GK Chesterton on the cowardice of cocktails

2 Aug

“Now there is a human and eternal philosophy of the Drink Question; and three-quarters of the present trouble arises from not facing what it really is. It could not be better illustrated than in the way in which people quarrel over what is called the Cocktail Habit. The quarrel is as much a habit as the cocktail; and neither is referred back to any independent reason. Here perhaps the old buffers have a slight advantage over the young boozers; for being drunk is a matter of fact while being Victorian is only a matter of fashion. But the old buffers do not know how to defend their own fine shade of drunkenness; nor could they give any particular reason for thinking a Dry Martini as deadly as a Martini rifle, while regarding a Benedictine as a Benediction.

Now I have watched the cock-fight about cocktails with all its crowings and scratchings, with some interest; I have heard snobbish praises and priggish reproofs. But I have hardly heard anybody remark on the most interesting thing; the real reason for cocktails. Perhaps it would be fairer to say, one of the two or three real reasons for it. The reason is Prohibition; or the morality that was the making of Prohibition. In other words, the reason was Hypocrisy. It is worth remarking, when the cocktail has become the pledge and symbol of a social life boasting of frankness and freedom. The Bright Young Thing is the better for brazening it out; but she is the worse for having selected, of all things, as a thing to be brandished, a thing that was really invented in order to be concealed.

Cocktails are perhaps the only practical product of Prohibition. They are certainly, I should imagine, the only part of Prohibition in which America will really succeed in setting a Great Example to the world. But the way in which the Prohibitionist morality operated is obvious enough. The reason why the American millionaire does not drink wine or beer with his meals, like all poorer and better Christians, is simple if not dignified. It was summed up admirably by an American in an excellent cartoon in Life, a cartoon entitled “Henpecked”. He prefers to be a Prohibitionist on public occasions; especially those highly important public occasions when he meets his wife. Hence arose, originally, the habit of the males of the party consuming hurried, secret  and very potent drinks before they assembled at the table. It was necessary that the sort of drink should be one that could be gulped down quickly; it was necessary that it should be very strong for its size; and it was natural that it should make a sort of separate science of luxury in itself. Later, of course, the case was complicated by other modern movements, and some sections of feminine society becoming fast society. But that was what determined the novelty and the nature of this remarkable sort of refreshment. It was, quite simply, a tippling husband hiding from a nagging wife. It is not a very noble origin even for a modern mode.

Now this fashion of accepting fashions from anywhere and anybody, and merely as such, has, as in the present case, produced fashions that are really inferior, even as such. America happens to be teetoal (in theory) and America happens to be very rich; and for these two rather undignified reasons we are bound to accept the dregs of its secret drinking. We are to swill the rinsings of its ridiculous cocktail glasses, like sneakish servants or schoolboys after a dinner-party; instead of drinking decently at our dinner-table after our own dinner. These historical origins of the thing explain but do not excuse. The Cocktail Habit is to be condemned, not because it is American or alcoholic, not because it is fast or fashionable, but because it is, on a common-sense consideration, a worse way of drinking; more hasty, less healthy, even less desirable to anybody left to the honest expression of his own desires. It is not Victorian or Edwardian; it is not peculiar to Victoria any more than Vespasian; it is rudimentary human nature that is more natural to sit still and talk, and even drink, after dinner, than to stand up and gulp before dinner.

I know it is possible to hear a feeble voice pleading, in the defence of these things, that they give a man an appetite for his meals. Perhaps the last touch is given to their degradation and destruction, by this being said in their defence. The cocktail is the coward’s drink; in the light of its actual origins in America. The cocktail is the weakling’s drink; even in the light of the excuses made for it in England. In the first aspect, it is unworthy of a generation that is always claiming to be candid and courageous. In the second aspect, it is utterly unworthy of a generation that claims to keep itself fit by tennis and golf and all sorts of athletics. What are these athletes worth if, after all their athletics, they cannot scratch up such a thing as natural appetite? Most of my own work is, I will not venture to say, literary, but at least sedentary. I never do anything except walk about and throw clubs and javelins in the garden. But I never require anything to give me an appetite for a meal. I never yet needed a tot of rum to help me go over the top and face the mortal perils of luncheon.”

— GK Chesterton,  Sidelights (1932) in Collected Works, vol. XXI (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp 467-598  (pp. 492-4).

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