals of drinking, the place in your life where there’s a little bit of control and a little bit of anticipation that isn’t tinged with dread. Where you can enjoy the present moment, either alone or—better—in a room full of people doing the same thing, and forget for just a few minutes about the savagery unleashed in the world. Anything that helps people have those little moments is not a bad thing.
I’m not the first person to think this, of course. These days, I find Richard Manson often coming to mind. Manson was born in New York City (as Richard Rozoff) in 1901 and went to Columbia University. In 1934, he got a job at the New York Post as their music editor, a job that involved knowing an awful lot about Classical music and hob-nobbing with Toscanini and whatnot. He was good at that, particularly at the editing part, so the paper made him assistant to the managing editor. But then, around 1939, he got put in charge of the “amusement department.” Every day, he had a couple of pages to fill with concert notices and reviews, celebrity gossip and the popular “Going Out Tonight?” column, which he wrote. That meant spending a hell of a lot of time in restaurants, cocktail lounges, hotel bars, nightclubs and wherever else people went to cut loose a little.
At the beginning of 1941, Manson added a little box to his “Going Out Tonight?” column: “Today’s Toast,” it was titled, in a jaunty little font with either a highball or a cocktail glass separating the words. Underneath was a brief paragraph giving a drink recipe and telling the reader whose recipe it was and where that person worked. It didn’t run every day, but it certainly ran most of them. I don’t have copies of every recipe Manson printed, but the hundred-odd I do are a priceless look at what New York was drinking from the beginning of 1941 until early 1943.
Those were difficult years. Even though America didn’t enter World War II until the end of 1941, by the beginning of that year France had fallen to the Nazis, along with Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. London had been bombed relentlessly, Coventry smashed to rubble, and England was fighting desperately to get supply ships in through a pitiless cordon of Nazi submarines.
In, say, Omaha, all of that would have seemed pretty far away. But New York has always maintained close ties with Paris and London and a great many New Yorkers had relatives living under Nazi siege or occupation. And, it’s true, there were also a good many with relatives in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy or Stalin’s Russia. Either way, it was impossible to ignore the war that was coming and anxiety ran high.
Even in mid-1941, you can see the war anxiety reflected in some of the drinks Manson printed, such as the “Flying Fortress,” the simple Champagne drink the East Side branch of the popular Ruby Foo’s Chinese restaurant named after the Army Air Corps’s new 4-engine strategic bomber (touted as being able to sink any approaching invasion fleet), or the “V-Cocktail” from the Rustic Inn in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, (just across the Hudson from Manhattan): “three dots of orange juice and a dash of bitters” (“. . . –” is of course how you say “V” in Morse code), plus applejack, lemon juice and sugar, served up.
Then came Pearl Harbor, and everyone’s fears were realized. But daily life still went on, and people needed those drinks even more. Manson kept the column going, day in and day out. And while there were plenty of drinks such as the “American Bomber” and the “Blackout,” the “Commando” and the “Stalingrad Stinger” (Russia having been in the war since June, 1941), there were also a whole lot of regular cocktails. Most of them were nothing fancy: it was wartime, and ingredients were scarce. Things such as brandy and Cointreau that were once imported were now domestic, and anything but the basics was getting increasingly hard to find. But Manson’s recipes show us that New York’s bartenders were tending their bars, mixing up new drinks, maintaining a precious sense of normalcy, a link to a world that hadn’t been torn up by the roots and dropped over the side of a cliff. And part of that maintaining was letting people know what was good to drink and where they could find it. Manson’s job might not have been impressive, but it wasn’t unimportant.
But there comes a time when that’s not enough. In October, 1942, when things were looking darkest for the Allies (and, fortunately, right before the battles of El Alamein and then Stalingrad turned the tide against Hitler and his armies), Richard Manson, age 40, went to a recruiting office and joined the Army. They made him a Sergeant in the 12th Armored Division, in the artillery. (Meanwhile, Earl Wilson took his old job, but Wilson was more interested in broads than booze and he let Today’s Toast peter out.) The 12th Armored saw a lot of fighting in France and Germany, and Manson, nightclub editor and all, was in the thick of it. He received a field promotion and a Bronze Star.
So maybe there’s a limit to this drink writing stuff, a point past which the world is just too crazy for it to make any sense. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but let’s just say I’m learning Morse code. (For what it’s worth, Manson survived the war and went back to the Post, becoming managing editor; he died of a stress-induced stroke in 1954, but that’s another column.)
Oh, and Today’s Toast? Let’s go with that American Bomber, from “Harry,” bartender at the late, lamented Bill’s Gay Nineties on 54th Street.
1.5 oz Straight rye whiskey
1.5 oz Dubonnet Rouge (or Byrrh)
1 teaspoon Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Garnish: Lemon peel twist
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.