The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

* *  *

For White’s idiosyncratic twist on the classic martini, look to the letters. In July 1979, he outlined a recipe for a gin-based drink that gives the requisite nod to vermouth, while adding some sweet and sour to the standard martini fare. Apricot brandy sounds like such a grandfatherly ingredient, but it’s making a resurgence in the craft cocktail arena, particularly in those faux speakeasies. Serve while wearing your best suspenders.

(From The Letters of E.B. White)

“Equal parts lime juice, apricot brandy, honey, and dry vermouth. Stir this all together (you only need a tiny amount of the whole business), then add 4 times the amount of gin. Plenty of ice, stir, and serve.”

White also made a handy note on portions: “For 2 people, you need only 1/2 ounce of each of the four funny ingredients. Then you need 8 ounces of gin, or what a baby would drink from a bottle.” For those of us who aren’t alcoholic infants, that’s 1 tablespoon of each of the first 4 ingredients to 1 cup gin.

**Note: Apricot brandy, being a liqueur, is already quite sweet, so I prefer to cut the honey to 1/2 tablespoon and add an additional squeeze of lime.


9 thoughts on “The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

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