In stories about the American writer Ernest Hemingway, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. An icon of a certain bold masculinity, of war and adventure, of fishing and hunting and drinking, Hemingway’s life was spectacular enough in its facts, yet nonetheless seems to inspire perpetual embellishment. Apocryphal tales abound about where he traveled, where and with whom he slept, whom he fought, who wanted to fight him but chickened out, where he drank mojitos vs. daiquiris. Truth and fiction mingle like guests at a cocktail party where the booze flows so freely you forget who’s the historian and who’s just an entertaining fabulist.
So much has the man’s legend swollen over time that even true stories get encrusted with fallacy.
It is probably true, for example, that in 1944, Hemingway helped “liberate” the bar at the Ritz in Paris, says Phil Greene, who’s spent years studying the writer and his drinking habits and captured much of it in his 2012 cocktail book, “To Have and Have Another.”
“You can look at the memoirs of Colonel David Bruce with the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote about it from a factual standpoint,” discussing how Allied forces entered the city, where they went on arrival, and including the fact that they went to the Ritz, where Hemingway ordered 50 martinis, Greene says. “In another story it’s 57, but it just comes down to how many members of the French resistance and the OSS accompanied Hemingway. I know there are a lot of stories about him that aren’t true, but this is one that I believe, because it’s been corroborated.”
The Ritz’s website, however, memorializes the event somewhat differently: Per the hotel’s website, “it was here that he ‘liberated’ the bar of German soldiers by downing 51 Dry Martinis in a row.”
I don’t feel I have much in common with those German soldiers, but I admit: If I saw someone attempting to drink 51 martinis, I would leave too, if only to summon a medic.
Hemingway is the primary figure wandering through Greene’s new book, which like the previous one takes a riff on the author as its title: “A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris.” But he’s one of a larger cast of characters, with the city of Paris and its cafes and bars bringing them all together.
I was happy to have a wider crew to tipple with. So many American writers work in the shadow of Hemingway’s clean, deceptively simple style, but in the drinking realm, that shadow has a darker hue. Many drinks we still celebrate have his stamp upon them — stories of him knocking one back in some famed bar or opining about the proper way to make it. But it’s always been difficult for me to fully enjoy those anecdotes, knowing the harm he did to himself with booze. Yes, since you ask, I am fun at parties.
“A Drinkable Feast” celebrates the drinks and watering holes of the era, allowing a glimpse into the broad, boozy company of writers and artists and philosophers who spent time in Paris in the 1920s. Greene says he’s been fascinated with the era since college, when he first came across the idea of the “Lost Generation” — a term often used to describe the American writers of the period (Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald being the most famous of the bunch).
In his new book, he wanted to write about “these people who had these fascinating lives and all found themselves in the same city in the same decade. Wow, to be a fly on the wall, to have a time machine,” he says. “There are so many books about the era, but I wanted to write about it through the lens of what they were drinking, where they were drinking . . . and how many places are still open today where you can go sit at that sidewalk cafe and imagine yourself in 1928 instead of 2018.”
Many of the people who adopted Paris in that era were from our side of the pond, and that cultural exchange had an impact on the drinking culture. Wine was ubiquitous in Paris, of course, and the French have a long tradition of aperitifs. Greene details a delicious roster of these long, bubbly, often bittersweet drinks — like the Vermouth Cassis — which already had a place in the culture.
But Americans headed to France because of what was going on in the States, and they brought their particular thirsts with them. “With more and more Americans coming over there because of Prohibition, because of the exchange rates and because they kept hearing what an amazing place Paris was, you had rising demand for legit cocktails,” Greene says. The recipes in his book are a mix of classically French quaffs and those interlopers that arrived during the era.
Cocktailing wasn’t at the top of my list when my husband and I went to Paris this spring, though if I’d had Greene’s book in hand then, I probably would have made more stops.
But we did make it to a few — some new, some classic, including what’s now Bar Hemingway at the Ritz. It’s not in the same space as the one Hemingway celebrated in, but it’s a charming, tiny bar buried inside the hotel off the Place Vendome. It was the best of the cocktail experiences we had in Paris. Also (see “the Ritz,” ibid.) the most bank-breaking at around 30 euros ($35) a drink, a price that would normally make me scoff. But I’m glad we went, even if it does mean we won’t be able to send one of the dogs to college.
The bar is loaded with Hemingway arcana, the drinks — such as the Calvados and champagne Serendipity — are simple, elegant and come with snacks, and the bar staff is welcoming, even to the kind of rube American who makes jokes about sending her dogs to college.
The atmosphere is hugely thanks to head bartender Colin Field, who has overseen the bar for decades and says he wants people to experience in his drinks something transporting. “It’s more than a cocktail — it’s the emotion that I want to create, and the cocktail is only 20 percent of the experience,” he told me recently. “I don’t want people to leave the Hemingway Bar and say, ‘I just had a great cocktail’; I want them to leave and say they had a great time.”
It wasn’t just the decor that connected us to past eras; it was the neighbors at the bar: The afternoon we dropped by, most of the people sharing the space with us were other Americans, happy to be away from developments back home.
That’s pretty typical, Field says. “The bar is more and more famous, and that is brilliant, obviously. The 30 or 40 real regulars that I’ve had for 20 or more years, those regulars are still there, they’re here daily, but it’s like putting a whiskey in the middle of the ocean.”
It’s a challenge, he says, since the people who visit want to share the space with locals, to get a sense that they’re in the real city.
Normally I would have felt the same, but that day, the presence of multiple fellow Yanks was okay with me. I was happy to commune with those considering expatriate-hood, and to sip drinks that echoed those classic cocktails sipped by the Lost Generation, at prices that alone guaranteed we would never try to duplicate their volume.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
The quality of the ingredients is critical here; if you don’t have a juicer, look for the freshest apple juice you can get (Red Jacket’s Fuji Apple, available at many Whole Foods Markets, is a good bottled option). Look for a good brut-style champagne.
Adapted from a recipe by Colin Field, head bartender at Bar Hemingway at the Ritz in Paris.
3 good-size sprigs fresh mint
1 ounce Calvados or other good apple brandy
1¾ ounces fresh apple juice (see headnote)
4 to 6 ounces brut champagne
Combine 2 sprigs of the mint, the Calvados and the apple juice in a highball glass, and then stir.
Use tongs to add ice cubes to fill the glass, then top with the champagne and stir gently.
Garnish with the remaining sprig of mint.
Use Dolin Dry or another good dry vermouth; Greene recommends Mathilde or Lejay for the crème de cassis.
Adapted from Frank Meier’s “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” (Fryam Press, 1936) as cited in “A Drinkable Feast: A 1920s Parisian Cocktail Companion,” by Philip Greene (TarcherPerigee, 2018).
½ ounce crème de cassis (see headnote)
3 ounces dry vermouth (see headnote)
Fill a highball glass with ice.
Add the cassis, the vermouth and seltzer (to fill), then stir gently to combine.
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