Alcohol and fiction are rekindling a longstanding romance.
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Literary Cocktails
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Alcohol has a longstanding relationship to literature. Often deployed by writers as an allusion to character, drinks can also serve as a metaphor for sorrow, desire or strength. Ian Fleming’s British agent James Bond or Stephen King’s Jack Torrance from The Shining are two examples of how writers use the bottle to reveal and revel in who their characters are.

In an unofficial tribute of sorts to this relationship, historic New York City book haven Strand hosted its first ever literary cocktail event earlier this week. A lowkey ticketed social held in the seller’s third floor Rare Book Room, guests spent the evening mingling amongst the crowd and the books while sipping on the “Pomegranate Margarita Atwood,” a sweet and tart cocktail created by Minibar Delivery’s in-house mixologist.

“A ‘Margarita Atwood’ cocktail was too good to pass up,” Minibar Delivery's co-founder Lara Crystal tells Food & Wine. “[It’s] seasonally appropriate and also a subtle nod to the red cloaks in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”

According to Strand Events Coordinator Peter Enzinna, Minibar Delivery—an online marketplace for wine, beer, and spirits—approached the literary landmark about co-hosting the event. Acquainting attendees with the book and wine sellers in a relaxed atmosphere was only part of the catch, the other was turning drinks among friends (and the pages) into more than an afterthought. Minibar Delivery has hosted events around other aspects of pop culture, including the Super Bowl and awards shows, but last Monday marked the first time the spirits company, like the bookstore, had held an event of this kind.

“Our events are mostly book launches and conversations about new releases, so the most frequent food or wine on hand is a simple bar with wine for guests,” Enzinna tells Food & Wine.

That’s clearly starting to change, a creative venture made easier by an increasing obsession with pairing what we watch and listen to with food and drinks. From Star Wars bars to Saturday Night Live wines, Hollywood is moving beyond grocery store tie-ins and turning to custom themed menus for marketing. However, unlike TV and film, books are being somewhat left out of this mainstream money-making and personal appreciation tide.

And it’s somewhat odd, considering our culture’s long love affair with drinks and stories. Humans have been drinking alcohol for around 9,000 years and telling stories even longer. Authors like Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and Stephen King frequently discussed the personal and creative influence of the bottle and characters likes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan and Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy exhibit a weakness or passion for a good, stiff drink. But more so than coffee or tea, alcohol isn’t just highly referenced (or used). It’s also embedded within the literary community’s identity.

This is something that Novela, a chic San Francisco cocktail bar inspired by Ernest Hemingway, understands. Born out of the craft cocktail movement and founder John Park’s interest in the For Whom the Bell Tolls author, the bar features walls of color chromatic-arranged books, exposed brick, and delicate iridescent chandelier lighting. Books are available to read while you drink, and every title is selected by Novela’s staff who purchase them from local and antique sellers.

The bar also features pieces of literary history, including authentic J.D. Salinger autographs and a few written pieces from Jack Kerouac. And of course, what would it be without a themed drink menu? Chock full of what Novela General Manager Suzanne Miller calls “cocktails with character,” customers are treated to drinks like Hemingway’s “Code Hero” Punch, a mix of three whiskeys and Earl Grey tea, with other added liqueurs and juices.

Credit: Kelly Puleio

There is also the Leopold Bloom, a nod to American writer and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, which features hibiscus-infused Citadelle gin, housemade pineapple syrup, muddled mint, and grapefruit zest.

Leopold Bloom
Credit: Kelly Puleio

Miller, who has been with Novela since its opening in 2013, sees the bar not as a trend, but as a manifestation and celebration of naturally complementary interests.

“To me it makes sense,” Miller tells Food & Wine. “[Novela is] certainly not a book club, by any means. It comes together looking a bit like a stylish gallery. But historically speaking, the authors that a lot of us end up idolizing were big drinkers. They drank all the time and wrote about drinking. There’s a culture around it.”

In spite of the serious lack of literary pop-ups and cocktail events, booze and books are a pairing so organic we often don’t think about it. Tim Federle, novelist, screenplay writer and cocktail book author, conceived the idea for Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With A Literary Twist after his mother let it slip what she and her friends like to do at bookclub.

“Basically, [my mother] accidentally revealed to me that every time the ladies would get together, they would put the books down and open a bottle of wine,” Federle tells Food & Wine. “I thought, ‘Oh, that's like a marriage made in heaven.’”

While pop-culture communities around TV and film are often the loudest, literary fandom (the collective community of book fans) has been around far longer and can often include more people. One of several cocktail books by Federle, Tequila Mockingbird features 65 “word nerd” recipes, some crowdsourced and 70% of which were created to resonate “with anybody who knows anything about books.” That includes “The Pitcher of Dorian Grey Goose” and “Are You There, God? It's Me, Margarita.”

“There's something about books that—especially these really classic stories—they're not trendy,” Federle says. “They're part of our English lit classes but also our [fan culture].”

Federle is right in that our cultural love around books is not new, and while companies may just be realizing the potential for bringing drinks and books together, fans have always both creatively and casually celebrated their favorite stories over and through drinks. It’s undeniable that literature and alcohol are two of the oldest ways in which people can appreciate something with people to join you. And that’s the real secret behind our current pop culture drink craze.

We all just want to enjoy things unabashedly in others (real or fictional) company. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “I drink to make other people more interesting.”