This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” So suggested Robert Benchley, writer, humourist, sometime actor and long-time habitué of the Algonquin round table. Doubtless, for the other denizens of that daily lunchtime ritual, alcohol provided special stimulus to their talents. It helped them on their way with their word games, their pranks, their practical jokes.
It helped Dorothy Parker to wisecrack “one more drink and I’ll be under the host” as well as pen the poem Song in a Minor Key. It helped a number of them, Benchley included, on their way to the next world. For the roaring twenties were in town. For many they were modern. For some they were spiked with methanol. But for everyone the world was on the move, meeting for lunch, meeting for dinner, meeting me in St Louis, in which city Mrs Julius Walsh threw the first ever cocktail party just as the decade dawned.
Cocktails became the calling cards of the smart set who gravitated to New York and the literary milieu surrounding Harold Ross and Jane Grant. As their popularity grew, so did their content and cocktails became zanier, stickier. Mixology was in mode and by the mid-1930s behind every great man stood an even greater bartender. Of course, it could not last forever; nor could Alexander Woollcott, soi-disant spokesman of that bright, brilliant vicious circle of wits who died, cocktail in hand, mid-broadcast on CBS.
By the 70s sticky drinks, like lorgnettes and Lord Lucan, were passé (though “Lucky” never quite got it, with terrible consequences). They were too cosmopolitan and research into congeners, the chemical compounds in alcohol, indicated that convoluted concoctions led ineluctably to hangovers. The beau monde bid them au revoir.
But not adieu. You cannot put a good drink down, and a properly made cocktail is a very good drink — crisp, clinical and revitalising. The 80s witnessed their recovery which as yet brooks no relapse. The best cocktail is a clean one. Mixtures, as opposed to mixers, only lead to complications and should be eschewed. The Commonwealth of Nations can survive perfectly well without a Commonwealth Cocktail of 71 ingredients. After all, the real McCoy boasts only 54 component parts.
You cannot put a good drink down, and a properly made cocktail is a very good drink
The Ramos Gin Fizz, its promoters profess, should be “shaken until you can shake no more”. Yet drink one and you are very likely to shake quite a lot. Similarly, the Strawberry Daiquiri is best left lying with Hemingway’s memory. Better by far is to order a Gibson, gin not vodka based, garnished with two cocktail onions to give it that essential slight astringency. If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it is good enough for you.
And if you are going to sink a cocktail for the first time, stick to some simple rules: First, clear alcohol; avoid unnecessary decoration and adulteration. Second, drink it dry; stickiness is a signpost to sickliness. Finally, no more than three; you will be unable to find your way home. With a Gibson to hand you can imagine yourself poised elegantly in the Oak Room at the Plaza, or in the dining car of the Twentieth Century, en route to Chicago, explaining with elongated insouciance to an ever-alluring Eve-Marie Saint that the O in Roger O Thornhill stands for “nothing”.
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