Bernard DeVoto once described himself as “a literary department store.” He was indeed a cornucopia of talents, equal parts historian and author, commentator and conservationist. During his life, he was the recognized authority on all things Mark Twain, acting as curator and editor of the author’s papers. His history of the west, “Across the Wide Mississippi”, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. From 1935 until his death twenty years later, he wrote “The Easy Chair”, a column for Harper’s Magazine. Yet, these credits merely skim the surface; in his day, DeVoto spoke and people listened.
But what does this great social observer have to do with booze? Tucked in neatly among his literary gems, DeVoto gave the world a deliciously vicious, infinitely concise, and by turns wayward and insightful piece of spirits writing entitled “The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto”. And what a manifesto it is. Bernard DeVoto was a man of opinions, and he never hesitated to express them with both dry wit and caustic condemnation. DeVoto offers up not so much opinions but pronouncements of “fact” – and damned be the rest of us should we not agree with him. Published originally in 1951, this is a book that reflects its time, an era when “the wife” still had a cocktail waiting for her hardworking husband and manhood was often defined by how a fellow held his whiskey. Most of all, though, it is shamelessly self-promoting in terms of DeVoto’s view of how to drink.
Herewith are a few DeVoto-isms, although they are best appreciated in context of the greater work:
“The Manhattan is an offense against piety.” (He pronounces as “heathens” those who use sweet vermouth.)
As to rum, “we must not deny that it exists… but mainly it is drunk as all sweet liquors are, in regressive fantasy, a sad hope of regaining childhood’s joy at the soda fountain.”
“Nothing can be done with people who put olives in martinis, presumably because in some desolate childhood hour someone refused them a dill pickle and so they go through life lusting for the taste of bring.”
“Never accept a divorced woman’s invitation to cocktails until you have looked into her divorce; it may very well have resulted from something that began ‘take a cupful of gin and four teaspoonfuls of grenadine.’”
“A cocktail does not contain fruit juice.” Fruit juices mixed with gin are “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” and those who favor sweet drinks must be treated “as you would a carrier of typhoid”.
In today’s terms, DeVoto could easily be labeled as narrow-minded, misogynistic, and just plain nasty. I value him as a man who spoke his mind, however blunt his thoughts might be. And, while he may have been a social observer, his observations are tinged with a wonderfully educated sense of humor that makes their harshness that much easier to bear. DeVoto’s vehemence aside, his writing comes into its own when he waxes poetic about the martini. His inherent haughtiness still shows itself, but there is gentleness in much of the writing that seduces us. This occurs in particular when DeVoto talks of “the cocktail hour”, the eponymous sixty minutes in the book’s title. It is “it is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn.” And it is the only proper time to serve a martini.
In DeVoto’s universe, a martini is a sovereign object, in which “the proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory.” To experience this glory, one must use proportions of 3.7 to one – “if you use less gin… the name is not martini” – and then squeeze a few drops of lemon rind on the drink. He also cautions one not to mix martinis in batches – they are never consistent – and to approach the process with “a tranquil mind” (if you feel otherwise, just quietly hum as you mix away.)
So why did DeVoto, a respected historian, turn his eye to liquor? The best explanation might be found in the book’s introduction by Daniel Handler, a man of great wit and observatory skills in his own right. Handler is a self-confessed cocktail enthusiast and as equally opposed to rum as DeVoto. As Handler writes, “drinking, like existence, is an endless muddle… it destroys individuals and rescues large gatherings. It can tear apart loved ones but bring strangers closer together. It starts fights and ends wars.” Thus, we see that our history as a people can be found in the history of the bottle itself, and that it is the bottle – that very vessel of civilization – that brings us together. It’s this kinship that underlies DeVoto’s message: “May six o’clock never find you alone. The mystery’s heart of hearts is mutuality.”
In his own journey into the spirits realm, Handler finds this mutuality and brotherhood in DeVoto, noting that “there is a sacredness to the time when the workday ends and the evening begins that ought to be observed with a civilized ritual.” Modern cocktail devotees may find exception with some of DeVoto’s rulings. We refuse to throw away our grenadine and we admit to drinking DeVoto’s dreaded sweet drinks like daiquiris and punch with aplomb. We happily mix up Manhattans and have even imbibed the occasional Bronx (orange juice, be damned!).
Still, along with Daniel Handler, I have a cozy spot in my heart for Bernard DeVoto and his hour. For DeVoto, the cocktail and its essential moment in time are evocations of civilization itself. To my mind, this sense of civility is in desperate need of resurrection not simply because of its ability to give the world definition, but because it demands that we stop, if just for a moment, and, drink in hand, we breathe. The cocktail hour is a sort of liquid communion with oneself and one’s friends, a brief respite at the end of the day when we reward ourselves for work well done – or simply done. It gives the day closure and brightens the night ahead.
After all, it isn’t the opposable thumb but the cocktail that separates us from the monkeys.