Only Writers Fill the Real Barrel of Fun

Whiskey Barrel

The monkeys were already in the barrel

One of the books I’m reading is titled To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. The book is a compilation of drink recipes based on cocktails mentioned in Hemingway’s works, or those known to have soothed Ernest’s throat during any dry spells behind the typewriter. From reading the book, you wouldn’t think Papa ever had a dry spell that he didn’t counter with a drink. Or four.

There’s a long history of associating writers with the sauce: Fitzgerald with his gin, Faulkner with his whiskey, Hemingway with his Definitivo (which combined equal parts vodka, gin, tequila, rum and scotch, bolstered with tomato juice and lime, a kind of Long Island Bloody Mary in Hell). So maybe this is associating Hemingway with any full bar—which he seemed to take as a challenge.

Literary Lights Liquored Up
Some literary pundits suggest that the liquor lubed their writing, giving it a flow whose force would be absent without the sweet succor of spirits. Heckfire, I’ve even put together a short video that shows how whiskey can improve your writing.

But that bit of legerdemain logic is tripped up by the old “correlation is not causation” adage: those guys just liked to get pickled, plain and simple. It probably didn’t improve their writing, but it did make them learn fascinating words like “jigger,” “muddling,” and “crapulous.” But that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t seek solace in pleasant refreshment. [Note to my business-writing clients: I never combine copywriting with cocktails. At least not at the same time.]

So, in the spirit of experimentation, thirst, and the quest to be aligned with my literary idols, I decided, along with the fair Alice-who-lives-in-this-place-we-call-home, to make some barreled cocktails. Barreling cocktails is a bit of a craze now: you take the ingredients of a standard charming cocktail, such as an Old-Fashioned, Negroni or Manhattan and put them in an oak barrel for a month or two, to take on some of the mellowing characteristics—vanilla, maple, honey, tobacco—that contact with toasted oak often lends to spirits. A number of hipster bars now offer barreled cocktails, the little darlings.

I’ll Take Manhattan(s)
Being a man believing no Manhattan should be left companionless, Manhattans were the clear choice. Thus, two nights ago, we alchemized the following:

⁃ 1.5 liters Bulleit Rye
⁃ 250 milliliters Bulleit Bourbon
⁃ 500 milliliters Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
⁃ 3 tablespoons bitters: approximately half of which were Peychaud’s (New Orleans), half Rossard’s (Chile), and a generous splash of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters (New York?)

Rye was the original right arm of a Manhattan, but I tend toward bourbon as the main kicker. But we had the jug of rye and proceeded thusly. We added the bourbon to lure the rye to sleep comfy in the barrel. No fancy vermouth here, just a basic, since we are relying on the barrel to bring the orchestra to tune. As for the bitters, I always like combining two bitters in a Manhattan, and the orange in volume is a bit too floral for me, but it added a nice top note to the combination. I wanted to put the aromatic combined bitterness on my hair.

As for the barrel of fun, that’s a nice 3-liter job (medium char) from Tuthilltown Spirits, makers of fine firewater, including the dandy Hudson Baby Bourbon. I bought the barrel for Alice’s birthday, for her efforts with moonshine (fun!) and the attempt to make our own bourbon (disaster!). We’ll shake up some of this barreled hootch into a couple of chilled glasses in a month or so, and get back to you on the results.

Or if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and we can discuss what Hemingway really meant when he said: I drink to make other people more interesting.

The Perfect Writer’s Martini

The Perfect Writer’s Martini

The perfect writer’s martini is the martini in your hand. I know, a variant of a cheap joke—but that doesn’t mean you should drink cheap martinis. I was always amazed at my parents’ liquor cabinet, because they bought the massive, Costco-sized bottles of broom-closet spirits before Costco ever put its big boxes on the landscape. The first sip ever allowed me of one of their motley martinis put my adolescent gag-reflex to yeoman use. I vowed never to drink such a molotov-cocktail concoction again.

But as most vows are made of pliant fibers, I bent. In the vow-bending, I learned that you can’t make a drinkable martini out of rubbing alcohol and reptile tears, such as my parents’ sad admixtures. Martini recipes are as controversial as health-care legislation, and as a parallel, you must take one side or the other.

I’m not speaking of whether you make a gin martini, of course. A martini is a gin martini. The philistines who advocate a vodka martini had to have been denied mother’s milk, or sunshine in the spring, or a glance at the underwear of a hoped-for love, and that suffered cruelty prompted them later in life to make woeful drinks. A vodka martini is an abomination; a flavored vodka martini is a trollop’s calliope song of tawdriness.

No, the side I’m talking about is whether you must marry, or at least flirt, with vermouth in your mix, adding a liveried footman to the big-chested general of your four-star gin. I say yes. (Though I admire the tale of Winston Churchill, who when once asked how much vermouth he would like in his martini, replied, “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”) Through resolute practice, sustained investigation and teary declarations, I doped out the perfect gin/vermouth ratio to be four to one. This calculation is also revealed by reverse magnetism on the Aurora Borealis and in the unreleased Dead Idea Scrolls of The Da Vinci code (signed edition – fine print).

Good Gin Is Not Sin
Get a good, stout gin, such as Tanqueray or Bombay, or if you’re of a more herbally tantalizing bent, try Junipero from Anchor Distilling. Ally that with a serious vermouth, such as Noilly Prat or Martini and Rossi if you must. (Both liquors should be chilled: gin in freezer; vermouth in fridge.) Ponder whether you want the James Bondian “shaken, not stirred” or the putative gin-bruising of the shaker. For me, it’s a matter of mood. I have both shaker and glass pitcher, and alternate between both. I’ve read of stir fanatics buying a specialty ice for their martinis, and using a specified number of cubes. That is zealotry that has no place in sporting drinking.

When I use the shaker (pulsating the infusion in several short plunges, and then a brief settling), I normally crush a percentage of the cubes so that there’s a few pleasant shards of ice doing the butterfly stroke on the martini’s surface. With the pitcher (stirred for 45 seconds or so in alternating circles), I detect a slightly colder result, though no more crisp (or less bruised) than the shaken. Pour into a nice, chilled martini glass of clear stemware—not one of those gigantic two-hand reservoirs seen in some boorish bars. With the pitcher, you will have to invest in a decent long-handled stirring spoon/wand and a strainer—Oxo makes a nice one.

Olives Dot All Your I’s
I prefer the standard small manzanilla olives with pimentos, though some Teddy Roosevelt-like souls will try those bulbous olives stuffed with jalapeno or even garlic. To me, you should seek your lunch outside of your glass. Three small olives will do, because after all, this is a writer’s martini: the “power of three” in writerly phrasings is acknowledged in literary circles everywhere. And why a writer’s martini at all? Because writers face daily death on the page, a loss of language, a spinning descent into fear and paralysis. A good martini is comfort for the terrors of the void and for poor punctuation.

So, pour and pleasure. It would be nice to have a companion in the room, say Nora Charles, to bat eyes with, but any comely, genial lass or laddie will do. One rule: never before breakfast. Enjoy.

[Bonus: Luis Bunuel’s martini recipe]