The first draft of the famous story was called ‘A Martini as Big as the Ritz’. That’s not true, but F. Scott Fitzgerald was certainly at work in the First Cocktail Age. The Algonquin circle also floated into literary history on a choppy ocean of toxically high-ABV mixed drinks. The quotes and jokes are legend: Robert Benchley says to Ginger Rogers in a 1942 Billy Wilder film ‘Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?’ (The line is also attributed to Mae West.) And ours is the Second Cocktail Age. While we wait for its literary heroes, three appreciative books are here to be enjoyed in immoderation.
My generation prefers wine. Sometimes I feel we actually discovered Chardonnay, but a generation younger has rediscovered the cocktail. There are several significant subtleties here. Running a bar has become as cool as being in a band once was: when someone writes the history of the South London Renaissance, the opening of Frank’s Cafe and Campari Bar in a Peckham multi-storey car park in 2009 will be the first chapter. And there has been a huge and happy revival in craft gin, partly as an abreaction to faceless multinational drinks conglomerates, partly as a response to the gastronomic imperative of locality.
But the indulgent, soothing and glamorous cocktail is perhaps a corrective to dismaying contemporary anxieties about a fretful and fraying world. As Richard Godwin says in The Spirits, his good-natured manifesto about domestic mixology: ‘Of all the skills you might acquire in life, learning how to make strong effective cocktails is the least likely to be a waste of your time.’ And, helpfully, you can equip a basic bar with six bottles for about £80 and all the rest is shaking and stirring and sipping. At least until your friends have drunk you dry and you have to restock. The Spirits is much more than mere drinks recipes: it is thoughtful, well-researched, witty, well-written and even inspirational.
People will argue about the best cocktail, but few today would defend the Flaming Lamborghini, a millennial period piece which comprises a nauseating come-together of Kahlua, Sambuca, Blue Curacao and Bailey’s Irish Cream. You set fire to it. Instead, the ultimate cocktail is surely the Negroni, a lethally delicious mixture of equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari created by a rackety Florentine count a century ago. Leigh and Nargess Banks are a husband and wife team who are on a world-travelling mission to understand and enlarge Negroni culture. A well-made Negroni, they say, is ‘a metaphor for a refined and glamorous life’. He is a photographer and she a writer of Iranian extraction; which is nice since a rather older Persian called Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi perfected distillation in the ninth century.
The Life Negroni is a gorgeous book offering voyeuristic insights into a way of life which may never have existed anywhere other than the imagination, but one that is no less intoxicating for that. You are taken to the lovely Camparino Bar at the Duomo end of Milan’s Galleria, then to the neighbouring Terrazza Martini, the rooftop space the drinks company opened in 1958 which was, two years later, used to premiere Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The Bankses explain the gustatory complexities of the Negroni, which has about 70 separate botanical elements including the mysterious sounding Cnicus and dittany of Crete as well as the more earthy turmeric. The pictures in The Life Negroni are mesmerising and the range of reference pleasing. As a publication, I was reminded of Luc Sante’s epic No Smoking of 2004, a masterpiece of book design. It is an album, a love letter, a guide, a memoir and a rich source of graphic delight. Only hedonists would enjoy such a thing. If this seems transgressive in Corbytrannia, so much the better.
Ruth Ball’s Rebellious Spirits is a more old-fashioned book than Godwin or Banks, evoking, with its tales of gin being piped in alleyways, a mood of nostalgic Blitz-era gentility rather like Maurice Healy’s Stay Me With Flagons of 1940. It is less well-designed than The Spirits or The Life Negroni and has a less modern feel, but for tales of Moonfleet-style japes and recipes of ancient, disabling drinks (five gallons of milk punch, for example) I do not see that it has any competitors.
I wrote this review the day the Telegraph carried a headline saying the middle-aged should immediately stop drinking to avoid dementia. Then I thought of Count Negroni and his 20-a-day cocktail habit. If you are undecided, read these books to determine where you stand in the imminent hell of the temperance debate.