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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