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Philosophy & Cocktails

Robin Small will have a Martini – stirred, not shaken.

Several books on wine and philosophy have appeared in recent years. Amongst these, Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am (2011) stands out to me as a discussion that treats the subject in detail. But a striking feature of that book is its dismissive mention of cocktails. Scruton clearly thinks that getting drunk is the only reason for drinking a cocktail – or rather, for drinking more than one, since he assumes you will keep going until you reach that goal. That looks like a recycling of the old line about the quickest way out of Manchester being a bottle of gin. But linking cocktails with binge drinking is just a ruse, which in turn suggests a more positive response to them. Might it be that something of philosophical interest can be found in cocktails, as much as has been found in wine?

I can see one problem already. Discussions of wine – and especially of philosophy and wine – tend to be earnest. Wine drinking is evidently a serious business. In contrast, cocktails have a reputation for being frivolous. Many of them come with straws, little umbrellas, and pieces of fruit, and go by silly names. Surely no thoughtful discourse on, say, the nature of love, can be given with one of those concoctions in hand? Maybe not. Still, I want to argue that cocktails have theoretical dimensions as interesting as the ideas explored by philosophers of wine; and given that so much theorising has been done about wine, it’s high time to do something similar for cocktails. Eventually I will go a step further, and argue, or at least insinuate, that cocktails and philosophy have some strong affinities.

Bond martini
James Bond drinks a Martini, dirty, in Spectre
Spectre still © MGM/Columbia Pictures 2015

There Are Cocktails, And There Is The Martini

But first, anyone writing about cocktails must acknowledge the Dry Martini as a special case. Its place in a philosophy of cocktails corresponds to the place of the Good in Plato’s metaphysics: it is the necessary point of reference, the absolute standard and ideal to which everything else aspires.

What is it about the Martini that gives it this unique status? First of all, a striking abstractness. It is colourless and clear (I assume here that it has been stirred, not shaken). And it is simple, in the sense of having no parts. It is true that a Martini is made by combining gin and vermouth. But this is misleading, because you are not drinking vermouth – only using it to modify the gin’s taste so as to prevent it from cloying. For this reason, any Martini recipe that speaks of ‘parts’ should be read with scepticism and disapproval. At the same time, the Martini also has concrete qualities: it is cold, has a distinctive taste, and it packs a punch. This combination of abstractness and intense immediacy is a key to the cocktail’s distinction as a drink. Within philosophical writing, the nearest parallel is the aphorism, as practiced by thinkers such as Schopenhauer and, above all, Nietzsche. “Every word is a prejudice” Nietzsche says in Human, All Too Human (1878). In just five words, this aphorism offers readers a whole theory of language and communication. A Martini is the cocktail equivalent of that.

Of course, there are variations on the classic Martini. I suspect that the main point of the James Bond version has to do with ordering the cocktail rather than with drinking it – that is, with giving instructions to a bartender, preferably in front of an admiring female audience. That said, the result is certainly drinkable – assuming that we are speaking of a Martini with added vodka, not one in which vodka simply replaces gin.

Phenomenology of the Cocktail

To begin, it is worth noting that cocktails have had a definite influence on Twentieth Century philosophy (and cocktails only existed in ancestral forms before then). A well-known school of modern philosophy, French existentialism, owes its very existence to cocktails, or, more exactly, to one cocktail.

In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir describes her life with Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris from 1929 onward thus:

“In the evening we would look in at the Falstaff or the College Inn and drink our cocktails like connoisseurs – Bronxes, Sidecars, Bacardis, Alexanders, Martinis. I had a weakness for two specialities – mead cocktails at the Vikings’ Bar, and apricot cocktails at the Bec de Gaz on the Rue Montparnasse: what more could the Ritz Bar have offered us?”
(Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, 1965, p.17, trans. P. Green.)

No more is heard of the mead cocktail, and maybe just as well; but the other speciality she mentions has its important role in a well-known episode that occurred in 1932, when Raymond Aron returned from a year spent in Berlin, where he had discovered Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy:

“We spent an evening together at the Bec de Gaz in the Rue Montparnasse. We ordered the speciality of the house, apricot cocktails; Aron said, pointing to his glass, ‘You see, my dear fellow, if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!’ Sartre turned pale with emotion at this. Here was just the thing he had been longing to achieve for years – to describe objects just as he saw and touched them, and extract philosophy from the process. Aron convinced him that phenomenology exactly fitted in with his special preoccupations: by-passing the antithesis of idealism and realism, affirming simultaneously both the supremacy of consciousness and the reality of the visible world as it appears to our senses.”
(Ibid, p.135. The mistranslation of conscience has been corrected).

Sartre presents his new solution to the central problems of metaphysics in a short essay on intentionality published in 1939, ‘Intentionality: A Fundamental Feature of Husserl’s Phenomenology’. Consciousness is intentional – meaning, it is always about or directed towards something – but a core thought of Husserl’s phenomenology is that this intentionality is not just an inner state: the givenness of things in our experience cannot be thought away and so disposed of, but is a result of our consciousnesses being immersed in the world. So we can know in our very experience that there is a world independent of us. (Hence, we can be realists where cocktails are concerned.) In Sartre’s novel Nausea (1938), this idea of the givenness of the world takes an existential turn when the protagonist Antoine Roquentin experiences his environment as a startlingly immediate presence. He reflects: “To exist is simply to be there; what exists appears, lets itself be encountered, but you can never deduce it… Everything is gratuitous, that park, this town, and myself. When you realise that, it turns your stomach over”(p.188, trans. R. Baldick). But then, Roquentin is a beer drinker, and his reflections could be taken as confirming Nietzsche’s identification of beer with “disgruntled heaviness.”

What is an apricot cocktail, anyway? Hard to say, given that it was made in one particular bar, over eighty years ago. Being based on an apricot liqueur, it must have been a sweet drink, not much to today’s tastes. Does that matter, though? In Simone de Beauvoir’s anecdote, the apricot cocktail is taken as something to be seen and touched, not consumed.

Sartre never gave us his philosophical interpretation of the cocktail. Perhaps he agreed with the critic who wrote: “the image that it tries to make philosophy out of cocktails is just the sort of thing that tends to give phenomenology a bad name” (Robert Burch in Phenomenology + Pedagogy 9, 1991, p.39).

Oddly enough, the writer who has come closest to providing the kind of analysis Sartre should have given is Roger Scruton. Despite some offhandedly slighting comments on Husserl, the treatment of wine drinking in I Drink Therefore I Am is a model of orthodox phenomenology, relying on a realist conception of intentionality close to Sartre’s. For an example of this realist conception of intentionality, according to Sartre in his ‘Intentionality’ essay, ‘being dreadful’ is an essential property of a certain Japanese mask, not just our subjective reaction to a certain piece of wood. In the same way, Scruton asserts that when we describe a drink as ‘intoxicating’, we are referring to a quality located in the drink itself and not (as many would argue) talking about our own inner state and projecting that out into the drink (I Drink Therefore I Am, pp.118–119. See also Scruton’s ‘The Philosophy of Wine’ in Barry Smith, ed., Questions of Taste, p.6).

Metaphysics of the Cocktail

Even in his summary dismissal of the cocktail, Scruton puts his finger on one genuine aspect of it: it makes an impact. The same is true of other drinks, of course, and his account of wine-drinking makes a similar point. Still, the immediacy of the effect is more noticeable with the cocktail. This impact is not just due to its high alcohol content: coldness is just as important; and presentation, including both look and feel, also plays a part. So let me survey the properties of the cocktail that give it a distinct conceptual character. A good way to identify these is to start from features that stand in sharp contrast with those of wine.

First of all, a cocktail is something artificial, a product of human creativity. Wines, however, are grown as well as made. As wine writers tell us, they arise out of a subtle negotiation between ourselves and nature. Hence, making wine is an art that requires lengthy experience and acquired judgement – whereas anyone can make a decent Martini simply by following instructions. A further consequence of their artificiality is that cocktails are consistent. It is true that instructions for making particular cocktails may differ amongst authorities, but a given recipe will always produce the same outcome. In contrast, wines vary even when they come from the same place at different times. A wine depends on grapes being planted, grown and fermented – all complex and unpredictable processes. With cocktails and wine, the contrast between the artificial and natural is seen in operation.

Further, wine comes from somewhere; its nature is due to the soil and climate of a particular place. In contrast, a cocktail comes from a bar not far from the drinker – in fact, very often it’s constructed in full sight of the consumer. Any association with another part of the world is only symbolic. A Mai Tai may make you think of Hawaii, and it’s just possible that it was invented there, but that’s as far as any connection goes. Only one cocktail is called a Cosmopolitan – a combination of vodka, lime and cranberry juice, popular because featured in Sex and the City – but in principle they could all carry that name.

Just as cocktails have no relation to place, so too they have no intrinsic temporality. Wines are usually years old (apart from the wine made by Jesus at the wedding in Cana, and that involved setting aside the laws of nature). Wine lovers are aware of time’s work, and seek out preferred vintages of a given wine. In contrast, a cocktail is typically made just before being consumed. Cocktails do not keep, let alone improve. Every minute waiting before drinking it is a delay that threatens to bring the drink to room temperature – a disastrous event. So a cocktail comes and goes quickly – a parable of human life that has as much in its favour as higher-flown metaphors involving wine.

Why Philosophy And The Cocktail Belong Together

The artificiality of cocktails is also reflected in their cultural location. They belong in cities, and modern ones at that. Wine philosophers, by contrast, like to pose as sons of the soil, even if in practice they are seen outside city limits only on their occasional expeditions to wineries. But philosophy too belongs to city life. As Socrates says to Phaedrus, “The men who dwell in the city are my teachers, not the trees or the country” (Plato, Phaedrus). When philosophy became a university discipline, its civilized habitat was confirmed once and for all. Even Heidegger’s greatest admirers have no intention of moving to huts in the Black Forest. Like other philosophers, they settle in university towns or in big cities.

Now by tradition, wine is associated with wisdom: “in vino veritas,” the wine drinkers say. In contrast, cocktails are associated with wit and inventiveness – not the same thing at all, and yet found in some notable examples of philosophical thinking. I’ve already mentioned Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, both of whom prove that wit and wisdom can exist together. Readers can add more up-to-date examples if they wish. Many will no doubt start with Slavoj Žižek, whose work is described by commentator Richard Kearney as “a postmodern cocktail of Lacan, Sade and Hegel” (Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 2003, p.97). Kearney’s choice of metaphor may carry a hint of disapproval. The philosophical tradition tends to be suspicious of thinking or writing that risks the same accusations of superficiality and irresponsibility directed against the cocktail by wine-drinking critics. But philosophers who have learned to read Nietzsche attentively might be prepared to think again.

Zizek cocktail

Clink, Drink & Think

Nothing I have said about wine and cocktails is meant to imply that they are in competition for philosophical allegiance. My aim is certainly not to talk up one at the other’s expense. I will even concede that whereas most wines are good, or at least drinkable, many cocktails are pretty awful. At least, the majority of recipes given in what are sold as cocktail guides look undrinkable to me. I suspect they have never actually been made, or only once, and are included to pad out the book’s length. Fads and fashions are also evident. Even so, here as elsewhere, the classics have a staying power that outlasts transient challengers. Cannot we say much the same thing about works of philosophy?

So I come to my conclusion: true philosophers will drink cocktails. No doubt they will go on to drink wine, and in a spirit of conciliation, I recommend the pinot noirs of Central Otago to readers wanting to broaden their experience. In terms of the contrasts I have listed, philosophy itself has a foothold on both sides. As I said, cocktails are to wine as wit is to wisdom. Why shouldn’t we have both, if we can?

© Robin Small 2016

Robin Small is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Auckland.

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