The Hemingway Gin and Tonic

…or “Some Kind of Hindu drink with Quinine In It

[Phil Greene is our founder in temporary residence in New Zealand, and provides us with his own tasty contemplations regarding the Gin & Tonic]

Mindful of the closing words of Mark Marowitz’s excellent blog posting on February 26, when it comes to a good gin and tonic, why, indeed, wait for summer? You might wonder why I’m writing these words on the last day of winter; well, for me, it’s the last day of summer. Never thought I’d have end-of-summer melancholia in March, but there you have it. I’m spending 2007 in Wellington, New Zealand, doing a research and teaching fellowship in cyberlaw at a local law school and, of course, doing what I can to learn about the local cocktail scene (more on that later). Summer here ends on March 20th, the date of the Autumnal Equinox. We recently “fell back,”set our clocks back one hour, while you blokes above the equator were doing the opposite.

I was recently re-reading Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, and came across a novel approach to the gin and tonic. Indeed, an enterprising barkeep could create quite a bar menu using drinks culled from Islands; similar to other of Papa’s works, his characters are bending the elbow pretty often. In addition to the Gin and Tonic, the following drinks make an appearance: the White Lady, the Tom Collins (several variations on a theme), Victoria Vat Whisky & Soda, the Martini, the Green Isaac’s Special (a Hemingway creation), the Whisky Sour (with Irish whisky, no less), the Rum Swizzle, Old Parr Scotch and Perrier, gin with coconut water and lime, and “whisky….the one with the little lamb on it.” Oh, yes, let’s not forget Heineken beer (“very cold,” with breakfast, “to cut that damn phlegm”), and the quintessential Hemingway drink, the Double Frozen Daiquiri.

The protagonist, Thomas Hudson, lives on the island of Bimini. Book one centers on the summer-long visit of Hudson’s three young sons to the island.

“The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship. It was shaded by tall coconut palms that were bent by the trade winds and on the ocean side you could walk out of the door and down the bluff across the white sand and into the Gulf Stream.”

Chapter One finds Thomas Hudson at home, preparing to head down to Mr. Bobby’s bar, the Ponce de Leon. The loyal British subjects of Bimini are “drinking a little in anticipation of the Queen’s birthday.” Joseph, his houseboy, offers him something.

“You knocked off for the day, ain’t you?”

“Thank you, Joseph, I don’t think I want anything.”

“Little gin and tonic?”

“No, I think I’ll go down and have one at Mr. Bobby’s.”

“Drink one here, it’s cheaper. Mr. Bobby was in an evil mood when I went by. Too many mixed drinks he says. Somebody off a yacht asked him for something called a White Lady and he served her a bottle of that American mineral water with a lady in white kinda mosquito netting dress sitting by a spring.”
“I better be getting down there.”

“Let me mix you one first. You got some mails on the pilot boat. You can read your mails and drink the drink and then go down to Mr. Bobby’s.”

“All right.”

“Good thing,” said Joseph. “Because I already mixed it.”

Nothing in the world so valuable as a bartender who anticipates his patrons’ wants.

Thomas Hudson eventually makes it down to the Ponce de Leon, indeed finding the proprietor “in an evil mood,” with “too many mixed drinks” being ordered by “that trash comes in on yachts,” referring to the nouveau-riche that Hemingway describes so well in To Have and Have Not. It seems the yachting crowd are ordering frou-frou drinks like the White Lady (gin, Cointreau and lemon juice, basically a Sidecar with gin instead of brandy; some recipes include egg white). Undaunted, Mr. Bobby apparently gave the poor woman a bottle of White Rock mineral water for her trouble. Apparently, he preferred the beer and grog crowd.

Upon arriving, Thomas opts for another gin and tonic. But even this classic highball is too much for the evil-mooded Mr. Bobby this day.

Thomas Hudson went into the bar where it was cool and almost dark after the glare of the coral road and had a gin and tonic water with a piece of lime peel in the glass and a few drops of Angostura in the drink. …. He stood there, holding the long, pleasantly bitter drink, tasting the first swallow of it, and it reminded him of Tanga, Mombasa, and Lamu and all that coast and he had a sudden nostalgia for Africa. ….

“Tom, do you really like the taste of that stuff?” Bobby asked him.

“Sure, or I wouldn’t drink it.”

“I opened a bottle by mistake once and it tasted like quinine.”

“It’s got quinine in it.”

“People sure are crazy,” Bobby said. “Man can drink anything he wants. He has money to pay for it. He’s supposed to be taking his pleasure and he spoils good gin by putting it into some kind of Hindu drink with quinine in it.”

“It tastes good to me. I like the quinine taste with the lime peel. I think it sort of opens up the pores of the stomach or something. I get more of a kick out of than any other gin drink. It makes me feel good.”

“I know. Drinking always makes you feel good. Drinking makes me feel terrible.”

Later, still disdainful of Thomas’ “mixed drink,” Bobby relinquishes the job to him when Thomas needs a refill.

“How about another one of those?”

“Yes, damn it. I forget this is a bar room. God bless the Queen, Tom. We’re forgetting what day it is, too. Here, have one on me and we’ll drink to her health.”

He poured himself a small glass of rum and handed Thomas Hudson the bottle of Booth’s yellow gin, some limes on a plate, a knife, and a bottle of Schweppes’s Indian Tonic Water.

“Fix your own damn drink. The hell with those fancy drinks.”

After Thomas Hudson had made the drink and shaken a few drops of bitters in it from the bottle that had a gull’s quill in the cork, he raised his glass and then looked down the bar.

“What are you two drinking? Name it if it’s simple.”

“Dog’s Head,” one of the sailors said.

“Dog’s Head it is,” Bobby said and reached into the ice tub and handed them the two cold bottles of ale. “The glasses are out. Rummies been throwing the glasses away all day. Everybody got their drinks? Gentlemen, The Queen. I don’t think she’d care much for this island and I’m not sure she’d do extremely well here. But gentlemen, The Queen. God bless her.” They all drank to her health. ……..

“Whose birthday did he say it was?” one of the sailors asked.

“Queen Mary of England,” Bobby said. “Mother of the present King Emperor.”

“That’s the one the Queen Mary’s named after, isn’t it?” the other sailor asked.

“Tom,” said Bobby, “You and I will drink the next toast alone.”

Well, if the end of summer supposedly brings to us the end of gin and tonic season, at least I have one thing to look forward to; I’ve only got a month to wait until Queen Elizabeth’s actual birthday (April 21), something I’m expecting the Kiwis won’t let pass without some observance (nor will I). Indeed, for reasons that have yet escaped this hapless Yank, the official date for celebration the Queen’s Birthday in New Zealand is on June 4th (which is a different date from that chosen by the Aussies, go figure). A bit of a moveable feast, as it were (no Hemingway pun intended, honest). For more info on this royal mess, see this link:

The Queen, God bless her! Here, have one on me and we’ll drink to her health.

Phil Greene

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