Christopher Hirst explores the life of Ernest Hemingway through his favourite cocktails
The world’s greatest writers and artists have inspired a tasty genre of cookbooks. Through anthologies of their favourite dishes, it is possible to join Proust, Monet, Dickens, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso at the table. But only one cultural titan has inspired books about both his food and drink. The Hemingway Cookbook by Craig Boreth is stuffed with such robust items as jugged hare, escargots à la Bourguignon and moules in peppery milk broth. Moving to the bar, the splendidly titled To Have and Have Another by Philip Greene explores 56 of Hemingway’s favourite tipples from the Absinthe Drip to the White Lady.
We learn from the mini-biography on the dust jacket that Greene has expertise in both law and libations. He is a ‘mixology consultant’, who also happens to be a ‘Trademark and Internet Counsel for the US Marine Corps, stationed at the Pentagon’. This curious combination of talents has resulted in a notably sharp-eyed book, as thorough as it is entertaining.
Though Greene explores Hemingway’s cocktails alphabetically, it is possible to sip your way chronologically through the life of this devoted toper. The place to start is the alcohol-soaked pages of his first novel Fiesta published in 1926 when he was 27. Written in beautiful, spare prose, this account of alcoholic and sexual shenanigans in Paris and Spain has a powerful effect, particularly on younger readers. ‘It all began with Hemingway… the sense that drinking wine was cool and sophisticated,’ writes novelist Jay McInerney in The Juice, his collection of drink articles. ‘And let’s face it, this is one of the reasons we read books, especially in our youth, particularly books by Hemingway… to find out… where to travel and what to eat and drink and smoke along the way.’
Greene elucidates the refreshments that punctuate virtually every page. It came as a mild disappointment to discover that fine à l’ eau, repeatedly ordered from boulevard cafés by Fiesta’s hero Jake Barnes, is simply cognac with soda. Similarly, the Spanish drink aguardiente, which makes a cumulative appearance in Fiesta (‘We each had an aguardiente… Two of our Basques insisted on buying a drink… and then we bought a drink and then they slapped us on the back and bought another drink’), turns out to be merely raw spirit. It translates as ‘firewater’.
However, Greene’s investigation of another drink from the early Paris section of Fiesta proved to be a revelation. It appears when a character called Bill Gorton, much the worse for wear, explains the reason for his condition: ‘Stopped at the Crillon. George made me a couple of Jack Roses.’ Following in Hemingway’s footsteps, I once braved this palatial hotel on Place de la Concorde.
Unfortunately, the bar he patronised no longer exists, but at least I was able to enjoy a Jack Rose. Dating from the early years of the 20th century, it combines applejack (the US equivalent of Calvados), grenadine (a rhubarb-based sweetener that imparts the rose colour) and fresh lime juice. It’s OK but more notable for appearance than taste. Unlike Bill Gorton, one sufficed for me.
Philip Greene suggests that Hemingway might have been thinking of a rendition of the Jack Rose from a more affordable Parisian venue. Described as ‘a saloon that Hemingway was known to frequent’, Harry’s New York Bar is still serving fine concoctions in wood-panelled premises at 5 Rue Daunou (its celebrated adverts advised visiting Americans, ‘Just tell the taxi driver, “Sank roo doe noo” ‘). Its version of the Jack Rose was a bit more complicated: 1½ oz (45ml) applejack or calvados, ¾ oz (20ml) gin, ¾ oz (20ml) lemon juice, ¾ oz (20ml) orange juice, 1/3 oz (10ml) French vermouth, 1/3 oz (10ml) Italian vermouth, 1/3 oz (10ml) grenadine. Shake with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Greene admits he was dubious about this ‘odd mix’ but was won over, ‘I was wrong. I love this drink.’ Me too. It is a memorable combination. You may want a couple.
The best known of all cocktails appears in Madrid at the end of Fiesta. ‘We sat on high stools at the bar while the barman shook the Martinis in a large nickelled shaker.’ Like James Bond, Hemingway was not averse to the generally-scorned shaken Martini. An avowed enemy of sweetness in drinks, he developed his own ultra-dry version during the war. With a ratio of 15 parts gin to one of French vermouth. It was called the Montgomery because Hemingway cheekily claimed this was the superiority that the General demanded before committing troops to battle. In his novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), the drink is mixed for two customers at Harry’s Bar in Venice (no relation to Harry’s New York Bar in Paris): ‘The Martinis were ice cold and true Montgomerys, and after touching the edges, they felt them glow happily all through their upper bodies.’
Coldness in Martinis was an obsession for Hemingway. In 1947, he wrote to a friend from his home in Havana, ‘We have… found a way of making ice in the deep-freeze in tennis ball tubes that comes out 15 degrees below zero and with the glasses frozen too makes the coldest Martini in the world.’ He also froze the sliced Spanish onions he used as garnish.
When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Cuba in 1948, Hemingway set up an impromptu bar to supply Martinis for a party at their holiday home. A reporter on the Miami News noted that Hemingway ‘quickly solved the problem of whether the Duchess should be addressed as “Your Highness” or “Your Royal Highness” by addressing her as “Wallie’”.’
Hemingway evoked drinks with accuracy and passion. The Absinthe Drip in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) is described as ‘that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy’, while the Bloody Mary is lovingly elucidated in a letter of 1947: ‘To make a pitcher (any smaller amount is worthless) take a good-sized pitcher and put in it as big a lump of ice as it will hold…Mix a pint of good Russian vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a tablespoon full of Worcester Sauce…Stirr [sic]. Then add a jigger of freshly squeezed lime juice. Stirr. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper… If you get it too powerful, add more tomato juice. If it lacks authority, add vodka.’
But the cocktail most closely associated with Hemingway is the Daiquiri, originally a combination of white rum, lime juice and sugar invented, so it is claimed, around 1900 by an American mining engineer called Jennings Cox in the Cuban town of that name. In the Thirties, Hemingway started knocking back the version made by Constantino Ribalaigua, self-proclaimed ‘King of the Daiquiri’, at the Floridita bar in Havana. So fervent was the writer’s devotion that the Floridita’s cocktail manual of 1937 included the erratically titled ‘E. Henmiway Special’: 2oz (60ml) white rum, 1 teaspoon grapefruit juice, 1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur, ½ oz (15ml) fresh lime juice. Add ingredients to shaker with crushed ice. Shake well and pour contents of shaker into cocktail glass. Though on the dry side, in line with Hemingway’s preference, the hit of rum followed by citric acidity is wonderfully refreshing on a hot afternoon. Hemingway, however, came to feel that it needed something extra. More rum.
A decade later, his Daiquiri inflated to 3¾oz (110ml) white rum, 2oz (60ml) fresh lime juice, 2oz (60ml) fresh grapefruit juice, 6 drops maraschino liqueur. This was blended with ice in an electric blender and the resulting slurry poured into a large goblet glass. Again, it’s a fine, tart cooler but big enough for two normal cocktails.
As refined by Ribalaigua, it became known as the Papa Doble and appears in Hemingway’s posthumously published novel Islands in the Stream. ‘The frappéed part of the drink was like the wake of a ship and the clear part was the way the way the water looked when the bow cut it when you were in shallow water over marl bottom. That was almost the exact colour.’ According to William Grimes’s cocktail history Straight Up or On the Rocks, this is ‘the finest description of a drink to be found in American literature… You have to look at a lot of Daiquiris very closely to extract an image like that.’
Confirmation of Hemingway’s repeated scrutiny of the drink comes in a 1942 letter where he boasts that when bad weather had prevented him and a companion going fishing, they stayed in the Floridita and drank ‘17 double frozen Daiquiris apiece in the course of the day… Each double had four ounces of rum in it. That makes 68 ounces of rum.’ Hemingway finished with another double and went home, where he ‘spent the evening reading’. His grand total of 76oz is almost three bottles of spirits.
Though this was exceptional, Hemingway’s bull-like physique began to crumple under a massive, daily intake. The pictures in To Have and Have Another reveal a beaming and vivacious young man becoming prematurely aged, grizzled and haunted. Alcohol inflated Hemingway’s ego, turning him into a compulsive show-off and competitive boor, but it didn’t kill him as it did his friend Scott Fitzgerald. After rupturing liver and kidneys in two successive plane crashes in 1954, drinking began to wreck his body. But it is likely that his decision to cut out drink entirely may have prompted his suicide in 1961. His first wife Hadley maintained, ‘He might have survived with alcohol but could not live when deprived of it.’