January 6, 2012 would have marked the 77th birthday of John ‘The Hipster of Joy Street’ Wieners, an influential lyric poet who was one of the lesser known writers of the Beat Generation.
Like any self-respecting beatnik, Wieners was born on the East Coast but moved to San Francisco in his early twenties, published his first book of poetry in 1958 when he was 24, then was promptly committed to a mental hospital. Upon his release, he moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side where he hung out with Allen Ginsburg and died doing what he loved best… partying with his publisher.
I’m a bit young to have known any real beatniks—at least, of the stereotypical Maynard G. Krebs, bongo-banging, beret-and-black-turtleneck-wearing, goatee-growing, gibberish-muttering variety. But my folks knew a few second-generation beatniks, and when they dropped by the house, their drink of choice was Mateus—and at eleven I recall thinking that Mateus must be the epitome of real gone cool. It was fun to say ‘Mateus’—to be able to correctly pronounce it—and by the sultry jazz and steady stream of guffaws that came from the living room as I sat on the stair stoop and listened avidly, I figured it must be fun to drink.
In fact, Mateus winds up being vaguely fizzy Drool-Aid, a diminutive, boppy Portuguese rosé made from a grape called ‘bastardo’. When I was a kid, it cost $4 per weird-shaped bottle and it’s only $5.50 today. These guys spinning Charlie Parker albums on the hi-fi didn’t drink as hep cats—they drank as cheapskates.
Anyway, since a number of hardcore Beat luminaries (notably Kerouac and Cassady) wound up dying of drink, I thought it would be a nice macabre nod to the whole wacky movement to consider some of pertinent potables that made these hokey, hedonistic hipsters howl.
Shaken, Not Stirred. Or Vaporized During World War III.
First, an overview of why drink may have been even more important to the rank-and-file fifties than it is to us today. Back then, there were none of these messianic neo-prohibitionists like MADD, the Temperance League of Kentucky or al-Qaeda—everybody consumed as much as they wanted, and if they wound up driving their Buick Roadmasters into concrete bridge abutments, so be it—Russia was going to blow us up anyway, and who wants to live forever? America was still on a post-VE-Day high, and figured it could get even higher before the other shoe (read: nuclear bomb) dropped; hence, the surge of strange, exotic mixed drinks that were developed or popularized throughout the decade.
The Golden Age of Cocktails coincided with The Golden Age of Beatniks, roughly 1955 until the mid-sixties, when hippies took the torch. Part of the mixed-drink craze can be accredited to that archetypal agent of espionage James Bond who, despite being at endless odds with the KGB, ordered vodka with confidence. In 1953’s Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, 007 unabashedly orders a Vesper; a sort of nascent martini containing both gin and vodka along with ‘dry white wine’—and, inexplicably, Angostura Bitters.
But Back to the Beat.
Ernest Hemingway—one of Jack Kerouac’s biggest influences—spent most of the fifties either crashing planes or recuperating from injuries sustained in planes he’d crashed, meanwhile going ape over mojitos and daiquiris; Faulkner, another of Kerouac’s musey mentors, preferred mint juleps on the veranda.
Of course, the quintessential tipple of the quintessential beatnik was coffee, since they needed something to keep them awake during interminable readings of free-form poetry about the tragicomic plight of the individual in mass society. The movement’s literary lights took a more pragmatic view of shit-facery, however—Burrough’s drink of choice was the no-frills Boilermaker (a shot and a beer) while Neal Cassady was even less picky, willing to guzzle Pine Brothers cough syrup, vanilla extract, feedstock Toluene or eau de cologne—unless, of course, he was desperate. Then it was Sterno strained through a sock mixed with Fruit Smack powder to make the classic hobo pick-me-up, Jungle Juice. For honorary beatnik Hunter S. Thompson, it was an upended Wild Turkey bottle with a scotch chaser.
Kerouac evidenced a bit more class. Once he got out of his beer phase, he developed a taste for margaritas, although once he moved back with mommy on Long Island, he returned to cheap, sugary jug wine—likely from Taylor Wine Company.
“Don’t drink to get drunk,” the Dharma Bum said in a textbook case of ‘Do as I say, Not as I Do.’ “Drink to enjoy life.”
Kerouac died at 47 while enjoying life via a blend of malt liquor and whisky, his liver so damaged that his blood would no longer clot.
Gone but not forgotten, Kerouac has—like Rob Roy and Tom Collins before him—been immortalized in a bar drink. Kevin Diedrich, who runs the bar program at Bourbon Steak in the Georgetown Four Seasons, has created the ‘Kerouac’, made with Partida Reposado tequila, Aperol, fresh grapefruit juice, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, and agave nectar and garnished with a long, thin orange peel.
Whereas I’m sure Jack would not have turned down his eponymous elixir, he’d likely be more familiar with these classic ‘50’s cocktails, which saw their heyday about the same time he saw his:
Poetry courtesy John Joseph Wieners (6 January 1934 – 1 March 2002)
‘Pain and suffering. Give me the strength to bear it…’
- 3 drops Angostura Bitters
- 2 parts white rum
- 1 part lime juice
- Top up: Club soda
- 1 teaspoon simple syrup
Muddle the mint leaves in a glass with the sugar and lime juice to extract the mint oils. Fill glass with crushed ice and add the rum and Angostura, then top up with soda water and stir.
‘… to enter those places where the great animals are caged. And we can live at peace by their side…’
- 4 drops Angostura Bitters
- 2 parts bourbon
- 1 part sweet vermouth
- ½ teaspoon Maraschino Cherries
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into glass; garnish with Maraschino cherry.
‘… A bride to the burden that no god imposes but knows we have the means to sustain its force unto the end of our days.’
- 2 parts dark rum
- 1 drop Angostura Bitters
- ½ part orange liqueur
- ½ part apricot brandy
- ½ part lime juice
- ½ part pineapple juice
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a glass filled with crushed ice.
- 1 part brandy
- 2 parts Cointreau
- ½ part lemon juice
Shake all the ingredients together with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass; garnish with lemon twist.
‘…Until the dark hours are done.’
Shake first three ingredients with ice and strain into an ice filled glass add Angostura Bitters and top up with soda water; garnish with lemon slice.