Conflicted Heroes

The Bigot Who Wrote a Cocktail Bible

David Embury’s cocktail book is immensely influential, but his vile bigotry undermines his legacy.

Public Domain

David Embury was the modern bar world’s most influential non-bartender. He did not make drinks or spirits; he drank them. He did so with great gusto and in impressive quantity, and, more importantly, with considerable discrimination.

Of course, that was true of generations of barflies. But few others set their preferences down in print, and none did it with such brio and formidable opinion as Embury. His 1948 book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, is both lodestar and landmark, rising from the rubble of post-Prohibition drinks manuals to persist and endure and educate a new generation of bartender and drinker. (It was re-released a few years ago by Cocktail Kingdom; original copies of the book sell for hundreds of dollars.) 

I first stumbled upon Embury by happenstance. More than a decade ago I was working on a book, And a Bottle of Rum, covering 400 years of rum history, and I had arrived late and somewhat out of breath at the 20th century. Pirates and the American revolution and the ugly history of the slave trade turned out to be mires more quaggy than I’d anticipated, and my deadline was looming.

Surely, I would find a book that would provide brief but solid insight into how people drank after Prohibition? At a local college library in Maine where I’d wangled borrowing privileges, I searched under “cocktails” and found precisely one book on the shelf: a first edition Embury, it turned out. I checked it out, and kept it checked out for nearly half a year.

And I returned to it time and again, keeping it both on my desk and bedside table. Embury was a pleasingly dyspeptic writer, full of opinions and not in the least bit shy about sharing them. Most cocktail guides I’d seen were anodyne and lacking a multi-dimensional personality. Harry Johnson was all Germanic cranky efficiency; Mr. Boston is a stuff shirt know-it-all. Embury, however, was perfectly content being Embury, someone who knew what he liked and, more to the point, what he didn’t. 

Embury was the uncle who was witty in an acerbic way when he drank, throwing darts that landed while avoiding the nastier brimstone and fire-breathing of lesser drinkers. Great writers can leave you feeling like they were long-lost members of your extended family, and that’s how I felt with Embury.

My initial instincts when it came to cocktails, something I knew little about when I started the book, was to like everything—I wanted to embrace all spirits and bitters and unusual mixings. When I tasted something unpleasant, I regarded it as my own personal flaw. What was I not getting about this drink? Embury helped cure me of this. When he disapproved of something—and there was much he disapproved of—he let me know, and he gave me cover to do the same.

Many modern mixologists have been upfront about their dislike of boring vodka, as if this disapproval were an edgy and contemporary thing. Embury beat them by six decades; “It is hard to conceive of any worse cocktail monstrosity than the vodka martini, the vodka old-fashioned, or vodka on the rocks,” he wrote. “If you don’t like the taste of liquor,” he asked, “why drink it?”

Nor was Embury much for Canadian whisky—“Just a brief word about Canadian whisky (which, in my opinion, is all it deserves)…” He did not think highly of pisco (“another grape brandy that I definitely do not recommend”), adding, “I am told that it is quite popular in Peru—which is one reason I am satisfied to remain in the United States.” He held the Zombie, a tiki classic, in special contempt: “This is undoubtedly the most overadvertised, overemphasized, overexalted, and foolishly feared drink whose claims to glory ever assaulted the eyes and ears of the gullible American public.”

Embury also held firm opinions about technique, including the shaking of drinks with vermouth (“will result in a cloudy, muddy, disgusting-looking drink”). And he preferred high-proof spirits for the common-sense reason that no one wants to pay for water or lug it back from the liquor store. “You can get it much cheaper from a kitchen faucet or—if you live in the country—from the well in the backyard.”

I found that I trusted him in large part because he was so opinionated, even if I didn’t always agree with him. (I’ve always liked pisco.) Cocktail writing can be like travel writing—the writing generally skews toward banal cheerleading, presumably on the theory that people don’t want to read about where not to go, just as they don’t want to read about what not to drink. But how can you trust someone unless you know their dislikes as well as their likes?

Embury helped teach me how to abhor, which is a sadly underappreciated skill. It is, essentially, graduate-level discernment, something that comes with confidence. (I later found other helpful teachers of the floridly discriminate opinion, including Kingsley Amis, Bernard DeVoto, and newspaper columnist Robert Ruark.)

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“I would sing the praises of discrimination,” Embury once said. “I love the discriminating tongue, the discriminating eye, the discriminating ear, and, above all, the discriminating mind.”

I came upon that last quote more recently, while digging into some archives trying to learn more about Embury the man, and it made me rethink my views of him and his work. A Wall Street attorney during the day, he also served as the chairman of the National Interfraternity Conference, an association of college fraternities, in 1947. In the 1940s, the desegregation of society’s institutions was getting underway in earnest, and Embury had some opinions about integration. He was dead-set against it. Just as he voiced his dislike of keeping company with vodka and Canadian whisky, he spoke up about his preference to avoid fraternizing with those of different races, creeds, and religions.

“I think that every bird-lover must admire both the red-breasted robin and the golden oriole… No one, however, expects to find both of them in the same nest,” he wrote in 1948, the same year his book was published, and, then, regrettably, he went on: “Keep in mind that whenever you get close social conduct, marriage invariably results… Negroes dancing with your sisters and sweethearts.”

Every hero has a flaw. At times this knocks them off a pedestal and makes them more human and likable. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s hard to know where to put all this about Embury. To say that Embury was merely a product of his time is to let him off too lightly. (Sexism also creeps into his writing.) But to dismiss everything he wrote because of his repugnant opinions on matters unrelated to drink seems draconian, especially since his cocktails book has helped shape a diverse generation of modern bartenders.

H.L. Mencken was a racist and anti-Semite, and Frank Lloyd Wright was also given to letting loose with racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Embury was a fan of discrimination. And all were giants in their field but can we now view their accomplishments without thinking of their prejudice?

For me, Embury became family first and a bigot only much later. He became the uncle who aged poorly, and started spouting nastiness at the holiday table, going on about classes of people he didn’t much like. But, as with family, I still find it hard to show him to the door. (Although, at least one writer I know has completely written him and his book off.)

So each time I taste a craft spirit that should never have been put in a bottle, or sip a cocktail without a single discernible flavor and a name too clever by half, I tip my glass begrudgingly to Embury, who first gave me permission to detest. It’s just that now the aftertaste tends to last longer and be more bitter.