How's Your Drink?
Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well
by Eric Felten
Agate Surrey, 200 pp., $20
"How's your drink?" was, apparently, the cordial question asked of his guests by Frank Sinatra, who didn't like to think of anyone going short. "How's your glass?" was the equivalent question (and, later, book title) in the case of Kingsley Amis, whose domestic strategy later boiled down to telling his more favored friends that if they didn't have a full drink in their hands, it was their own bloody fault for not refilling without waiting to be asked.
That book was actually a quiz book, in which you could be asked "From what does Scotch receive its color?" or "What happens to a vintage port before and after bottling?" The answers were helpfully included at the end, often with a cheery wealth of extra detail, so the volume doubled as a guide and general adviser as well. But Amis also wrote two other drinkers-companion efforts, entitled Every Day Drinking and On Drink. (Interest declared: All these will soon be reissued in a handy single volume by Bloomsbury, with an introduction by your humble servant.)
Eric Felten doesn't write as well as Kingsley Amis, which is no disgrace (he is a jazz musician, an occupation for which Amis had a high regard) but he does have a feel for literature as it relates to booze, and he has been out there on our behalf and done an awful lot of homework. His book, which is a distillation, if I may put it like that, of his celebrated Wall Street Journal column of the same name, is by far the wittiest and the most comprehensive study of the subject since the author of Lucky Jim laid down his pen.
(By the way, a "Lucky Jim," according to Felten, is "3 oz. vodka, oz. dry vermouth, oz. cucumber juice: Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Float a slice of unpeeled cucumber on the top." A bit herbivorous when compared to its namesake, but there you have it.)
It's always a good plan to see how an author handles a topic with which you are yourself familiar. So I began by looking up "Negroni": a favorite tipple of mine either on sunny days or in Mediterranean countries (it won't work in cold or gray conditions). I had always been authoritatively told that this cryptically effective cocktail--gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth--was so named because a certain Count Negroni once found himself with unexpected guests and with only those three ingredients at hand. Thanks to Felten, I now know a good deal better. It seems that Count Camillo Negroni was a drinker of Americanos--the cocktail, you may remember, that James Bond actually asks for in Casino Royale. But one day he tired of the blandness of campari, vermouth, and a swoosh of soda, and asked the barman at the Caffè Casoni in Florence--a man named Fosco Scarselli--to put a spike of gin in it. Like so many improvisations of genius, this was simple and easily emulated. (Though I should leave out the soda if I were you.)
Felten then goes on to elucidate the role played by the Negroni in the film version of Tennessee Williams's novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, where it acts the part of accomplice to a gigolo, and in the novel version of Christopher Buckley's movie Thank You For Smoking, where in its vodka incarnation it acts as a prop and stay to the villainous lobbyist Nick Naylor. Buckley is quoted as saying that he himself has "been known to drink a [vodka] Negroni or two (but never three)" because "it signals a certain, shall we say, suavity, refinement, je ne sais quoi, sophistication, to say nothing of startling good looks and abundant masculinity. Unlike those girlie-men who drink Gin Negronis."
Well, everything had been going fine for me up until that point. But, secure enough in my own huskiness, I shall pardon young Buckley because he provides a segue--actually two segues--to an important subtext. This is the fraught question of cocktails and sex or, if you like, cocktails and gender.
His remark about one or two but never three has been, I hope, lifted from my own axiom about the relationship between martinis and female breasts. One is too few. Three is too many. Two seems somehow superbly right. His second observation, about the girlie factor, is something that greatly preoccupies Felten. When all is said, isn't there something very slightly fussy about all this mixing and shaking and measuring: something, perhaps, fractionally light in the loafers?
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.