New Year’s Eve is traditionally a night for funny hats, noisemakers, balloons and champagne. It’s an aspirational holiday, one that yearns to re-create the Jazz Age, that time of stylish nightclubs with big bands, of chic couples dining at the Starlight Room while a tuxedoed Nick Charles — as played by William Powell in the “Thin Man” movies — offers a novice bartender slightly slurred instructions on how to mix a proper martini.
“To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion” is a revised and expanded edition of a book published in 2012. Its author, Philip Greene, helped found the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and works as a lawyer at the Pentagon. “Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed To” is by another D.C.-area writer, the prolific Paul Dickson, best known for his books about baseball and language. No doubt Washington’s tropical summers and hideous traffic jams are more than enough to inspire an enthusiastic appreciation of the mixed drink.
Greene’s book is structured around cocktails that Ernest Hemingway mentioned in his novels, stories and letters. It also describes some of the clean, well-lighted sanctuaries favored by the macho writer: Harry’s Bar in Venice, Captain Tony’s and Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Fla., the Floridita in Havana, the Ritz in Paris. Greene writes well and quotes even better. In “Islands in the Stream,” for instance, Hemingway recounts a marathon drinking session at the Floridita, where the daiquiris are described as “the great ones that Constante made, that had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow and, after the sixth or eighth, felt like downhill glacier skiing feels when you are running unroped.” In whatever way “running unroped” differs from regular skiing, I gather it must feel really, really good.
The presentation of “To Have and Have Another” is alphabetical, and so the book opens with absinthe, that notorious, once-banned refreshment of minor decadent poets, often known as La Fée Verte, the Green Fairy. It ends with the White Lady — gin, Cointreau and lemon juice — coupled with another episode from “Islands in the Stream” in which this libation is confused with White Rock mineral water (the mixer of choice among the Sherlockians who founded the Baker Street Irregulars). In between, Greene discusses such classic relaxants as the Cuba Libre (a.k.a. rum and Coke), the gin and tonic, the mojito, the Tom Collins and the whiskey sour. An entry on a champagne and absinthe cocktail named Death in the Afternoon — the title of Hemingway’s book on bullfighting — quotes “The Savoy Cocktail Book” as alleging that “four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.” I should think so, whatever that means. Greene also includes, as an appendix, other semi-official concoctions, such as Hadley’s Tears, named after Hemingway’s first wife, and Nick Adams’s Medicine, which honors the protagonist of his early short stories.
Along with drink recipes and passages from Papa, “To Have and Have Another” is packed with photographs, classic advertisements for various tipples and biographical vignettes. For example, Greene tells us about the celebrated Jimmie Charters, who was presiding at the Dingo American Bar in Paris on the night Hemingway met Scott Fitzgerald. The Jimmie Special, recalls Charters in his memoirs, could lead women “to undress in public, and it often kept me busy wrapping overcoats around nude ladies.”
Paul Dickson’s “Contraband Cocktails” opens with a paradox: “stylish, urbane ‘cocktail culture’ began to flower on the very date — January 16, 1920 — when mixed drinks and all other forms of alcohol became illegal.” In his brief history of that culture, Dickson offers “a discourse on Prohibition cocktails followed by an annotated formulary of drinks from the Dry Years.” He immediately stresses an easily overlooked fact: the raw alcohol of this era really did need doctoring and flavorings to become palatable.
Did you know that the District of Columbia went dry almost three years before the rest of the nation? Our fair city provided a test case, a trial run. After a few months, Dickson wryly notes, “there were twice as many illegal establishments operating inside the District as there had been legal ones before the act was passed.” Nonetheless, with Washington “serving as vivid testimony to the fact that Prohibition could not be enforced, Congress passed the Volstead Act or National Prohibition Act on October 28, 1919, over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson.” Why? Largely because the Anti-Saloon League was probably “the strongest political organization in the world.”
Before long, a bootlegging operation — located in the Cannon House Office Building — was serving “scores of congressmen and their constituents.” Later, its proprietor, George Cassiday, shifted his base to the Russell Senate Office Building. In his memoirs, Cassiday alleged that he was supplying liquor to 80 percent of a distinctly hypocritical House and Senate.
Dickson loads every page with facts, anecdotes and telling details about life under Prohibition. Bartender Harry Craddock “went from Manhattan (where he served his last legal drink at the Hoffman House on Broadway) to London, where he presided at the Hotel Savoy and where he authored the ‘Savoy Cocktail Book.’ ” A 1926 article about him in the Atlanta Constitution ended with “a list of the 280 cocktails he was mixing at the Savoy. The list does not include the coolers, daisies, fizzes, flips, highballs, punches, sours, and rickeys he mixed in London.”
Serious aficionados of the happy hour will be particularly fascinated by Dickson’s chapter on “the archaeology of the cocktail.” Here, he looks at the period’s bartenders’s manuals, including Al Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn’s “Manhattan Oases” (recently reprinted as “The Speakeasies of 1932 ”). That book covers both high-end clubs and low dives, with illustrations by Hirschfeld. As the artist much later recalled, in an interview at age 99, one joint on the Bowery “had a recipe for a drink called smoke, made with Sterno. I don’t know how anybody survived it.”
The second half of “Contraband Cocktails” prints the “formulae” for the most popular drinks offered by top-drawer establishments. The list runs from the Alexander — gin, sweet cream and crème de cacao — to the Yale Cocktail, essentially gin with a dash of orange bitters and a dash of Pernod. Dickson also supplies historical and cultural background to each recipe. For instance, the Old Fashioned — typically rye whisky with a splash of club soda and, usually, several bits of fruit — was a favorite drink of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as well as Don Draper of “Mad Men.” Dickson ends his book with a glossary of slang associated with the Noble Experiment, also known as the Age of Pain.
As we close out 2015, let me then toast these two excellent books: As the old saying goes, “Blessed are the debonair, for they shall drink cocktails.”
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of ”Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
By Philip Greene
Perigee. 384 pp. $26.50
By Paul Dickson
Melville House. 174 pp. $19.95