The Magazine

At the Filling Station

Stirred, not shaken, by the drinking arts.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Borrowing from an old Esquire distinction, he suggests that masculine cocktails involve whiskey whereas feminine ones "lean heavily on cream, fruit juices and crème de this-and-that." That seems fair enough, except that both he and Kingsley Amis (about whom there was nothing limp-wristed) demonstrate a high degree of affection for the "Irish Coffee" cocktail and the exquisitely careful means of making it. Of course whiskey, which Felten calls "that least feminine-seeming of spirits," is involved, so the honors here can be reckoned as about even.

Negronis to one side, and Ameri canos being as un-American as could be, there is still a sense in which the whole concept of the cocktail is an American one. As often as not, the cocktail bar in a decent European hotel will be called "The American Bar." The word cocktail itself is of American provenance, though rather vague in origin. I think the invention must have something to do with the distinctly American passion for plentiful ice: a commodity that was until fairly recently in niggardly supply in overseas bars and pubs. And somehow, one can't picture the martini being evolved in any other culture.

For any fooling around with the said and beloved martini--especially the sickly new tendency to put the "tini" suffix onto something insipid (like "appletini")--Felten has zero tolerance. His long section on the subject is taut and muscular and matter-of-fact. He reviews the work of the no-or-nearly-no vermouth school, uncharacteristically missing the chance to cite Luis Buñuel's advice to merely let a ray of sunshine through the vermouth bottle into the gin, but comes down in favor of a decent dollop and gives cogent reasons for his verdict as well as a very good selection of recipes and some hard thinking on the subject lifted (with attribution) from Bernard De Voto.

Occasionally his writing falls into a slight archness (I have always found the term "mixologist" for "bartender" to be wince-making) and he overuses terms like "so the story goes" and "legend has it," but in general this book is a superb guide to the world of the cocktail, and a handsome tribute to the bold society that produced it.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for
Vanity Fair.