“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares; if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” –Ernest Hemingway
Monday July 21 was Ernest Hemingway’s 115th birthday. The American author and journalist is no longer alive to enjoy it. The responsibility falls upon us; the admirers, the imbibers, the toasters to his craft, the carriers of his legend and at times the embellishers of that same legend. Hemingway is celebrated as one of the greatest American writers, an adventurer, and a lover of the drink. He called modern life a mechanical oppression and liquor was the only mechanical relief. Myself, I do not observe the date with regularity, Monday being my first dance with honoring Papa. I do seek out barstools with regularity. It was my gal who brought the holiday to my attention with a link to a cocktail proclaimed to be the sole beverage previously unbeknownst to the historians, dubbed Death In The Afternoon.
Quarter ounce absinthe poured into a champagne flute, topped with the bubbles, and a garnish of lemon peel, it contains the sweetness that Hemingway favored. The legitimacy was believable unlike the mojito rumor, easily dispelled since Hemingway was a diabetic—the tricks of Caribbean con artists in the resort circuit. With a recipe in mind, she and I patroned Red Rabbit, knowing their craftsmen would most likely have the ingredients required.
Turns out, we were not alone in observing Papa’s birthday. The evening’s drink specials were titled Monday Rhumday, a list of four Hemingway-inspired cocktails. The classic Hemingway Daiquiri was there, as well as three selections conceived by the staff, yet faithful to the research documented on the writer’s palate. But, no Death In The Afternoon. We would have to go off-menu. The inquiry made was met with rapid confirmation and discretion. The traditional recipe was deemed harsh. Our bartender had his variation on the recipe. We ordered a Death In The Afternoon, amended, and a [sic]Hemmingway.
Did Hemingway coin “Death In The Afternoon” as a drink and a collection of bull fight passages? Doubtful. The book So Red The Nose, or, Breath In The Afternoon is cited as the origin of the recipe, a book written as a collection of cocktail recipes submitted by famous authors. I would research further, like a responsible journo I proclaim to be, but doing so would bleed my pockets of $250 better spent on more nights called Monday Rhumday, Tuesday Boozeday, Thursday Slurrrsday, ad nauseam. Still, the name persists and resonates among bartenders and mixologists for better or worse.
It does not taste of death, but rather its cyclical counterpart. Champagne will always feel like celebration, feel like winning a championship. Swirl the tingle of bubbles into a milky froth with the elixir of absinthe, that green fairy rumored to send sane men to madness and madmen to greatness, and the combination disappears down your gullet with such ease you’ll be searching for a hole in the flute stem. The Hemmingway (and it pains me to continuously write this typo) was merely sweet, but the chill left it watery. Papa loved his cocktails ice cold, going to great lengths in ice preparation and glass chilling—a Nick Adams level of attentiveness—to get the frozen sensation to his likening. Perhaps, his only discredit in being an expert in libations (imagine Hemingway supporting the marketing practices of Coors Light). Red Rabbit is better than watery.
With two down, a third needed to be explored. We ordered a Rum Swizzle, which consisted of Diplomatico Aged rum, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, and nutmeg. The preparation involved a burlap sack of ice, beaten mercilessly, and to a level that would have pleased Hemingway—that guy and his ice obsession. As shown in the photo, there are levels to the Rum Swizzle; the rummy, boozy bottom, an icey watery center, and a tart—almost pickled—top layer. Move the straw to the varying levels to make each sip different, or suck down the boozy stuff and let the top layers sink into a flavored chaser. The result will be the same: satisfaction.
Though the chance to honor the writer on his 115th birthday passed, his preferred recipes pair well with summer weather. From his time in Cuba, he became synonymous with daiquiris (further reading here) and though the cocktail has since been commandeered by resort tourists, when done right, it can retain its association with great men and women who seek great drinks like they seek class and valor. Ask for a Death in the Afternoon, and hold a steady and confident look, as the heads in your peripheral turn to admire your choice.