Icons / September 2016

Hemingway’s School of Hard Drinks

“Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary…” The Rake examines how Hemingway’s…

I first encountered the Hemingway Drinking Game during an undergraduate tutorial in one of the lesser ventilated study rooms of the English Department. A fellow student with a previously exemplary attendance record (not to mention a palpable sexual chemistry with our thrice-divorced professor) burst in midway through Malcolm Jagborough’s plagiarised comments on Old Norse poetry and apologised sweatily for her late arrival. It soon came to light that she has been engaged, for the previous 24 hours, in a liquid battle with The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s spirit-soaked second novel. The rules of engagement were simple: read the book in a single calendar day (not unthinkable if you’re canny with your bathroom schedule) and take a drink every time one of the lead characters does the same.

It is a game in the way that the Marathon des Sables is an afternoon stroll. The Sun also Rises name-drops drinks like a particularly cocky fourteen year-old after an exeat spent with his older cousins. In Paris, the book’s protagonists can scarcely finish a sentence or a croque monsieur without calling for a fine a l’eau or a questionably proportioned martini; in the south of France they’re plied with pastis and lager-chased absinthe; in the heat of the Spanish fiesta, meanwhile, the fundador brandy and coarse aromatic wine flow like blood from a particularly slovenly matador. Needless to say, the poor tutee was advocaat yellow and sweating green Chartreuse by the time she’d shanghaied herself into that stuffy backroom.

If drinking with Hemingway the writer could jeopardise one’s academic career, drinking with Hemingway the man was an education in itself. First comes Papa H the chemist. A 1933 letter to an executive at Pan American airlines reveals how Hemingway had developed a new way to drink cognac based on 'the principle of carburetion in good petrol engines’ – a sip-exhale-swallow-inhale box step that, he believed, forced the brandy into the lungs in ‘a fine mist; goes into your bloodstream faster’. The writer AE Hotchner, meanwhile, remembers meeting Hemingway in 1948 in a downtown Havana bar, accompanied by two conical vats of frozen daquiri. The Papa Doble had been raised by Ernest in its natural Cuban habitat over a period of several years, and the iteration that sat before them, Hemingway felt, was ‘the ultimate achievement of the daiquiri maker’s art.’ (Hotchner recalls little else from the rum-hazed afternoon, but it is a testament to Hemingway’s prodigious tolerance that the katzenjammered reporter awoke at 6 am to find the old boy rapping at his hotel door, insistent that the two take to the water for a spot of marlin fishing.) Then there’s the freezing of water in tennis ball tubes: just the right size, Hemingway learned through trial and error, to sit in a pitcher of drink without diluting it too much. Perhaps most telling of all, though, is the recent discovery of a mind-numbing scotch and champagne formulation amongst Hemingway’s medical files. The heady tonic is dated to 1951, a time when the writer’s health was at an all time low: it has posthumously been dubbed by Hemingway historians ‘Physician, Heal Thyself.’

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