A Toast to Cocktails in Literature

Benjamin Wright



The cocktail, that delicate blend of liquors that has become such a fixture in contemporary culture, has long been the delight of writers and artists. While the first recorded use of the word “cock-tail” is dated back to 1798, it was not until the 19th century that the cocktail began to attain some cultural significance, with the first bartender’s guide appearing in print in 1862. By the early 20th century, the cocktail began to achieve a more celebrated role with cocktail parties becoming common fare in the years immediately following the First World War, and continuing discreetly throughout the 1920s, despite the Volstead Act, which established prohibition throughout the United States. In literature, while alcoholic beverages (particularly wine) have been referenced since early written history (both in the Eastern and Western tradition), it was not until relatively recently that the mixed drink was first mentioned in literature, and rarely with any memorable description.


Throughout the works of Russian writers, like Tolstoy and Chekhov, the characters drink vodka like there is no tomorrow, and also wine, as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Mead, the delicious honey wine first created by the ancients, played a significant role in Beowulf, with Beowulf, the hero, defending the king’s mead hall against the terrifying beast, Grendel. In works like Steinbeck’s classic moral tale, The Pearl, the featured drink of choice is pulque, a beverage made from the maguey plant’s fermented sap. In yet other works, the favored libation was whisky, beer, grappa, champagne or absinthe. Yet, the mixed drink was nowhere to be found.

Some writers were known for their famous alcoholic addictions and their related downfalls. The French symbolists, for instance, – Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire – were often associate with absinthe, which Verlaine blamed for many of his personal demons, including his tumultuous love affair with Rimbaud. When we think of Fitzgerald, it is often difficult not to also think of gin, which he allegedly preferred because he believed it did not taint one’s breath as did other spirits. Faulkner, being the glorious Southerner that he was, is said to have been quite fond of his mint juleps. And Hemingway was such a renowned lush that he was associated with many a drink, including his said favorite, the mojito, and some that he allegedly invented, including the Papa Doble – a daiquiri made with rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur – and Death in the Afternoon – a fitting name for a blend of  champagne and absinthe.


While the biographies of many writers, and their personal correspondences, suggest that they were quite fond of the bottle, it is particularly interesting to see how cocktails have found their way into the works of modern literature – not just alcohol or spirits, but that sticky blend of two or more ingredients that achieved its prominence in the relatively recent past.


Perhaps the most memorable drink in literature is the martini. It appears in many works of fiction, notably the Vesper martini in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the “very strong [. . .] and very well-made” drink that James Bond orders with precise instructions: “A dry martini [. . .] In a deep champagne goblet. [. . .] Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”


In John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday (1954), the follow-up to Cannery Row (1945), the martini reappears with yet another twist from the classic version. While Doc and Suzy are waiting for their wine to cool, Doc orders two “Webster F. Street Lay-Away Plans” – “a martini made with chartreuse instead of vermouth.” It certainly sounds better than the beer milkshake that Doc abashedly orders in Cannery Row.


In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), the characters are perpetually drunk, quaffing everything from the always memorable martini, wine, grappa, absinthe, beer and brandy to Anis del Mono and “a Basque liqueur called Izzarra,” not to mention the Jack Rose, – a combination of applejack, grenadine and lime juice – which Jake Barnes orders while awaiting the arrival of the “damned good-looking” Lady Brett Ashley.   


Catcher in the Rye (1951), the archetypal story of teenage angst, also pays homage to the martini, which Carl Luce – one of Holden Caulfield’s many “phony” acquaintances – orders “very dry” with “no olive” at the Wicker Bar in the “swanky” Seton Hotel. Meanwhile, Caulfield was already lit after drinking a couple of scotch and sodas, which he ordered standing up so that the “lous[y]” bartender wouldn’t think he was a “goddamn minor.”


Try to escape martinis though we may, they also appear in Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Holly Golightly “tapp[ing] an empty martini glass. ‘Two more, my darling Mr. Bell.’” Many other libations also grace the pages of Capote’s comically tragic story about the charmingly naive Holly Golightly. Upon news of “Fred” the narrator’s upcoming publication, Holly and “Fred” enjoy “Manhattans at Joe Bell’s,” and when Joe hears of Fred’s good news, they get “champagne cocktails on the house.” But no drink gets quite so much attention from the author as the White Angel, a kicker of a martini that Capote describes approximately five pages into his novella as “Something new [. . .] one-half vodka, one-half gin, no vermouth.”


Kurt Vonnegut’s wildly funny Breakfast of Champions (1973) also has no shortage of cocktails. While crazed Pontiac dealer and Burger Chef franchise owner Dwayne Hoover orders his “customary drink, which was a House of Lords martini with a twist of lemon peel,” parolee Wayne Hoobler overhears many of the other drinks ordered in the Holiday Inn cocktail lounge in Midland City, Ohio, including: “Gilbey’s and quinine with a twist,” a Manhattan, a Brandy Alexander, a Sloe Gin Fizz, a Johnny Walker Rob Roy, “Southern Comfort on the rocks, and a Bloody Mary with Wolfschmidt’s.” The author of the book, appearing as a character, orders a “Black and White and water.”


Sticking with books that have no shortage of alcohol, one can almost get drunk or high by simply reading Hunter S. Thompson’s classic 1971 work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s almost impossible not to when Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo are making a road trip from Southern California to Las Vegas with “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.” Throughout the book, the main characters drink everything from “two cuba libres with beer and mescal on the side” to Bloody Marys. At least they also brought along plenty of grapefruit to get their daily intake of Vitamin C: healthy choice.


Jack Kerouac, like many writers, was no stranger to the bottle. He drank more than enough wine to make Dionysius swell with pride, applying the Latin maxim in vino veritas, in The Dharma Bums (1958): “There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!” But The Dharma Bums was more about transcendence and Zen Buddhism without the many drug and alcohol frills of his earlier classic, On the Road (1957). In that earlier work, when Sal and Dean aren’t getting high on tea or jazz they’re getting tight. At a bar in San Francisco, Dean and Sal hang out with “a colored guy called Walter who ordered drinks at the bar and had them lined up and said, ‘Wine-spodiodi!’ which was a shot of port wine, a shot of whisky, and a shot of port wine.” Though it does not seem from the description that it is served in true cocktail form, wine-spodiodi can be and often is mixed together and served up cocktail-style in all of its syrupy sweetness.


Finally, not without missing more than a few cocktail references along the way, no discussion of cocktails in literature would be complete without mention of Fitzgerald’s classic tale of Jazz Age decadence, The Great Gatsby (1925). At Gatsby’s fêtes, many unnamed cocktails often float along on trays, but in the drunken fun of the seventh chapter, we encounter two cocktails by name. The first is the gin rickey – actually four of them – a mix of gin (Fitzgerald’s liquor of choice), carbonated water and lime juice. The second is the mint julep, the suggestion of Daisy Buchanan, a combination of whisky, water, sugar and mint.


In good books we not only find interesting plots, wonderful prose, and character development, but we can often find some sort of wisdom or truth. This is true to some extent or another whether we are reading about Tolstoyan free will, Sal and Dean’s perpetual quest for “It,” Chekhovian philosophies on life, the moral lessons of Steinbeck or the rich allegories found in Melville’s prose.  In this sense, we can crudely turn Kerouac’s appropriation of the Latin maxim in vino veritas on its head and say that just as there is wisdom in wine, so too there is plenty of wine in wisdom, and a generous order of martinis, too. Next time we enjoy a libation, let’s raise our glasses and give a toast to cocktails in literature. In the celebratory cup-tapping words of Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley: “Bung-o!”


Author Bio:
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Arnaud H, GrizDave, the Culinary Geek, Chris Palmer, CayUSA (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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