by George Yatchisin
If you’ve ever wondered how historical nonfiction can be dry like a martini and not dry like a textbook tome, you need to pick up Cecelia Tichi’s Gilded Age Cocktails. A professor of American literature and culture at Vanderbilt (and the Commodore who founded that university even makes an appearance in the book, as both a figure and a cocktail), Tichi brings to glittering life what it meant to drink from 1870-1910. Chock full of quotes from primary sources of the day with titles like 1890’s Society as I Have Found It, Tichi makes clear how much lubrication kept this period of history afloat, prior to the double blow of a first World War and Prohibition.
This was an era when you could take the Grand Trunk railroad across the Niagara while imbibing a martini for a mere 20¢, could delight in the grandest of champagne-fueled balls on Fifth Avenue, could indulge in a Honolulu Cocktail without ever trekking to Hawaii, and, yes could unfortunately wake up groggy and robbed, barely remembering a last drink at Chicago’s Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden Restaurant, managed by a mean man named Mickey Finn. It’s all these tales Tichi tells, weaving history in a fun if boozily arranged line.
Of course, the man often thought of as the father of mixology, Professor Jerry Thomas, makes an early appearance in this slim volume, but he’s just one of the fascinating cast of real-life characters. Given a previous work of Tichi’s is What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Golden Age, it’s no surprise that Caroline Astor and Emily Post are often at the heart of the New York to Newport society story. While Tichi does quote Willa Cather (and the book’s bibliography is rich and would reward much further reading), that she omits Edith Wharton does seem a loss. Often the book seems to be narrated in the voice of Joanne Woodard, who did the honors for Martin Scorsese’s film of The Age of Innocence.
For at what point does a raised eyebrow go from signaling bemused delight to offhand disdain? That’s, of course, at the heart of navigating society, for according to Tichi, it’s Emily Post herself who says that “one hostess immediately served champagne, complaining that guests are ‘dull as dishwater…till the champagne comes.’” It’s a careful, easy to blow, balancing act—just ask one of the book’s presiding, shall we say, spirits, Jack London. A man who loved drink so much he had batched cocktails shipped to him from San Francisco to Sonoma, he also wrote John Barelycorn when he realized alcohol had taken him over. If only he had listened to the advice of William Schmidt, author of one of the earliest bartender guides, 1891’s The Flowing Bowl: When and What to Drink. Schmidt wrote, “However well-mixed a drink is, much of the flavor will be lost unless politeness is added.”
And there are many drink recipes added; the basic format of the book is a bit of history followed by a recipe or three that stems from that history. Take the chapter “Quaffing Collegians.” However, one might have wished to have been educated in the eminence of the Ivy League, the cocktails named after these esteemed colleges tend to be mere martini or Manhattan knock offs; perhaps the coeds were too busy exploring philosophy to come up with something uniquely tasty.
In general, the recipes seem more to study than to shake (or stir) one one’s own, and in fact sometimes they make clear how much better modern drink interpretations have become. When discussing New Orleans, Tichi offers a historic Sazerac that includes vermouth and no sugar (the horrors!). When she offers a Ramos Gin Fizz recipe, the steps don’t advise you to dry shake the ingredients—that is, shake without ice the first time, as egg whites get foamily explosive if you shake them at first with the ice—so things could get messy in someone’s kitchen, or if you’re in the book’s mood, manly den. Still, Tichi’s a historian, not a mixologist, so she can be forgiven. Especially since the book’s coda is a two-page chapter extolling the joys of bitters, that category of botanicals originally sold by apothecaries and once again, as during the Gilded Age, the final tincture of delight added to the best drinks. For, of course, we are in so many ways in our own Gilded Age again, for better, for bitter, for worse.