Bernard DeVoto

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Originally from:
Ogden, Utah


New York

Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

In November 1955, the academic-turned-journalist, Bernard DeVoto, keeled over and died. One of his longest-lasting legacies? His cocktail manifesto.

The purist's purist, and the spiritual ancestor of any bartender who loathes vodka, hates fussy drinks and tends to the fascistic on drinks preparation, Bernard DeVoto is currently undergoing a bit of a revival.

His post-war classic "The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto" has been re-released, bringing his supremely styled curmudgeonism to a whole new audience.

How curmudgeonly?

There are, in DeVoto's universe, only two drinks. Both of them men's drinks.

American whiskey, perhaps with a dash of bitters - Angostura only - or, at a push, plain soda for a highball. And the Martini - to which both olives and pickled onions are anathema.

Possibly a dry sherry, too.

This was, after all, 1948, a time when the combined impact of Prohibition and World War II had cut a swathe through the drinking scene.

Bizarrely, in DeVoto's world, even the Manhattan is the devil's work - "an offense against piety".

Yet his period piece of a book is well worth reading. It's a paean to the civilized and civilizing qualities of alcohol, the magic of the cocktail hour, a release from stress that takes you straight into the world of 'Mad Men', a world where men were men and liquor was a serious subject.

Like his contemporary David Embury, DeVoto was a serious man who took his booze extremely seriously.

DeVoto wasn't, of course, a bartender. Just a passionate home enthusiast.

In fact, he was better known as an academic and writer, less mixer of cocktails than a social mixer, hanging out with the literary and political elite of his day.

A literary critic, Pulitzer Prize winner and columnist, DeVoto worked on Mark Twain's papers. He wrote an acclaimed history of the American Mid-West, along with several novels.

And you could argue that his enthusiasm for booze, and publication on the subject, was a kick against the state where he was born and raised: Mormon, temperant Utah.

Throughout DeVoto's career both food and booze stayed close to his heart. His wife, Avis, whom he met when she was his student at Harvard, became both friends with and editor of the cook Julia Child, after Child wrote a fan letter to her husband.

She would also edit the work of Elizabeth David, helping, in her way, to transform the American culinary landscape.

And, as Avis worked on food, her husband, in parallel, worked on booze.

DeVoto's style is didactic, snobby, highbrow: "I have already declared the gospel in full but let's make the main points again. Martinis, slugs of whiskey, highballs, and if you must an old-fashioned. Nothing else. You don't care to know anybody who wants anything else."

He had no time for the mixed drinks of the modern era, the Tiki style drinks that were appearing, or even the classics of his youth, such as the Bronx: "Let's be clear about this: no Manhattans and no rum."

Yet in among the posturing, there is good solid advice. Ice should be so cold it smokes when the gin is poured. Fruit salad has no place in an Old-Fashioned.

A cocktail, in DeVoto's world, is a serious matter, one of the greatest creations of the American spirit, and a thing to be made well.

And though he might have been surprised to see the afterlife this slimmest of his books has had, we think he'd appreciate the precision and passion of today's bartenders - even as he sneered at the drinks.

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