Drinking Like Hemingway: How To Make the Death in the Afternoon Cocktail

The famed American novelist Ernest Hemingway drank as prolifically as he wrote — or perhaps he wrote as prolifically as he drank. Regardless, he proved himself a voluble champion of all things alcoholic, and helped more than a few bartenders hone their recipes over the years. Having spent a fair amount of time in bars on Paris’ Left Bank, he developed a particular fondness for absinthe, which he showcased in his own intriguing cocktail invention. Simple, strong, but surprisingly refreshing, Death in the Afternoon melds absinthe with well-chilled champagne, and goes nicely over brunch or at sunset — perhaps while digging into the lucid prose of Papa Hemingway himself.

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Origin Story

Hemingway named his cocktail after his 1932 book Death in the Afternoon, a non-fiction book that delves into the traditions and drama of bullfighting in Spain. His drink recipe first appeared in the 1935 compendium So Red the Nose, or, Breath in the Afternoon, which featured drink recipes from 30 authors, including Theodore Dreiser, Erskine Caldwell, and Irving Stone.

In the book, Hemingway explains (sort of) the origin of the cocktail: “This was arrived at by the author and three officers of HMS Danae after having spent seven hours overboard trying to get Captain Bra Saunders’ fishing boat off a bank where she had gone with us in a northwest gale.”

Hemingway also gave precise instructions for making and enjoying the drink: “Pour one jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass, add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.” By our own reckoning five seems a touch too many, though it’s hard to argue with a man who was tossed by a bull on the streets of Pamplona and was probably the first American wounded on the Italian Front in World War I.

Other Literary Cocktails

Once you’ve mastered Hemingway’s contribution to the world of spirits, try your hand at a few other cocktails crafted by literary minds. One of these, While Rome Burns, was created by Alexander Woollcott, who, like Hemingway, shamelessly named it after his most recent publication. Consisting of two parts Medford rum, one part lemon juice, and a dash of maple syrup, the mellow libation is designed to put you at ease while civilization collapses around you — in short, the perfect drink for our times.

Journalist, explorer, occultist, and infrequent cannibal William Seabrook created the Asylum, consisting of one part gin, one part Pernod, and a dash of grenadine (poured over ice, but not shaken). He said it would “look like rosy dawn, taste like the milk of Paradise, and make you plenty crazy.”

Irving Stone’s Lust for Life cocktail (named after his celebrated biography of artist Vincent Van Gogh) aims for fruit-forward extravagance with his combination of sloe gin, apricot brandy, and the juice of half a lime. And for a foray into the jungle, circa 1930s Southern California, try Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (surprisingly timid) Tarzan Cocktail made from one ounce of Bacardi, one teaspoon of Cointreau, juice from half a lime, and one-third of a teaspoon of sugar.

Death in the Afternoon

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz. absinthe
  • 4 oz champagne

Method:

  1. Pour absinthe into a fluted glass.
  2. Top with well-chilled champagne.

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