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Daniel Macklin, Henry Jeffreys on Kinglsey Amis, Everyday DrinkingDaniel Macklin, Henry Jeffreys on Kinglsey Amis, Everyday Drinking

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Sayre’s Law states: ‘In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.’ I’ve noticed this in the world of booze. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned, very seriously. For a writer on the subject, there are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach and admit that in the end it doesn’t really matter. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto.

I am sure that for most readers Amis needs no introduction but I’d never heard of DeVoto before my wife gave me a small hardback called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. I later learned that DeVoto was a historian and journalist of some repute in America. He won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; he edited the letters of Mark Twain; and for twenty years he had a column in Harper’s Magazine. Worthy though all this is, I cannot imagine it gave the world as much pleasure as this slim volume, first published in 1948.

The book is in four parts: a short history of American drinking, followed by the correct way to make drinks, the wrong way to make drinks, and an ode to the joys of the cocktail hour. Born in 1897, DeVoto would have known the old tavern culture of New York and caught the end of the golden age of the cocktail, and he would have seen both destroyed by Prohibition. He would also have frequented speakeasies and known the deep sadness of being unable to find good liquor. But when I say the first section is a history, actually it’s more of a riff on history. Reading DeVoto, one has to indulge in a kind of cognitive dissonance. He both means it and doesn’t mean it. The trick lies in realizing that while he is winking at you, he is also

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Sayre’s Law states: ‘In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.’ I’ve noticed this in the world of booze. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned, very seriously. For a writer on the subject, there are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach and admit that in the end it doesn’t really matter. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto.

I am sure that for most readers Amis needs no introduction but I’d never heard of DeVoto before my wife gave me a small hardback called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto. I later learned that DeVoto was a historian and journalist of some repute in America. He won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; he edited the letters of Mark Twain; and for twenty years he had a column in Harper’s Magazine. Worthy though all this is, I cannot imagine it gave the world as much pleasure as this slim volume, first published in 1948. The book is in four parts: a short history of American drinking, followed by the correct way to make drinks, the wrong way to make drinks, and an ode to the joys of the cocktail hour. Born in 1897, DeVoto would have known the old tavern culture of New York and caught the end of the golden age of the cocktail, and he would have seen both destroyed by Prohibition. He would also have frequented speakeasies and known the deep sadness of being unable to find good liquor. But when I say the first section is a history, actually it’s more of a riff on history. Reading DeVoto, one has to indulge in a kind of cognitive dissonance. He both means it and doesn’t mean it. The trick lies in realizing that while he is winking at you, he is also deadly serious. Take his view on whiskey, for example: for DeVoto it is the true American spirit. It brings the country together. Whether you’re a Northerner or a Southerner, Republican or Democrat, everything is better after a whiskey: ‘and I’ll have mine with soda but not drowned. The barb is blunted, the knife sheathed . . . in a few minutes we will see each other as we truly are, sound men, stout hearts, lovers of the true and upholders of the good.’ This is the DeVoto style, soaring, heroic but with a gleam in the eye. Better even than whiskey (rye or bourbon, not Scotch) is ‘that other supreme American gift to world culture, the Martini’. His preferred ratio is 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth with lemon oil expressed over the drink but no twist in it, no olives and certainly no onions, and he does not like them made in advance: ‘you can no more keep a Martini in the refrigerator than you can keep a kiss there’. This is what you read DeVoto for, his pedantry and his magical prose style that always stays the right side of purple. It’s like making a Dry Martini – too much gin and the magic is spoiled. A Martini should be sufficiently strong to make us believe that ‘if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn. But it would not be a Martini if we should see him.’ The Hour is full of images like this. Just as important as the proper way to make a cocktail are the drinks to be avoided: ‘Remember that the three abominations are: (1) rum, (2) any other sweet drink, and (3) any mixed drink except one made of gin and dry vermouth in the ratio I have given.’ DeVoto abhors the kind of suburban drinkers who have a bar with a sign on it saying ‘Danger: Men Drinking’ and stirrers shaped like naked ladies, and who make lurid sweet cocktails from recipes found in cookbooks and household magazines. He even has names for them – Chuck and Mabel. So yes, he’s a bit of an urban snob, disdaining the provincials: ‘The Martini is a city dweller, metropolitan, all cultural subtleties belong to the city . . .’ But he’s also wonderfully poetical about the transformative powers of alcohol: ‘how fastidiously cold a second Martini is to the palate but how warm to the heart’. And he never rules out a third: ‘Certainly I’ll have another one . . . one more, and then with a spirit made whole again in a cleansed world, to dinner.’ Doesn’t an evening with DeVoto sound fun? If DeVoto is the bard of the cocktail hour, then Kingsley Amis is the poet of the following day. You’d expect the man who wrote the famous hangover scene in Lucky Jim to write well about alcohol, and he doesn’t disappoint. Everyday Drinking (1983) is made up of three collections of articles: On Drink, Every Day Drinking [sic] and How’s Your Glass? You can safely ignore the last part which is made up of a series of quizzes but the first two are well worth your time. In many ways, Amis is the anti-DeVoto. Indeed, he wrote the kind of magazine drinks columns that DeVoto despised. DeVoto has an American generosity about him but with Amis there’s a pinched stinginess. DeVoto writes: ‘if you can’t serve good liquor to a lot of people, serve good liquor to a few people’, but Amis says you should go for quantity rather than quality. Amis’s Christmas Punch, where he tells readers to ‘cut all the corners you can’, sounds particularly revolting, and the Lucky Jim cocktail that he invented involves, of all things, cucumber juice. But you’re not reading Amis for his advice, you’re reading him because he’s funny. Here, for example, is his recommendation for a boozing man’s diet: ‘The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you some weight without reducing your alcohol intake by the smallest degree.’ Inevitably, the chapter on the hangover is a highlight: ‘A hangover is the result of a shock to the system, chiefly from alcohol, sure, but also from fatigue – lack of sleep, burning up energy in ridiculous and shameful activities like dancing – and thirdly from other poisons contained in tobacco.’ Amis divides the hangover into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical, in which ‘guilt and shame are prominent constituents’. For spiritual solace, he suggests reading P. G. Wodehouse and listening to Mozart. If such a disparate collection of writing could be said to have a unifying theme, it’s a battle against what Amis calls the ‘tyranny of wine’. When he wrote these columns, Britain was at last becoming a wine-drinking country. I remember the change myself: my grandparents drank whisky and ginger ale, or brandy and soda, whereas my parents drank wine. When Amis had to write about wine, which he was often paid (very handsomely, I imagine) to do, he could never resist ridiculing the mystique surrounding it. He was particularly scathing about wine connoisseurs: ‘you can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant. After that, watch out . . .’ Perhaps the best chapter in the book is on Boozemanship: ‘the art of coming out ahead when any question of drinking expertise or experience arises’, inspired by Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship. This is Amis’s tactic for dealing with a wine bore:
Wait for someone to drop a grain of knowledge, and work the old jujitsu trick of turning his strength to your advantage . . . As soon as he mentions tannin . . . shush everyone and say: ‘Listen, chaps, here’s a chance for us all to learn something. Carry on, Percy’ – the equivalent of dropping him on his head. When he’s finished, which should be pretty soon, ask a lot of questions, the more elementary the better, like: ‘does that make it good or bad?’ . . . The object is to make knowing about wine seem like an accomplishment on the level of knowing about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica . . .
Amis’s book is more dated than DeVoto’s, perhaps because it contains contemporary references to ‘Cyprus sherry’ and a cocktail called Reginald Bosanquet Golden Elixir. There is, however, much in his writings of which DeVoto would have approved. Both men abhorred fruit juice in cocktails and they both championed the Martini, though Amis drank his at a whopping 15 parts gin to vermouth, and, heretically, made it in advance. If you want serious advice on cocktails, I’d suggest you get a handbook, but if you want to enjoy two superb writers letting their hair down a bit, I’d recommend both books. Just don’t take everything in them too seriously.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Henry Jeffreys 2020


About the contributor

Henry Jeffreys likes his Martinis wet, five parts gin to one part vermouth, and always stirred not shaken. He hopes his new book, The Cocktail Dictionary, will find more than a niche market.

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