August 21, 2015

Fall Books Preview: Contraband Cocktails by Paul Dickson


Contraband Cocktails whiteWe’re only weeks away from the launch of our Fall 2015 season, but why wait until September? Over the next couple of weeks, we’re giving you an exclusive look at the exciting new books about to land at Melville House—debut novels, major translations, and nonfiction about everything from dog walking to cocktail culture. We’ll feature a different excerpt every day, along with an introduction by our editors. Today’s book is Contraband Cocktails by Paul Dickson, out October 27. 

When Congress began passing laws to ban alcohol at the start of the 20th century, many Americans—who had pretty recently been fighting very hard for their right to do as they pleased—said oh, hell no. Contraband Cocktails is about how “cocktail culture” as we know it was born at the very moment mixed drinks and all other forms of alcohol became illegal. It’s about the politicians who voted for Prohibition but kept wet bars in their offices on Capitol Hill, about bootleggers and bartenders, rumrunners and mobsters, and most delicious to me, the writers who came to define the American canon—Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald—and what they (and their famous characters) were busy drinking. Reader beware: while many of the included recipes from the era are exquisite, some the author himself says he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. Drink responsibly!
—Taylor Sperry


As a distinctly American drink, the cocktail has a long-established role in American literature. As early as 1851, a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is known for his skill in compounding gin cocktails (which appeared to be his sole talent) as a preamble to his dinner parties. In 1852, William Makepeace Thackeray published his novel The Newcomes, in which a character, a sea captain, describes the New York City custom of having brandy cocktails before dinner.

- DAIQUIRI F. Scott Fitzgerald 1932 Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Dry Years were among the most fertile for literature about contemporary life and mores, especially in the United States, where cocktails appeared in a great many major works of the major writers. This was, after all, the time of The Great Gatsby, which at its most literal level was a book about Prohibition awash in mixed drinks, including the mint julep Daisy concocts for Tom at the Plaza Hotel toward the end of the book—“Open the whiskey, Tom,” she ordered, “and I’ll make you a mint julep. Then you won’t seem so stupid to yourself . . . Look at the mint.”

Then there is the cocktail in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. About a third of the way into the book, the protagonist Amory Blaine makes some gains in losing his innocence at a New York nightspot. Encouraged by a chorus-girl companion, Axia Marlowe, he orders a double daiquiri and has an “inexpressibly terrible” vision of a man with a face like yellow wax. It is the devil himself. In Tender Is the Night, the gin and tonic has a cameo appearance: “At three he called Rosemary and was bidden to come up. Momentarily dizzy from his acrobatics, he stopped in the bar for a gin-and-tonic.”

Fitzgerald was so obsessed with the cocktail that he suggested it ought to become a verb. He drew up a chart displaying all of its cases, including:

IMPERFECT = I was cocktailing

PERFECT = I cocktailed (past definite)

PAST PERFECT = I have cocktailed

CONDITIONAL = I might have cocktailed

PLUPERFECT = I had cocktailed

Sinclair Lewis delighted in creating characters who supported Prohibition but who, like the narrator in The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), was not “a fanatic” about it:

If a fellow feels like making some good homebrewed beer or wine, or if you go to a fellow’s house and he brings out some hooch or gin, but you don’t know where he got it and it isn’t any of your business, or if you have a business acquaintance coming to your house and you figure he will not loosen up and talk turkey without a little spot, and you know a good dependable bootlegger that you can depend on, then that’s a different matter, and there ain’t any reason on God’s green earth that I can see why you shouldn’t take advantage of it, always providing you aren’t setting somebody a bad example or making it look like you sympathize with lawbreaking.

No sir!

Then there is Ernest Hemingway (there are martini-drinking scenes in both A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises) and other major Jazz Age writers—to name a few, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Edna Ferber.

Dashiell Hammett’s characters Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man spend much of their time in speakeasies or hotel rooms toasting each other. Their drink, naturally, is the dry martini, and Nick is first spotted in the film version of The Thin Man instructing a bartender in its preparation: “A Manhattan should be shaken to a fox trot, the Bronx to a two-step, but a dry Martini must always be shaken to a waltz.” Nora, waking up the next morning with an ice pack on her forehead, asks what hit her. “The last Martini,” says Nick.


Contraband Cocktails by Paul Dickson

On Sale October 27

Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.