Hemingway: Birth of a Booze Lover


“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares. If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” – Ernest Hemingway (informal travel advice)  

When he wasn’t on safari, catching a marlin, or leaving one wife to marry another one, that’s just where Ernest Hemingway was. Perhaps the only stories more famous than the ones Ernest Hemingway wrote are the ones about his drinking exploits. Hemingway drinking lore has him running up a tab of 51 martinis during the liberation of Paris, inventing the Bloody Mary, and measuring F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s evidently undersized…pen. But whether Hemingway drinking stories are apocryphal or not, he is synonymous with the drinking writer.

He was born into it. Over half of the American writers renowned for their drinking were born in the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century. One theory for why they were such drinkers is that they fought World War I, which pitted new weaponry, such as mortars, artillery, and Gatling guns against the slightly less effective method of walking slowly towards trenches with bayonets. In reaction to these horrors and inconceivable loss and waste, they felt lost and disillusioned and were so dubbed the Lost Generation. And in 1919, the Lost Generation needed a drink.

Hemingway among them, for a few reasons. While serving in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on the Italian front, he was wounded by mortar fire. He recovered in a hospital where he fell in love with a nurse who tore out his heart, leaving an empty gap which Hemingway promptly filled with wine. Brokenhearted and most likely suffering from PTSD, he returned to America, where he drank and he fished and he drank. Then he moved to Paris, where he drank and he wrote and he drank. For Hemingway, moving to Paris and drinking there were acts of freedom and rebellion towards the mores of the U.S., a country which had sent him off to war and then would not let them have a drink to help him deal with it.

In Paris, Hemingway continued engaging in the two things he had a special talent for: drinking and writing. His tolerance was unmatched and he consumed large quantities of booze with little physical effect. He attributed this to a rigorous physical regimen of boxing, wilderness sports, and writing really mean things about his friends. By sheer physicality he remained healthy and by determination he was also productive. He drank constantly but refused to have a drink before he had reached his daily writing quota of 500 words, zero adverbs, and at least 3 friendships irreversibly damaged. If he was ever tempted to drink while writing he needed only visit his friend, the walking cautionary tale named F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald tried to inspire creativity and writing with alcohol, only to kill his creativity and writing with alcohol.  

Drinking, among other issues, caught up to Hemingway’s in the 1930s. For the first time, his drinking caused his work to suffer and his mental health to deteriorate. He was depressed, so he drank, which made him more depressed, so he drank more. Stabs at his manhood came in the memoir of a former ally (paybacks = a bitch) and what followed was the Hemingway many now think of – cartoonishly macho, drunken fights and wrestling matches, and spewing proclamations of his manly abilities to “outdrink, outwrite, and outfuck” anyone who isn’t Gertrude Stein.              

But more important than his own drinking is the deep reverence to alcohol and its rituals that permeate the fictional worlds that Hemingway created. Each book depicted a culture’s alcohol traditions and ceremonies surrounding it. In The Sun Also Rises, two men in Basque country are taught to drink wine from leather flagons like the locals. In Paris cafes they drink wine, champagne, and absinthe. In the Hotel Montoya in Pamplona, they drink rioja alta and fundador. In Islands in the Stream his characters in Cuba drink doble daiquiris. His characters drink what Hemingway drank, their livers become secondary characters, and they all follow the lesson Hemingway himself followed: “travel globally and drink locally.”           

Just as culturally significant to the cultural rituals in Hemingway’s fiction are the bars, which are treated as sacred places. The actions within a bar are purposeful, meaningful, and result in deep consequences. Confrontations are made, allegiances forged, critical decisions taken. Hemingway created a language for those who inhabited his bars. Unlike other writers who made the dialogue in bars raucous, vulgar, or chaotic, Hemingway’s characters spoke in a laconic and controlled way and thus existed in a secret community of drinkers who knew how to handle their alcohol. This was of utmost importance to Hemingway’s characters and clearly to Hemingway himself.

“I like to see a man drink. A man does not exist until he is drunk.” – Hem

Or, to paraphrase Descartes: “I drink, therefore I am.”

Let’s have a cocktail that would do old Hemingway proud. He drank everything put in front of him (or in front of the people to his left or right). But he especially liked to modify cocktails to his own specifications. He drank gin and tonics with a few drops of Angostura bitters (try this!) and on fishing excursions he modified a Tom Collins by omitting sugar and replacing the soda water with coconut water (dubbed the Maestro Collins). He loved Campari and the Americano, but with gin instead of sweet vermouth. We at Hammered History recommend his favorite drink from El Floridita Bar in Havana – The Doble Daiquiri (link is to the 1934 menu of El Floridita and apparently Hemingway usually went for daiquiri #3 and modified it as follows)   

The Doble daiquiri (ingredients)

–          4 ounces white rum (this is the double part, start your engines)

–          ¾ ounce fresh lime juice (half a lime)

–          ½ ounce fresh grapefruit juice

–          6 drops maraschino liqueur

–          Ice (shaved if possible, broken or small cubes if not)

–          Metal shaker  

–          A liver the size of Toronto

–          A designated driver, preferably a combat hardened ambulance driver

Instructions from Hemingway *

Chill a martini glass before you go to work making the drink. Next, reach into a bag of shaved ice or ice cubes and bring out a handful. It will be cool and your hand will be cold, but you will feel good because of the cold. Put the ice in a metal shaker. The ice will frost it. Measure two full jiggers full of good white rum and add it to the shaker. Squeeze one half of a lime into a jigger. When it is full and there and good, add the lime juice to the shaker. Fresh lime juice is best, but Rose’s is fair if you are in a combat zone or in a cave. Squeeze a quarter of a grapefruit into a jigger. When it is full and there and good, add the grapefruit juice. Taste it. If it lacks authority, add more rum. If it is too strong, add more rum. Like a man. The cool liquid will jewel the sweat on the shaker. Don’t add any damned sugar. Add 6 drops of maraschino liqueur into the shaker with an eye dropper or a spoon. Enclose the shaker with a rocks glass or a pint glass. Shake well. Pour it into the chilled martini glass. Drink 5 of these until you are true and real. If you don’t, add more run.              

* outright lie, instructions from me

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