Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cocktail Rules

I recently became aware of a terrific book on cocktails, originally published in 1948, entitled The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury. It is encyclopedic, witty and well-written, and it is an anthropological treasure chest of forgotten concoctions, neglected ingredients, rituals that now seem downright exotic to us, and impeccable standards.

The author, David Augustus Embury, was a partner and one of the senior tax attorneys of the venerable old Manhattan law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt and Mosle, known for its public international law expertise. The firm exists today, but unfortunately it cannot bring itself to acknowledge Embury’s formidable contribution to American culture. A spokesman for the firm simply laughed at me and declined to provide any pertinent information about Embury.(1)

Like all good lawyers, though, Embury begins by defining his terms. A cocktail, for Embury, is an “aperitif cocktail – i.e., one to be taken before a meal as a stimulant to the appetite and an aid to digestion.” This quaint definition opens a window onto a lost world, in which on any given evening men and women “dressed for dinner,” donning formalwear and gathering together “at the club” for a couple of drinks before casually assembling a party for dining. Breezy conversation, and the slow, deliberate savoring of an evening’s available tastes, were the primary practices of such outings.

No doubt Embury became an enthusiast of the cocktail while coming of age in college around World War I, a time when some of the greatest of America’s 20th century homegrown entertainments were on the verge of maturing, asking more of their audiences rather than less: silent films were stretching beyond their novelty status, finally building a vocabulary and assuming a decorum to rival the “legitimate stage”; quadrilles had given way to the subtly playful rhythms of ragtime, which in New Orleans was fusing with blues to create jazz; and baseball was shaking off the rowdiness of its turn-of-the-century play and becoming an observational landscape for intellectuals.

All of these – silent films, jazz and baseball -- are now rarefied air, and like the cocktail itself, have each experienced a precipitous decline in their drawing power. The hallmarks of each were that they required a loyal aesthetic temperament, a sophisticated palate and an understanding of special rules. They created, in their respectively segregated fan bases, a fellowship of attentive, informed appreciation. Such are the disciplines that Embury brings to his rarified topic.

This was all well before the collegiate stage had adopted its current interest in beer pong, Jello shots and Everclear-and-Kool Aid. While these are strictly numbing rituals, Embury takes pains to explain that the experience of a cocktail is intended to be bracing and uplifting. It must whet the appetite as well as stimulate the mind, and it must be pleasing to the eye as well. The overall effect of a well-made cocktail, according to Embury, should be as follows: “Taut nerves relax; taut muscles relax; tired eyes brighten; tongues loosen; friendships deepen; the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.” It makes one wonder whether the UN might be more effective with some expert mixologists on staff.

In the service of such goals, however, Embury also advocated moderation. Embury’s careful and exacting advice on this matter is worth repeating. “But how, you may ask, is the average person to know exactly how many drinks he can stand? Should he go on just one binge and have a record kept of how much he consumes in order that thereafter he may know when to stop? My answer is 'No.' It is best that you never find out the limit of your capacity. There is just one safe and simple rule which, if rigidly adhered to, will afford you a maximum of pleasure in your drinking with a minimum of danger of ever becoming drunk. When you reach a point where you feel absolutely sure that you could stand one more but have some slight doubt as to what two more might do to you, STOP. If you resolutely refuse to take even the one extra that you are certain would be O.K., you will maintain your physical stability, your mental balance, and your moral aplomb.”

I could have used this advice once or twice in my own career, but I assure you that now I have committed it to memory almost as a shibboleth.

Embury is nothing if not opinionated. He prefers glass cocktail shakers with metal lids to all-metal shakers, arguing that glass is a better insulator from outside temperatures during the shaking process. Among American whiskeys, Pennsylvania ryes and Kentucky bourbons are the best, and all others are “vastly inferior.” All true Rickeys are made with limes, and never with lemons. Rules are rules.

Perhaps Embury’s most controversial opinion involves proportions. With all the mathematical discipline of an Internal Revenue Code expert, Embury argues, for example, that all “sours” can be made using the same proportions (8:2:1) and that many cocktails, indeed, may be viewed through an isomorphic model – hence his classic statement that “the Side Car is nothing but a Daiquiri with brandy in the place of rum and Cointreau in the place of sugar syrup or orgeat.” This “unified theory of mixing” led one recent reviewer to carp, “Well, all right. And Romeo and Juliet is the same as Two Gentlemen of Verona, if you delete the tragic ending and make Juliet a man.”

Despite Embury’s occasional excesses, his directory of drinks makes for some charming nostalgia. Try ordering a Millionaire, a Tennessee, a Colonel Lindbergh or a Seventh Heaven today, and I think you’ll see what I mean. And if you want to explain to your bartender that a particular drink is only properly made with Oloroso Sherry, Kümmel or Csaszar, you’ll probably experience a similar feeling of anachronism.

It isn’t enough, in most bars today, to say that David Embury knew what he was talking about, but a dip into his world in the pages of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is still a worthwhile diversion.

(1) Embury was also, for many years, the head of a national organization of college fraternities – which is probably more to the point, notwithstanding the Hollywood stereotype of the dipsomaniacal lawyer, ably essayed by such fellows as Reginald Denny (not the beating victim, but a British character actor) throughout the 1930s.

See also:

CocktailDB logo

And: Ron Schuler's Parlour Tricks: Food and Drink, and My Baby and Me.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I shall ensure that during our many times together, Mr. Schuler adhers to Embury's shibboleth of abstemiousness. That way, there will be more for those of us who eschew it.

8:58 PM  

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