If the moral theologians in practice among us were engined by anything properly describable as apostolic zeal, they would be giving over a large part of their time, in these apocalyptic days, to teaching their catechumens how to drink. For it must be manifest that some such teaching is sorely needed in this great republic. Drinking with skill and taste is no more a natural art than love; either it must be learned by the onerous process of trial and error, or it must be taught. Plainly enough, the latter way is the better; but so far there is no sign that the guides appointed for gropers are ready to take it.
The fact, of course, is not surprising, for moral science is always a bit laggard, and it is especially so in the United States. It took our appointed moralists at least twenty years to discover that there was a demand among the young for instruction in the enigmas of sex, and even today they linger far behind the best contemporary thought on the subject. Maybe a good deal of their backwardness on the drink question, like their bad showing on the sex question, is due to the fact that they really know very little about it. Not many clergymen could be called, with any plausibility, informed and accomplished drinkers. Perhaps a majority of them, or nearly a majority, are teetotalers. Among the rest, I know half a dozen who can tell claret from Burgundy without noting the shape of the bottle, and two or three (all of them foreign-born) who know why Pilsner is better than steam beer; but they are exceptions. The average clergyman, though people may envy him his apparently easy life, really lives very meagerly, and it is not often that he gets a whack at first-rate wines and liquors. Thus it is probably asking too much to expect him to enlighten the young.
My qualifications, I suppose, ought to be stated. I have been a student of alcoholic beverages for more than thirty years.
The school-teachers are in even worse case. They are, as a class, extremely stupid persons, and seldom find out anything until the rest of us have begun to forget it. Moreover, they are naturally timorous and always jump at a woof. During the thirteen years of prohibition the Anti-Saloon League had at them so violently that three fourths of them became professed drys, and even today they tremble in fear that it may reconquer the country and put them on the spot again. This throws the burden of instruction on the only agency of moral didactics that is left—to wit, the public press; and as one of the humble jack tars of its crew I hasten to shoulder my share. My qualifications, I suppose, ought to be stated. I have been a student of alcoholic beverages for more than thirty years, and have pursued my studies all over the area comprised between San Francisco in the west, Istanbul in the east, Oslo in the north, and Caracas in the south. I have read all the principal textbooks on the subject, and have made personal visits to such shrines of the booze arts as Rüdesheim, Bernkastel, Nierstein, Bordeaux, Beaune, Budapest, Malaga, Madeira, Curacao, Pontarlier, Cognac, Pilsen, Munich, Kulmbach, and Würzburg.
Nor have I visited these places in an idle and voluptuous spirit: I have always gone into huddles with their resident wiseacres, made thousands of notes, and undertaken tests of a scientific character, sometimes at considerable risk. In 1910, while carrying on an investigation of Lacrima Cristi, I narrowly escaped an eruption of Vesuvius; in 1912 I came down with arsenic poisoning after a study of English bitter; and in 1922 I picked up rheumatism in the catacombs of the Bürgerbrauhaus at Pilsen. Such information as I have garnered has not been kept to myself. On the contrary, I have published it freely, seeking to benefit humanity. During the thirteen years of prohibition I composed and printed no less than 2,500,000 words in long and short meter against that great assault upon American liberties, and had to bear a vigorous counterassault by its proponents. Some of them prayed for me publicly and suggestively, but more of them damned me; and I was compared at different times to Czolgosz, Lenin, Ingersoll, Darwin, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. To this day it is widely believed in Arkansas that I am in the pay of both Wall Street and the Bolsheviki, and in no less than six states, including my native State of Maryland, it has been proposed openly that I be burned at the stake. Such are my medals and diplomas: what I have to recommend may be set forth almost as briefly. Two simple principles lie at the bottom of the whole matter, and they may be precipitated into two rules. The first is that, when there is a choice, the milder drink is always the better—not merely the safer but the better. The second is that no really enlightened drinker ever takes a drink at a time when he has any work to do. There is, of course, more to it than this; but these are sufficient for the beginner, and even the virtuoso never outgrows them.
When there is a choice, the milder drink is always the better—not merely the safer but the better.
The second is the more important. It is indeed astounding how the error persists that ethyl alcohol is a stimulant. If schoolteachers really had the confidence of their customers there would be no such nonsense afloat, for they have been teaching for many years that alcohol is not a stimulant but a depressant: it is, I dare say, one of the few things they teach that is indubitably true. Yet multitudes of people, having been fooled in school in so many other ways, go on believing the contrary, and as a result they drink when drinking can do them only damage, and avoid it when it might be a great boon to them. The physical and mental effects of alcohol, whether in large doses or small, are very simple. Physically, it slows down all the bodily processes, save maybe digestion, and produces a faint and pleasant drowsiness. And mentally it works in almost the same way. That is, it causes what the psychologists call a raising of the threshold of sensation. The external world retreats a bit, and its challenges become less insistent. The drinker is not so much disturbed as he was by what goes on around him, and so his reaction to it is more friendly and tolerant. And simultaneously he is not so much disturbed as he was by what goes on within his own head, and thus he gathers a sense of contentment and well-being.
Plainly enough, all this is not a good preparation for hard work, whether mental or physical. When a man has work to do he should have all his nerves and muscles alert, and his mind should be leaping here and there like a gazelle, seizing avidly upon every idea. A single glass of beer is enough to incommode and cripple the process. It produces a glow, but that glow is not the fruit of energy but of indolence. The drinker feels better, but he is less efficient, and the prohibitionists are quite right when they bring forth their proofs that he can't add up figures as accurately as a cold-sober man, or drive as many nails in an hour, or get through as much of any other kind of work. The bar of the future will be influenced by the ignorance of the present drinkers and by the intelligence of the present bartenders. I'll confess right now that most of the wisdom I am here writing down I got from Mr. Jack Fitz-Gerald, president and chief professor of the Bartenders School.
The ideal bar will have enough glass in the top to let you see what the bartender is doing.
Before prohibition, drinkers knew their liquor. Now even the wisest of us may grope helplessly unless we can recognize the bottle we met the other night at a friend's. Therefore the bar must lay out bottles for the drinker to recognize. In the old bar fine art had a place—good-natured Venuses; now we need the wall space for the dummy bottles. Of course you might keep the mural paintings by locating the receding shelves for bottles beneath the top of the back bar. Either way, the shelves should be of glass, with mirrors behind them. It is sometimes the other side of the bottle that the drinker recognizes. The ideal bar will have enough glass in the top to let you see what the bartender is doing. A good bartender desires your eyes upon him as he mixes the drink. It's a graceful act.
"The station" is the technical term for the spot where the drinks are mixed. Indispensable elements of the station are a small sink, a drain board, a receptacle for shaved ice, compartments for vermuth, gin, etc., and trays for sliced orange and lemon, olives, cherries, and limes. In the old days the arrangement was individual or haphazard. Today the layout is standardized, like the keyboard of a typewriter, and the bartender works by the touch system. The bottles must be in their right places, so that he can reach for them automatically.
Do you realize that your unthinking indulgence in ice-cream sodas during prohibition is now weakening the lumbar muscles and even displacing the kidneys of present-day bartenders? The heartless or ill-informed bar designer is putting forth a monstrosity modeled upon the soda fountain, which places between the bartender and the bar top the ice boxes, the receptacles for empties, and anything else you can think of to make the bartender bend at the waist. This cruelty must stop!
The ideal bar would permit the bartender to stand up straight and mix the drinks without any unnatural stretch forward. The receptacles for empties would be installed beneath the counter. Above them would be the stations. The ice boxes would be at a convenient height in the back bar. A bar is a place of spontaneous and generous emotions. A large number of old-time bartenders, after a few years on a modest salary, were able to start again as proprietors of their own saloons. Their capital, it is surmised, had been accumulated involuntarily by those payments for drinks which in the good-fellowship of the moment they forgot to record. The old-time saloon owner, lacking the exaltation of immediate contact with his customers, became jealous of his bartender, and in a moment of epoch-making meanness installed the cash register. The effect of this soulless machine upon our national character has not yet been sufficiently investigated.
We may note here, however, its influence upon the location of the beer keg in the ideal bar of the future. Since beer more often than not will be called for, and since all drinks must be properly rung up, the scientific spirit insists that there shall be one cash register for each beer keg. When I say beer keg I speak symbolically, since there will be a complete beer station, supplying different kinds of beer from barrels in the cellar, with only the spigots emerging at the counter top.
The more rational man knows that there is something even more important in life, and that its name is living.
But who wants to work all the time? Only very foolish people. The more rational man knows that there is something even more important in life, and that its name is living. He is willing to work hard in his working hours, but when they are over he wants to relax, expand, and be happy. The whole object of labor, as he sees it, is to give human beings this release and reward. Well, here is where alcohol comes in. In its milder and more palatable forms, as in wine, it remains unmatched after all these centuries as a maker of cheer. One finds eloquent encomiums of it in both the Old Testament and the New, and it is praised in the profane literature of every great people. There have been, in late years, some large advances in pharmacology, but no substitute for ethyl alcohol in dilute aqueous solution, suitably flavored and aged, has ever been discovered.
The time to use it is when the work of the day is done. That it is bad medicine in the morning is proved by the fact that no one, at that time, ever craves it in its milder and more benign forms: the appetite for it, if there be any appetite at all, is for a quick dose of something strong. Nor is it capable of its best effects at midday, save the whole day be a holiday and the afternoon be free for loafing. But on all days it is meet and suitable with the coming of twilight and during the hours thereafter. A good dinner is made doubly good by being washed down in the ancient manner of civilized men, and a good sleep is made doubly sound and refreshing if the sleeper first untangles his nerves and quiets his brain with a few shots of reliable stuff.
But what is reliable stuff? What is the thing to drink, specifically? I go back to my Rule No. 1. The better thing to drink, whenever there is a choice, is the milder thing. Wine is better than a highball, a highball is better than a cocktail, and a cocktail is better than hard liquor taken straight. To be sure, there are times when the system craves something with a swift and powerful kick. A man just saved from drowning or acquitted of murder is not likely to be content with a glass of beer; he wants a pint of whisky, and he wants it at a gulp. But such inflammatory emergencies are surely not common in normal life.
The typical situation is far less harrowing. The day is done, and the time has come to feed the body and relax the mind. Pleasant companions have gathered, and the aim of every one is to expand and be happy. Each has suffered since morning from the burden of chores and the assault of bores, and each is eager to let go his running rigging, drop his mainsail, and drift along quietly on the evening swell. Does he need a shot of 50-per-cent alcohol to achieve this benignant process? Does he need cocktails full of gin, rum, rye, applejack, and what not, with liqueurs, fruit juices, and bitters to disguise their naked shame? The answer is usually no, and in a perfect world it would be no all the time—but as things stand, alas, it is sometimes a kind of yes.
There are two tests: the company assembled and the dinner in prospect. If the company is made up wholly or in large part of yahoos to whom the only meaning of drinking is getting tight, and if the dinner ahead (as is likely in such a case) promises to be badly cooked and badly served, with nothing decent on the table to wash it down, then go for a cocktail by all means, and then for another, and then for as many more as you can get hold of. For what you need in such a situation is not something to emancipate you from care gently and beautifully, but something to knock you out at one crack. In other words, what you need is not an apéritif but an anæsthetic. Chloroform would be better, or the kick of a mule; but in their absence you must put up with a cocktail.
To drink hard liquor before wine is as barbarous as going to church in a bathing suit or with boxing gloves on.
If, however, you are in civilized and charming company, and a good dinner looms ahead, with sound wines on the table, then even the best cocktail is as far out of place as a college yell at a wedding. The appetizer for such lordly occasions is something milder and more delicate—a glass of sherry or madeira, or maybe one of vermuth without gin. I say a glass, but two will do no harm, and if you have come in more than commonly keyed up and need a double dose of medicine you may even venture upon three or four. But to drink hard liquor before wine is as barbarous as going to church in a bathing suit or with boxing gloves on. It simply insults the whole evening. It is gustatory suicide. All this ought to be taught to the young by the moral leaders of the nation; but, as I have said, they neglect their duty. And when it is broached by the heathen moralists who print cocktail books, How–to–Become–a-Wine–Connoisseur–in–Two-Lessons books, and other such coney-catching trash, it is usually mingled with so much highfaluting but obvious nonsense that the neophyte is repelled. Nearly all of these books teach false doctrines—for example, the doctrine that it is blasphemy to Bacchus to drink white wine with red meat, or red wine with fish. There is some truth under this, but not much. White wine ordinarily is too mild and delicate to bear the harsh flavor of beef—but by the same token it is too mild and delicate to be drunk with many kinds of fish. As for red wine, it must be stout indeed in flavor to score a tie with a T-bone steak or even a mutton chop: the drink that really goes with such heroic victuals is beer, or, better still, ale. A Frenchman does not hesitate to drink white wine with the meat of horned cattle. To be sure, he prefers red; but if he has only white he drinks it gladly, giving thanks to God. And he uses red wine to cook one of his finest fish dishes, bouillabaisse, and more red wine to wash it down. Here the so-called experts are simply intoxicated by the exuberance of their own virtuosity. They preach perfection—which is obnoxious to nature.
We live in the United States, and must be content with what is vouchsafed to us. If you happen to snare a good bottle of red Burgundy, and the cook provides roast chicken for dinner, do not hesitate to use the wine to dilute and adorn the fowl. Nothing will befall you—save only that you will rise from the table a wiser and a happier man. And the next time you see a whisky bottle on a dinner table you will seize it by the neck and beat in the skull of your host. I have left the malt liquors to the last; for my regard for them amounts to veneration, and I fear that if I let myself go on the subject I'd bust into dithyrambs and maybe even into tears. I believe in all seriousness that this would be an immensely happier land if its annual consumption of them were doubled. The politicians burden them with cruel taxes, and in consequence the five-cent schooner is still as small as a wineglass, and the ten-cent family growler remains only a legend of happier times. There are children growing up in our great industrial centers who have never seen their fathers transformed from bent and weary slaves to proud and prancing freemen—all by the homely magic of a can from the Dutchman's at the corner. Yet sound beer is now available to all who have any change jingling in their pockets, and some of the better American brews are really first-rate.
Beer belongs to the end of the day. It begins to be good as the sun goes down, and it goes on increasing in virtue until the sandman makes his rounds. It is the perfect drink for the shank of the evening, when one would be unwise to eat the solid victuals that go with wine. It harmonizes perfectly with all the light and pleasant trifles of the table—sandwiches, bread and cheese, crackers, and so on. It can bear communion with salads, which would be fatal to wine. It slakes the thirst, shushes the medulla oblongata, warms the stomach, and fans the imagination. More good music has been written on beer than on all the other drinks of mankind put together. There is little risk of shipping an overdose of it, for it is transformed into blood, bone, hair, and ideas almost as fast as one can get it down. Can it be that there are people who actually dislike it? It would seem so. Not long ago I invited a prohibitionist to supper, and induced him to drink a horn of Pilsner, assuring him that it wouldn't hurt him and hoping that it would cure him of his mania. He confessed afterward that its effects were surprisingly pleasant and harmless. He retained the use of his so-called faculties, and was aware of no impulse to kick over the table or brain the waiter. But he felt that he had to object to something, and so he objected to the taste. "It is," he said, "too bitter. I'd like it better if it were sweet." Fancy that, Hedda! Pilsner too bitter! That fellow, when he gets to heaven, will object to the fact that angels have wings.
H.L. Mencken was a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun and editor of the American Mercury. This essay was originally published in Liberty Magazine on January 12, 1935.
From 1924 to 1950, Liberty Magazine published the work of such writers and public figures as Greta Garbo, Margaret Sanger, Babe Ruth, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Its weekly circulation reached 3 million. Today, the magazine is largely forgotten, but many of its pieces are being reissued in several collections available on Amazon. The above essay was republished with permission from the collection "Liberty on Drinking."